Middle of what - the American experiment, western civilization, human progress? How about the middle of geologic earth with billions of years yet to come?…
I was born only two hours before the atomic bomb annihilated Hiroshima, so don’t blame me for it. You and I are born into hate-ridden tragedies usurping hopeful visions of kindness, justice, and mutual happiness. Perhaps you agree.
Nor should I (or you) be blamed for Korea, Vietnam, Granada, Panama, or the wars on Central America, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or the needless new ones brewing on Venezuela and Iran. Please don’t blame me for my country’s growing alliances with murderous dictators and dangerous war-mongers in the Philippines, Brazil, Pakistan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. Nor am I in favor of my culture’s and humanity’s war on our environment, exhausting the seas as we pollute and warm them, heating the air with ubiquitous industrial gasses, hacking off ancient trees, sucking out aquifers and sickening earth’s soils with reckless processes. Please don’t blame me (or you) for an economy that wears out and abandons most and makes sickness profitable, even as it engorges the greedy with glut. I’m not in favor of fear and anger antagonizing and dividing us, or media dwelling on murder as normative and entertaining while blurring out anything sexy. I don’t want the arrogance of war imposed domestically between types of people with types of politics, snark escalating to bullets.
None of this is my wish or doing, nor is it yours, yet here we are stuck amid wars of many sorts. Why is this and what can we do? I’ll share some learnings from my life towards our veering this vast momentum.
As a boy I liked the swastika. It was a cool design. Then I learned it was a Nazi symbol, used by the bad guys we had just beat. I stopped drawing it, not knowing then that it is an ancient religious symbol dating back five thousand years to Shiva’s telling of Yoga. How could a symbol of a holy science serve inhumane atrocities? Humans can find it, and humans can lose it.
At age seven I was somehow glad the Korean war stopped. I had vague ideas that Stevenson was better than Eisenhower, that decency in relations was better than antagonism, that it is wise to not provoke revenge.
What I didn’t realize or appreciate was that Dad was the chief product testing engineer for the Cadillac Tanks. I remember visiting the tank factory only once, where Mom, very pregnant with my impending sister, almost got stuck in the tanks’ hatch. As the war wound down, so did my dad’s job. We went from a new Cadillac in Cleveland to a used Rambler in Detroit.
Too bad we didn’t take a photo of the painting Dad made above the mantle. Mom was embarrassed by it. Fascinated with mechanics and physics, Dad painted a hydrogen bomb going off, blasting over the battleships left there for the test. This was in the MAD era (Mutually Assured Destruction) when the little atomic bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were surpassed with hydrogen ones, far deadlier. Mom’s sweet potato vine framed the dramatic painting with shiny, dark green leaves.
While Dad’s dad had helped dig the basement of the new General Motors Headquarters in Detroit and we lived in the car capital of the world, the plenty of the 50’s and early 60’s would begin to evaporate. The flourishing factories (we called them “plants”) closed, leaving whole communities with falling property values. Plants died, and plenty became penury.
Whatever lesson the west had learned from World Wars I and II about the folly of injustice, arrogance, and waste of war, it was obscured behind the threat of new ones. Rather than marshal resources for worldwide betterment, we got mired in Cold War paranoia and tension. Eisenhower’s warning of a “military industrial complex” initially included the word “congressional.” Third world resources were to be taken before someone else would, corporations furthered by military means. It was furtive colonialism, exploiting labor and resources while claiming to protect them, assuring national democracies profit international corporations.
The meek and meager objections to this from the religious community came and went in the 60’s when the National Council of Churches critiqued the ethics of our international and domestic relations. Quickly, they were denounced as “liberal,” as if this accusation itself were enough to ignore or dismiss their efforts. The church wasn’t supposed to serve the village or the countryside, it was to justify and protect the castle. The feeble efforts of the more liberal religions were soon replaced by conservative fervent belief, especially in evangelical Christianity. Zealous belief and patriotism became normative of what good people should do as their part of the group.
I remember how the unctuous pap of the Eisenhower era pumped up expected sanctimony and patriotism, putting God on our money and in our oath. I didn’t know then of how Republicans soon co-opted conservative Christianity to their cause. (See Frank Schaffer for an insider’s report on this.) Conservative religious and political ideologies justified military atrocities and domestic shenanigans, no matter how egregious.
I went to Washington, D.C. anti-Vietnam protests four times from 1964 to 1970. Initially, I availed myself of a $15 round-trip bus fare, only to see how such protests were ridiculed and ignored. By the time I had completed my bachelor’s degree and earned my funeral director’s license I feared I might be drafted to work as an embalmer on a Vietnam reassembly line. Thousands of deaths didn’t explain or slow the war. Only slowly did Americans care for what we were doing to our own, and only rarely did they object to what we were doing to the Vietnamese, twenty times worse.
The dreaded dominos fell, and, so what? Left behind there were unexploded ordinance, toxic Agent Orange, a wasted country, and tragic loss. Left for us were shell-shocked warriors (as we used to term post-traumatic stress) and an economy depleted of potential benefits. Thanks to the anti-war movement and to movies such as Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now, we had a period of war-revulsion.
But soon we were “past the sixties now, man.” The era of peace and love, of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll was over. Silly comic book visions of solar power and free love soon lost out to macho posturing in Granada and Panama. Respect, rationality, and responsibility to the whole were eclipsed by arrogance, hyped defensiveness and eager exploitation. The tragedy of the commons was replaced by the taking of the commons. Ignoring those who attacked the Twin Towers, we attacked Iraq. Remember how President Bush said we had to “hurry!”?
Trillions of dollars later we’re still in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places, propping up an ersatz empire. At home, a punitive approach to a war on drugs led to expensive prisons stuffed mostly by poor blacks and browns. More is spent on privatized and public prisons than on higher education. Again, it is the tragedy of the commons, but a few do profit from what we all pay for and lose.
Especially against the growing and reliable evidence of undeniable global warming, we now have stubbornly stupid, willfully ignorant people assigned to head the few agencies that could alert us to and from this disaster. The very oil companies that were tackling this problem in the 1970s started financing a industry of denial and lies in the 1980s. Instead of admitting our predicament and skillfully steering us to those clean and renewable technologies that will help us avoid and reverse it, we are led by liars insuring a toxic future.
And instead of facing this trans-generational threat with rational and inclusive creativity and industry, our devilish rulers are thumping on the drums of war again. There is no finesse in our placing sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, nor our positioning of our immoral military attacks on them. It is blatant. It needs no rationale. Leaders merely sneer disdain for some barely-known “other” and people as shallow as they are cruel cheer it on. Negativity bias binges.
Our brain’s negativity bias is built into conservative religious philosophy and tactics. By exaggerating Augustine’s insistence that we are all wicked and can not get good without grace, we go from “there are none totally pure” to “all are utterly wicked.”
We are said to be “fallen.” Assuming universal selfishness, conservatives believe we can modulate our selfishness by balancing it out. When we’re all selfish, competition and the law of supply and demand will create a dynamic system devoid of morality. Free economic exchange becomes the substitute for morality. In a dog-eat-dog world, having big fangs and fast anger is the way to secure money and power for you and yours. If we sin, no problem, we can get forgiven simply by believing in Jesus as the Christ.
Missing from this selfish perspective is Adam Smith’s reminder to look to the public good while pursuing self-advantage. Missing is admitting and incorporating our natural goodness. Those who wish to share fairly get eclipsed by those who take completely. Liberal sharing of abundance is distrusted as weak-minded. Get selfish or get taken. Cooperative inclusion loses out to competitive exclusion. Those crafty and greedy enough to succeed, even at the expense of exploited labor and exhausted environment, earn not only money, but power and social prestige.
As economic relations grow ever more abstract and distanced, mere numbers in reports become all. CEO’s are not to tend the public good, only the investor’s profits. How those profits are generated isn’t the concern of the stock holders, only whether there are profits. The corporation has this psychopathy built into how they’re supposed to act.
Align corporations with supportive governments and add self-righteous, God-on-our-side, win by making “others” lose and you have the makings of fascism. Add superego sanction to send the id on a rampage, bypassing normal ego restraints (personal or social) and the crusade to take power domestically and transnationally, and you have what Hitler promoted. Arrogance and injustice become heroic obligation on behalf of the state or race. Silencing journalism and the arts, intimidating via violence, excluding “others” (be they Jews or Democrats), and pumping up adulation and obedience for showy leaders are old tactics that still work, especially when people feel anxious and afraid.
What’s fallen isn’t people in general, it is this fallen philosophy that trips us up, knocks us down, and pits us against each other. Losing faith in our own goodness, we see others as enemies and tend to follow self-assured bullies.
How did we go from the heroes who helped defeat the fascists of WWII to becoming the fascists who promote a WWIII? What an ironic insult to the “Greatest Generation” that we go from nobility to ignominy. What a tragic waste of intelligence, money, resources and people to allow zealots to ignore our environmental and social context in favor of more war. What an utter lack of vision.
Of the religious community, only a few stands for equality and justice for all people. Estranged though I am from the Catholic religion, I applaud Pope Francis for his calls for economic and ecological justice. He is brave and responsible to use his pulpit to chastise the wicked and offer vision for the rest of us.
How is it that almost none of the Americans I know favor war and ecological ruin, yet our government relentlessly promotes both? As I say in my tagline, “We are born of Eden, and for it.” Only recently have we understood the vast reaches of time it took to evolve us in our ecosystem. We barely know about tectonic motion, atoms, DNA, social psychology, and environmentalism. We could live here on Earth for thousands and millions of years hence, but only if we value the precious system of Life that gives us life, and only if we value, protect, and promote it.
So, don’t blame me or you for Hiroshima, Vietnam, or Iraq. We are the hapless along with the Japanese, Vietnamese and Iraqis, only for us, the insult and injury is far less. Wars waste us all.
However, because we are the citizens of a supposedly free society there are some things we can do. We can believe in our own objections to this permanent push to war and voice them in our circles. It was disruptive and upsetting to object to Vietnam, but appropriate. It is sometime lonely and risky to object to new wars and old technologies, but object we must. We aren’t experts on all things scientific, technological and political, but neither should we relinquish what little knowledge and sanity we have to liars and the deluded. We can support those states, cities, industries, and products that seek to serve the whole. We can live in ways that replenish healthy systems rather than exploit and exhaust them. We can be whole ourselves, as whole, healthy and happy as we can be, as we care for each other, Life, and the future.