I recently attended a Father’s Day event at my kids’ school. It was horrific.
A few weeks earlier there was a Mother’s Day event which consisted of a catered brunch, the presentation of crafts made by kids for their moms, and a touching video honoring mothers around the world. Perfect.
The majority female administration, faculty and staff at our children’s private school, though, couldn’t leave dads twisting in the wind, and a handcrafted collage just wouldn’t do – aren’t dads the conventional under-recognized tripartite of the family unit?
Someone – undoubtedly a woman – came up with the brilliant idea of inviting all the fathers with their children for some bonding, exercise, and games on a Thursday afternoon outside in the blistering June heat in Chihuahua. Text messages erupted in protest, but we went anyway; after all, it was to honor us (and guilt is a powerful motivator). So after work, middle aged men in suits went through eight circuits with their kids, alternating between dancing, sack-racing, aerobics, obstacle courses, water-balloon tosses and all manner of other clichéd “fun” activities for families.
And it was great fun. For the kids. Kids don’t mind high-desert dirt sticking to their perspiration-drenched bodies as they run and squeal and play with their friends. Dehydration can be a hoot. But this wasn’t Children’s Day. (Every day is Children’s Day, plus they get an extra one thrown in, not even counting Student’s Day.) This was Father’s Day, and the attending fathers (I wouldn’t claim to speak for them all), didn’t have such a great time (as their ruddy faces, glum expressions, and stained trousers seemed to hint).
Personally, I don’t think we deserve a special day – not even the most responsible, disciplined and attentive of us. All we did was ejaculate inside of a women and they took care of the rest, which is the hard part of making babies.
Someone had a brilliant idea that it would be great fun for fathers to bond with their kids in a team building exercise for Father’s Day sponsored by the school. But if you’re a dad and you’re not doing that on a regular basis with your children by taking them to parks, to museums, to family events, or even just playing board games with them, then you’re a fuck-up of a personal father failure, and a once-a-year hopelessly-contrived school day with your kids is at best a token acknowledgment of your paternity and responsibility as a person.
I’m not saying we don’t deserve some recognition, but it should be proportional, and usually it is. A personalized coffee mug, a six-pack of artisanal beer, an afternoon left unmolested to nap in front of the TV. That doesn’t seem to be asking for much. And that’s all we want.
So take it easy. Speaking for myself, I don’t want equal recognition, and I don’t think I deserve it at any rate. But even if I did, I would be happy with a brunch (I might insist on just one mimosa), and that would be it. Anything more would be gratuitous politically correct pandering.
And I almost forgot. When we got home my daughter cried because we left about five minutes before every last balloon was popped in the grand finale of balloon-popping as the sun was setting and the commute traffic was heating up. The kids were so exhausted they slept in my bed. I slept on the couch.
[Author’s note: the events memorialized in this essay took place between 2002 and 2013, with the actual writing of this story in 2014; the recollection of past and exact dates are subject to the vagaries of memory; names have been changed. Unless captioned, photographs are from local media sources, some are graphic.]
The drug war being fought in Mexico is very different from America’s war on drugs. The war in America is prosecuted by the government against her ordinary, if not usually her poorest, marginalized residents. The Mexican war consists of a bloody triangulation of an asymmetric conflict between the Mexican government and her hyper-violent competing drug cartels. They are more than just symbiotic: they are obligate. And neither war is necessary. Indeed they exacerbate the problems of drug abuse, violence, the public health crisis, and human rights violations. This is my story of having lived through Mexico’s ongoing drug war, viewed through the duel lenses of academia and personal experience.
Up Close and Personal
It was an idle Wednesday afternoon in the sweltering summer of 2011. I was returning home from an insufferably boring faculty meeting, my tie loosened, the air conditioning full-blast in my little Seat Cordoba, waiting at the traffic light on an overpass at the Periférico de La Juventud and Juan Escutia only a few kilometers from my house. I could taste the ice-cold Indio beer waiting for me. A Jeep pulled up directly in front of me, blocking the intersection. A man wearing a black ski mask exited the back holding an automatic rifle, not the easily recognizable AK-47 or AR-15, with which I am familiar from my youthful U.S. Army days. I saw the simultaneous bird-like head jerks of surprise by the two young male passengers, the half-second of hesitation, the “oh shit’ moment just before the bullets’ impact. The sicario unloaded a full magazine into the VW Jetta. Amongst the shattering glass and deafening noise I oddly noticed a phone number painted on the back window with white shoe polish, indicating the car was for sale. From the corner of my saucer-eyes I slunk down low in my seat and turned to look straight ahead, barely able to see above the steering wheel, my heart suddenly pounding out of my chest.
Another volley erupted – presumably a second magazine was emptied – but I was looking now straight ahead. And the Jeep was gone. It couldn’t have taken more than 10 seconds. Nothing to be done, no available escape, only the brief fiery fear that a stray bullet might part my head as clean as a machete could a coconut. The light turned green and I accelerated. In the rearview mirror I could see cars driving around the Jetta as if it were occupied by a couple of hapless motorists who ran out of gas. But of course it was occupied by the corpses of two young men – two among more than 120,000 others who have been murdered during the ongoing Mexican narco wars. And another 26,000 disappeared, presumed dead. More than all combatants killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last two decades.
The next morning, El Heraldo – one of two major newspapers in Chihuahua’s state capitol of the same name – reported the assassination in the crime section; it hardly warranted, and was not given, a front page spread. Standard hits such as these read like a local police blotter from Peoria, but with the obligatory and gratuitous photos of bloodied, lifeless bodies shredded by high-velocity rifle rounds. No one got the license plate number, but even if they had it would have undoubtedly come back as stolen. The carjacking of nondescript SUVs for the purposes of carrying out gang hits is the preferred method for acquiring a vehicle to do dirty work. Sometime later, perhaps a month or so, an unwisely feisty mother of two refused to turn over the keys to her Suburban and was shot in a supermarket parking lot. She died on the scene with her two kids still strapped in their seats. Another story buried in the back pages of the crime section. Still later, one of my law students, AC, unwisely refused to give over the keys of his Trailblazer and was shot in the head. He survived, but suffers from lifelong disabilities of both movement and mind.
For many years there was a tacit understanding between the Mexican government and the various drug cartels, a sort of inevitable tolerance of each other brought by a common understanding the market for illegal drugs would never go away, nor would the attempts to stop it. Though this is somewhat of an oversimplification, the unspoken agreement more or less consisted of a recognition that both had a job to do and a role to play: the government knew it could never win outright, and the cartels acknowledged that some drug busts and apprehensions were the cost of doing business. The government was in the need of occasionally arresting a cartel lieutenant and interdicting drugs headed for the border, in exchange for the cartels keeping their cool ─ a lid on outright turf war. The PR was necessary. Until 2006, Mexico’s heart was never really into confronting drug cartels in a serious and sustained way, but cooptation by the U.S., and the money provided for drug enforcement and interdiction, made it an inevitable, albeit futile, exercise, largely for show. There had always been some violence between competing cartels, and between various state and federal police agencies and cartels, but the grease of corruption and the unstated acknowledgment that stopping proliferate trafficking was a fool’s game, kept the squeaky wheel of violence to a minimally acceptable level.
But then the conservative National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional or PAN) Candidate, Felipe Caldarón, won the 2006 presidential election, and made good on his promise to clean up corruption and rid Mexico of the drug cartels. This was, unfortunately for me, just after I had decided to pursue my passion for food and open a Spanish restaurant. Three months after our grand opening of El Capote, the violence was nearing its apogee. Assassinations at traffic lights, on the street, at car washes, in bars and restaurants, were daily occurrences. Massacres of dozens of people at single locations became common. Running gun battles now included grenades and rockets. Mexicans who had the financial means moved into gated neighborhoods, or out of the country altogether. People stopped going out. Almost half of all restaurants in the cities of Chihuahua and Juarez closed, and in some places a quarter of all businesses, whose owners were coming under increasing threats of extortion from cartels who were being squeezed harder and harder, not to mention the precipitous drop in tourism one might expect. Suddenly our restaurant was empty. Broken hearted, we closed, and for the first time in many years, I cried like a baby. Deep, guttural sobs. I now realize, many years later, that I was not crying for our restaurant, I was crying for Mexico, my adopted country. The morning after our first Help Wanted ads ran for waiters and cooks, there was a line of hopefuls outside the restaurant. And not just young people looking to earn extra money, but people with bachelors degrees: accountants, nurses, graphic designers. I was taken aback by the resumes. My manager half-smiled at me and shook his head. “Es México, Jefe. La vida es una batalla.” Yes, life is a battle in Mexico, both figuratively and literally.
I went back to my teaching job, stopped reading the local papers, and tried not to notice the violence, although often it was impossible. There was the bloody body in the street I encountered just outside of Wal-Mart so freshly killed the police had not arrived yet and no crowds had the time to gather. There were the two hours locked inside a convenience store on a late-night run for cigarettes because a gun battle had erupted outside. When another midday firefight broke out in the parking lot of a strip mall where my wife’s family owns a store, our kids were almost trampled by people running to get out of the way. Thankfully the only casualties were a two critically wounded policemen and a bullet hole in my brother in law’s delivery truck.
That last incident was also the last straw. We had been thinking about moving for some time. But my wife’s family has deep ties to Mexico. Her grandfather was a former governor of Chihuahua State. They are known and respected and financially comfortable. Although I’m an American and our kids have U.S. passports, my wife would never consider moving to the States, despite having been educated there. Emotional ties to one’s country often run irrationally deep. We decided to make a go of it again in a safer place, in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, along Mexico’s beautiful Riviera Maya coastline. We would still be in Mexico. It seemed like a reasonable compromise, and we planned to return when things calmed down.
Fighting the Bad Fight: Policy Meets Reality
The war at home is different, but it is a war nonetheless. It is not a war largely waged against drug traffickers, although that front certainly exists in the form of futile drug interdiction efforts. It is a war waged by the U.S. government against its citizens, mostly the sad, desperate dystopian society-within-a-society. Understanding its origins and its consequences is not especially complicated.
According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the trade in illegal drugs is worth more than $300 billion annually, making it the world’s most lucrative business market. Bigger than IBM, bigger than General Electric, bigger than Apple, bigger than Telmex (the Mexican company owned by one of the world’s richest men, Carlos Slim). And the reasons for this are clear. First, people like to consume drugs. Second, drug traffickers don’t have to bother with inconveniences like paying taxes, complying with national and local business laws, permits, or any other form of business regulation. What’s more, the market is not ever likely to disappear. Since before recorded history, evidence suggests that our species were quite fond of drugging themselves. Excohotado points this out convincingly in A Brief History of Drugs: From the Stone Age to the Stoned-Age. (We have very good evidence, too, that other animals like to alter their consciousness for pleasure – to get high – such as African elephants, North American birds, and dolphins, but to name just a few.) The world’s first civilization, the Sumerians, dating from 7,000 BCE, discovered the pleasure of opium around 3,400 BCE. It’s been a mind-altering thrill ride since then, but only in recent human history have we been overly concerned about the phenomenon.
A study of alcohol prohibition in America proves instructive. It was a national disaster. Drinkers didn’t stop drinking because alcohol was illegal. They just bought their favorite drug from a different source ─ the black market. The American mafia was born. Violent clashes between rival gangs and bootleggers vying for territory, and between the police and these newly-minted criminal elements, bloomed into a low intensity war where thousands of lives were lost. Not surprisingly, the homicide rate increased drastically during Prohibition, and fell drastically after it was repealed, despite economic hardships brought by the Great Depression. Equally important is the surprising fact that while alcohol consumption initially went down during the first years of prohibition, in a few years it increased to 70% above pre-Prohibition levels despite being illegal. By prohibiting the production and consumption of alcohol, the use of alcohol increased, as did violent crime, which is not, I suspect, exactly what the government had in mind when the law went into effect.
After 13 years of gun battles with bootleggers and gangsters, Prohibition was repealed. The grand experiment proved to be an epic failure. After repeal, tax money from alcohol sales poured into the accounts of the federal and state governments, quality standards of alcohol products were promulgated and enforced, and regulations were put into place enforcing things such as the minimum age to purchase and consume alcohol, the labeling alcohol content, and restrictions on marketing activities, among many others. Violent competition and bootlegging evaporated as legitimate business enterprise took over the alcohol market. It is universally agreed by historians that Prohibition was a huge blunder, a fact wholly lost on the U.S. Congress. “We learn from history that we do not learn from history,” as Hegel so famously and presciently noted. At the time we were ending the failed experiment of alcohol prohibition, we were beginning, this time in earnest, the very same approach to prohibition with other drugs, and not at all surprisingly, to a similar result.
I’ve published two academic articles on U.S. drug policy as well as several magazine pieces, and the results of my research have surprised even the cynical me. The impetus for illegalizing most drugs in the U.S. came not from science, but rather xenophobia. First, we banned Chinese opium dens, then marijuana used mainly by Mexicans, then hashish favored by Sikh Indian immigrants, and of course cocaine favored by the black community. But branding the War on Drugs with the caustic simplicity of “racist” would be too convenient, and superficial. The white ruling class, as it turns out, did not (as is often argued) intentionally target minorities to imprison them, concocting their preferred drugs as an convenient excuse, though one might reasonably argue this has been the net result.
We learn from modern evolutionary biology that we humans are tribal–we are adapted for survival on the African savannah to stay within our own tribe, help one another, and be suspicious of other groups that may want to harm us and are competing for the same scarce resources. We tend to not like groups that are different from us. In fact, studies by scientists have demonstrated that the human brain is really only capable of knowing from about 150 to 290 individuals (our tribe): their personalities, ambitions, hopes, dreams, fears, etc., in any significant way. After that we have to rely on abstractions, constructs, and stereotypes. This, in turn, tends to lead us into xenophobic behavior, often without realizing it. It is natural to want to control other groups that are different from us; different in terms of race to be sure, but also language, religion, customs, among many other things. After all, in our still (relatively) primitive brains are fine-tuned to be living in tribes on the savannah. This explains why such wild claims were made about the dangers of drugs like marijuana and heroin when there has never been any good scientific proof of particularly insidious harm. In fact, the most dangerous and most abused drug – alcohol – is not only legal, aggressively marketed if not glorified within the media, but is also the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States according to The Centers for Disease Control. And the vast majority of overdose deaths in the U.S. are from prescription drugs, not illegal drugs, while not a single death has been attributed to marijuana.
In 1970 we saw tribalism raise its ugly head once again. Richard Nixon was having nothing to do with the long-haired, counter-culture, pot-smoking, acid-dropping, hippies; they threatened conservative social values. They weren’t part of the tribe. Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. The following year President Nixon signed the Act, and in a speech to the Congress which was televised nationally, declared his War on Drugs. Nixon’s War on Drugs was a brilliant political move, not only resulting in his landslide election in 1972, but also leading to many other international leaders copying his “tough on drugs” strategy (often pushed along by means of cooptation by the U.S.). Initially funded by one hundred million dollars in federal money, funds poured into state, local and federal law enforcement coffers around the nation. The War was on.
Currently the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, far exceeding both Russia and China, and the majority of inmates are poor whites and minorities in jail for non-violent drug-related charges. Since 1970, the U.S. has spent more than one trillion dollars on this drug enforcement effort, and the social cost to otherwise law abiding and productive citizens jailed for recreational drug use is immeasurable: families separated, casual drug users branded as felons, lost jobs, and all-too-many lost lives.
And not only has drug use remained essentially unchanged since the War really turned its swag on in 1988, but drugs are much more potent and much cheaper than they have ever been. Meanwhile, in other countries like Portugal, which have abolished all criminal penalties for personal drug possession, drug use by teenagers has declined, the rate of HIV infection among drug users has dropped, deaths related to heroin and similar drugs has been cut by more than half, and the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction has doubled. In a 2008 World Health Organization study, the United States ─ despite its stringent federal anti-drug laws ─ found that Americans have the highest level of illegal drug use of all countries surveyed, far exceeding levels of drug use in countries with liberal drug policies such as the Netherlands, Portugal and Greece, among others.
The historical data and empirical evidence are crystal clear: the War on Drugs is an abject failure of public policy of such colossal proportions that is almost cannot be exaggerated. It impinges on the very concept of freedom and individual liberty. It imprisons perfectly happy, healthy, and productive citizens. It encourages violence and weakens public health. It is an immoral abomination, and indeed I am at a loss for words to describe its utter fatuity.
The answer to the question of why we haven’t abandoned this costly canard comes in three parts, each one of which is powerful in its own right, but together arguably insurmountable: money, propaganda, and counter-intuitiveness.
Once the government establishes a multitude of federal and state agencies to accomplish a mission with billions of dollars of funding, creating thousands of well-paying jobs, defunding becomes an exercise in futility. If you are in political office at the municipal, state, or federal level, even hinting at defunding, much less reducing funding, or still less liberalizing U.S. drug laws, your career is likely to be a short one. Second, because we have for so long been bombarded with the anti-drug propaganda on the evils of drug use, it has become a part of our collective “knowledge,” despite the Everest of scientific data that contradict it. The third reason that U.S. federal drug policy has not been liberalized is that asserting fewer drug laws will not result in more drug users is deeply counterintuitive. Yet when examining data from other jurisdictions as well as our own historical evidence, it is undeniably true. As the great historian Barbara Tuchman said in 1984, once a government commits to a policy, no matter how purblind and asinine it may prove to be, “all subsequent activity becomes an effort to justify it.”
How Could One Expect Otherwise?
In 2004, before my wife and I had children, we travelled around Mexico, visiting every state in an old Chrysler Spirit. But the bohemian life wears on you after a while, so we temporarily “settled down” in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of the state of Chiapas, taking a one-year English teaching contract. For our two week summer break, we decided to take a road trip (upgrading the Spirit for a 1980 4WD Chevrolet Blazer) with two fellow teachers, Jaime and Magdalena. Both were Canadian, although Jaime also held U.S. and Peruvian passports. At the time my Spanish was still pretty rudimentary, so Jaime’s native Spanish skills came in quite handy, especially when it came to finding mota. The day before our scheduled departure he asked me if I knew where to buy pot, and of course I didn’t. (Our usual dealer, a toothless local journalist living in our apartment building was out of town.) “No worries,” he said, “Let’s go have a look.” After asking a few appropriately grungy locals, we were directed to a traffic cop, who sold us quite a lot of high-quality cannabis at a reasonable price. This was my first important practical lesson about living in Mexico. Not all police are corrupt, but their salaries are so low, they’re always looking for a way to supplement their income. Most did this by accepting bribes instead of citing citizens for minor infractions (the infamous mordida – little bite). This municipal cop, however, preferred his niche of being a street-level dealer. Fine with us.
Our first stop on the road trip were the campgrounds near the ruins of Palenque. We spent two nights and a day there, exploring the ruins by day and smoking weed, making tea with magic mushrooms, and getting scared shitless by the nighttime jungle noises (howler monkeys are the worst). After that, we spent a day and night at the far-more-spectacular much-more-remote ruins at Calakmul. No tourists, just half-excavated ancient Mayan ruins near Guatemalan border. Our next destination, quite by accident, was the most interesting. To break our trip to Cancun, we took a very long detour and stayed in Xcalak, a tiny fishing village, more Caribbean than Mexican, with brightly painted wooden shacks, no grocery stores, and electricity only half of the day. As we drove into the pueblo, though, it was impossible not to notice that almost all of the shanties had a new motorcycle or car parked in front. Satellite dishes protruded from almost every roof. When the power was cut at night, the town came alive with the distinctive hum of Honda generators. Curious, indeed, in this rural, poor, and isolated part of the country. We soon found out from the owner of a local bar why there was a hotspot of prosperity in what was the dirt-poor southern Yucatan Peninsula. About a year before, a boy playing on the beach discovered large plastic bundles washing ashore and fetched his mother to have a look. They were packed tight with pure, uncut, Columbian cocaine. Apparently a passing speed boat was spooked, perhaps by the Mexican Navy which is traditionally tasked with coastal drug interdiction, and the drug-runners tossed their cargo into the sea. Soon the whole town was on the beach harvesting the good fortune.
There is no part of Mexico untouched by the drug trade. As mentioned, it is the world’s most lucrative business enterprise, and the world’s richest country, with the highest percentage of per capita illegal drug users, as well as the world’s highest gross consumption of illegal drugs, is just a stone throw to the north. One could hardly expect anything else.
Why Drug Wars only Adds Fuel to the Fire
Nobody is bootlegging moonshine anymore. Harry Browne, the philosophical leader of the Libertarian Party and its one-time presidential candidate said it best. I’ve used this quote (and also Hegel’s) perhaps too much in other works regarding the subject, but if there is one quote that bears repeating, indeed that should be memorized by all policymakers in both America and Mexico, this is it:
There are no violent gangs fighting over aspirin territories. There are no violent gangs fighting over whisky territories or computer territories or anything else that’s legal. There are only criminal gangs fighting over territories covering drugs, gambling, prostitution, and other victimless crimes. Making a non-violent activity a crime creates a black market, which attracts criminals and gangs, which turns what was once a relatively harmless activity affecting a small group of people into a widespread epidemic of drug use and gang warfare.
These lessons of history, when compared with the available empirical data on illegal drug use, can only lead to one reasonable conclusion: criminalizing individual drug use is not only asinine, it is also ineffective, harmful, and outrageously expensive. The answer is legalizing drugs, while taxing and regulating sales, as we do with the drugs of alcohol and tobacco. But I do not pretend that this would be an easy task. If a government overtaxes and overregulates a particular drug, making it economically prohibitive to purchase legally, consumers will turn to the black market. If, on the other hand, taxes and regulation are reasonable, the consumer will easily avoid the risks of black market purchases and purchase through legal channels, even at a premium price. Thus, in the end, public drug policy is really about balancing various interest in order to find a formula that works, as is done with alcohol and tobacco, acknowledging that a utopian ideal will never be reached, and a certain percent of the population will always abuse certain substances.
Pouring more than a trillion dollars into a lost cause with the remote hope that drug use will be reduced is the ultimate in naiveté. And what is more (and more obvious) is that this strategy has been proven, convincingly I think, to have been an enormous intellectual swindle, just as the prohibition of alcohol was, while the competing strategy ─ the liberalization of drug prohibition laws through legalization, regulation and control ─ is the only proven game in town for those who are actually serious about addressing the problem of drug addiction, drug-related violence, public health and other socioeconomic problems facing modern societies. Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing but expecting different results. Under this definition the global war on drugs is insane.
Other experts agree. On September 11, 2014, while the news cycle was understandably dominated by remembrances of the 9/11 attacks, the Global Commission on Drug Policy quietly published its report Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work. The Commission members agree that the War on Drugs is bad public policy doing far more harm than good, but also that ending the War would also mean the beginning of the end of drug-related violence worldwide, noting specially that the War has fueled crime and enriched criminals, undermined development and security, threatened public health and safety, and wasted billions of dollars, all while sabotaging national economies. Not exactly a stellar track record.
The next potentially paradigm-shifting event on the horizon with regard to the global war on drugs is the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS). The U.N. has traditionally been pro-strict enforcement, but in the face of the massive body of evidence against this approach, it will be fascinating to see what unfolds.
About year ago we were living in Playa del Carmen, operating a small Italian restaurant on the famous Avenida Quinta. On one long summer weekend my wife made plans with another mom and a gaggle of kids to visit a water park in Cancun. Not my kind of thing, so a friend and I decided to drive south to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve. We bought some pot in the uber-chic beachside resort village of Tulum (not to be confused with the archeological ruins or the scruffy pueblo further inland) where the world’s great unwashed backpackers share the beautiful beach with the jet-set crowds from Hollywood and New York. The drive south was slow and bumpy, but gorgeous beyond description, with the Delaware-sized UNESCO World Heritage reserve to our right, and the crystalline Caribbean sea to our left. We had no air conditioning in the rickety old Jeep we had borrowed, and the jungle was literally steaming. Luckily, just outside the southern terminus of the peninsula there is a small village (Punta Allen) that supports a few hundred people with a dive center and some sport fishing. Soaked through with sweat and caked with road grime, we stumbled upon a shady palapa near the water where an old man was selling tacos de bistec, and thankfully, ice-cold Indio beer. There was also an onshore breeze. It was a nice place to spend some time. The tacos were delicious and the beer was ambrosia.
We chatted with the old man. His face looked like a black leather catcher’s mitt. His had clearly been a hard life. There was a sad, silent, indigenous air about him, but he opened up, like locals tend to do when a Spanish-speaking Gringo shows some interest in their lives. He, like almost everyone else in the village, was a fisherman before the Riviera Maya became a tourist haven in the 1970s. As a young man he enjoyed a simple life. His father taught him how to fish and there was always enough to eat: tropical fruit grew in abundance, fish were plentiful, and sometimes they would kill a deer. With the influx of tourism came an increase in commercial fishing however, and his family could no longer compete. His wife died years earlier and he now made his living selling tacos and doing odd jobs. He said he had two sons and a daughter. They wanted a better life. His daughter works as a hotel maid in Cancun, and one son is a bartender at a Playa del Carmen resort. He looked down and pretended to be busy arranging things on his taco cart. “And your other son?” I asked. He hesitated for a moment. “He left to work in Texas four years ago, in Brownsville. I haven’t heard from him.”
I stumble over my words and change the subject.
Were Paco’s son alive, even if he never made it to his destination, he would have wired some money, or at the very least telephoned. He was undoubtedly one of the 26,000 Mexicans who have been “disappeared” since 2006. Intended migrants are favorite targets of the cartels; they are used as drug mules, or slaves, they are coopted or lured into the trafficking business with promises of avarice, or are simply robbed and killed. Fosas clandestinas – clandestine mass graves – are discovered almost daily, sometimes through investigation, often by chance: the stink of death and disturbed soil noticed by neighborhood kids.
We drove back to Playa del Carmen in silence, deflated. I’ve always been prone to bouts of depression, and I could feel another one creeping up behind my eyes, my world darkening. It is the poor people who suffer in the drug wars in Mexico and the United States, the marginalized, those without rights. The top Mexican drug bosses live in opulence, as do many of the politicians in their back pockets. In a nation where 45 percent of the population live below the poverty line, some 37.6 million people survive on less than five dollars a day. It should not be surprising that there is an endless supply of poor young men to act as soldiers and smugglers for the drug cartels; these are the ones gunned down in the street or imprisoned, not by-and-large the kingpins and their acolytes. In the U.S., too, rich people are rarely arrested and imprisoned for drug possession or trafficking, for that matter; that privilege is almost exclusively reserved for the poor, the disenfranchised, the powerless, despite the fact that illegal drug usage among income levels and ethnicity is essentially the same.
We drove in silence and I ruminated. Suddenly my restaurant seemed like a waste of my life. Selling lobster raviolis and huitlacoche fritters to sunburned vacationers seemed pointless and jejune, as did my obsession with food. My biggest worry was where my restaurant ranked on Trip Advisor. It was at that moment that I began to think about going back to writing and teaching. I am economically poorer for the decision, but academia keeps pulling me back, and I’m glad for it.
This asymmetrical low-intensity war in Mexico has all of the unthinkable brutality of ISIS in Mesopotamia: videotaped decapitations, people being burned alive, raped, dismembered, enslaved. Add a good dose of corruption, where poorly paid local police can significantly supplement their incomes by cooperating with certain cartels or local gangs, and you have a recipe for chaos. Chaos fed by the outrageous profits of the drug trade, in turn fueled by the unyielding demand for drugs by Americans.
The war closest to home is in Mexico: a triangulation of warring cartels competing for lucrative trafficking routes, with governmental policing entities sometimes brutally, and futilely, trying to stop them, or as is often the case, actively helping them for profit. The war at home is simpler and only two-sided. It is a war prosecuted by the government against the poorest and most vulnerable of its own citizens. Both are morally defenseless and pernicious wars against virtually defenseless people. Neither are necessary. Both are counterproductive and inhumane.
We should stop this nonsense. But the inertia built up over decades, with the sticky tentacles of federal, state, local and international agencies, each with its hand in the cookie jar, are formidable foes, perhaps even insurmountable ones. But alas there is hope, although I am not convinced that a rational, pragmatic policy is not really possible within my lifetime. Views are slowly changing about drug use and abuse, with a definite trend evincing changes in drug policy at the state level, particularly with respect to the decriminalization of cannabis. If this trend continues, and the marijuana fear is debunked, as it surely will be, then there is hope. The legalization of cannabis in Colorado, despite the hysterical predictions of the usual Conservative anti-drug crusaders that the state would become a zombie apocalypse, can only be considered a success measured by any metric you like. Eugene Jarecki’s 2012 blockbuster documentary The House I Live In confirmed what academics and researchers have been saying for decades: the War on Drugs has never been about drugs. Most recently, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari, showed us, in a riveting narrative, that our own popular understanding of drug addiction swims in a putrid sea of pseudoscience and misinformation. Together with the Global Commission of Drug Policy report, this makes powerful and increasingly agreed-upon body of evidence against this horrific public policy.
I originally wrote this piece in late 2014, where it was submitted to a magazine editor before finally being rejected after a few months with the comment, “we like this piece but it just doesn’t work for us at this time.” It languished on a spare USB drive as I worked on other things, and I only rediscovered it searching through my scattered library of unpublished work to include on this blog.
Since then, some important events have unfolded. Enrique Peña Nieto from the PRI assumed office on December 1, 2012. He is not a popular president, but no Mexican president has been popular in modern times: accusations of cronyism, nepotism, corruption, inefficiency, and wildly inappropriate priorities stick to Mexican presidents like feathers to tar. But drug violence quieted down significantly. People began going out again, starting businesses; universities initiated programs in business and entrepreneurship, and young people embraced technology, and once again, hope. The Mexican inteligencia and polemicists began the task of evaluating Peña Nieto’s predecessor’s policies on the Mexican drug war. How could Calderón, a smart man educated at two elite Mexican universities (a bachelor of laws and a masters in economics) followed by a Master of Public Administration at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, have so seriously botched this purblind drug war? How could he have possibly thought that military force could be used effectively against an endemic social and economic problem? (Calderón actually fired entire police departments and sent in soldiers, who were not trained for and knew nothing of policing, let alone investigating crimes.) Under his tenure rural communities in parts of rural Mexico, especially in border states like Chihuahua, became essentially lawless vestiges of the old Wild West.
Under Peña Nieto’s tenuous tenure, infrastructure spending increased dramatically, fueled in part by state revenue from high oil prices, increased foreign direct investment, and once-again growing tourism. The attitude of hope, of looking forward to a better future, was palpable. It lasted for 21 months, until September 26, 2014, when 43 student protesters from Ayotzinapa were kidnapped in the state of Guerrero by the police of Iguala, turned over to the local drug gang Guerreros Unidos, and murdered. Prompting Freedom House to declare Mexico 1st place for the worst human rights developments in 2014.
It was a surprise punch in the gut to Mexican society. Days of quiet, morose disbelief were followed by the catching of a collective breath, and then massive street protests in Mexico City, Iguala, and elsewhere throughout the Republic. The ham-fisted response from many Mexican legislators was to propose amending the Mexican constitution to ban public protests.
In the United States, we seem to be learning, slowly, too slowly, that a massive criminal enforcement approach to a minor public health problem is exactly ass-backwards. The evidence, after all, is overwhelming in this regard. Smaller and more nimble jurisdictions like Portugal, the Netherlands, and many U.S. States, have or are in the process of reversing course, to great effect. North America, though, with close to a half billion residents, continues to struggle under the inertia of a massive bureaucracy, sometimes happily, sometimes haltingly, committed to the status quo.
In the wake of the latest terrorist attacks in California, it occurred to me that although I study and write about religions as they relate to a broad spectrum of public policy, I hadn’t quite made up my mind about the above proposition. As an atheist, my instinct is to side against religion. But instinct by definition is not reason. And there are plenty of secular humanists and fellow atheists who disagree with me on this specific issue.
So I decided to do more digging and engage in an oddly schizophrenic, but in my view eminently useful, conversation with myself, taking up the secular apologist cause in explaining why and how violent jihad can be stripped from its Islamic underpinnings. I then in turn refute, or attempt to refute, these arguments, also from a secular perspective.
On September 17, 2001 President George W. Bush started a political neologism by proclaiming that “Islam is peace.” Since that time, every American administration, and almost all elected politicians worldwide have made similar pronouncements in an effort to separate the Islamic faith itself from acts of the most ghoulish barbarity committed by some of its adherents. It is, of course, easy to understand why: telling the truth might have meant alienating 1.6 billion people, almost a quarter of the world’s population professing a religious faith. (Indeed, it might have added fuel to the fire for those Muslims who advocate for a global holy war.)
Soon after Bush’s inane pronouncement, many academics and liberal progressives picked up on the meme, joining the administration in this claim (the oddest of bedfellows). The Muslims who commit these acts, the martyrs who detonate themselves in markets, on buses, in hotels, restaurants and shopping malls, are cast either as “not true Muslims” (a derivation of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy), or nihilists (the most recent and oddest accounting). Or simply politically and economically oppressed Muslims, too weak to fight a conventional war against Western imperialists and usurpers, who are therefore using terrorism for political reasons only tangentially connected to religion.
The arguments are not implausible, but I was still puzzled because, on the other hand, it seemed to me that Muslim terrorists are primarily motivated by their faith. If this is true, wouldn’t it be better, then, to call a duck a duck, say that Islam has a problem, and support Islamic reformers? The results of burying our collective heads in the sand has been that terror and tears continue to plague us, and many (if not most) Muslim reformers have been shouted down, threatened, exiled, murdered, or in other ways silenced. If it is not true, conversely, then the best response might be – I know not what. The military approach, by almost all accounts, has been an abject failure, and in my view has done far more harm than good.
But let us see – my tentative conclusions could be wrong.
The reader should note that the confines of this essay, in order to be as comprehensive as possible within a reasonable word limit, is limited to terrorism, and does not address other aspects of whether Islam is a religion of peace such as Islamic support for the poor, hospitality and sharing, a wide body of world literature, Sharia law, honor murders, genital mutilation, the killing of apostates and infidels, the subjugation of women, the suppression of free expression and dissent, etc.
Arguments and Refutations
The arguments that Muslim terrorism is unconnected or only tangentially connected to Islam takes many forms and can be stated in different ways. The arguments below are presented in italics, followed by the refutations in normal typeface, and have been distilled down to the following: (1) an entire religion should not be condemned for the acts committed by fringe extremists; (2) terrorists are driven by other reasons such as political ideology rather than religious theology; and (3) there is a double standard in so much that terrorism is employed by radical elements of other religions but it is seldom if ever recognized as such, while Islamic terrorism is singled out.
As a last note before the curtain of reason is opened and the show begins with the First Act, I have made a good faith effort to argue as persuasively as by own cognitive limitations will allow in favor of the above three broad propositions. I put forth no straw men, and I would be willing to bet that some readers who agree with the three propositions will remain unconvinced after having read my refutations.
Argument 1: Painting with too broad a brush
Why do some want to condemn an entire faith with over 1.6 billion adherents for the admittedly heinous acts of a tiny majority of extremists?
First, “extremists” according to Gallup (defined as those who (a) think the 9/11 attacks were justified and (b) have an unfavorable opinion of the United States) only account for about 7 percent of Muslims. If that sounds like a lot, consider a couple of things. The poll was only conducted in 10 countries, and in some Muslim countries, like Morocco, only 1 percent of Muslims qualified as extremists. Also, notice how Gallup defined extreme to include Muslims who have an unfavorable opinion of the United States. Many people have an unfavorable opinion of the United States, even many Americans. If one were to define “extremists” only to include the first group, undoubtedly the numbers would be even lower. More pointedly, of the small percentage of Muslims who might be considered “extremists,” how many of those would be willing to act on those views? The numbers must surely be infinitesimally small.
Second, of course extremists – of all casts – tend to have the loudest voices, giving the impression that they are more prevalent and more influential than they actually are. Despite the poll’s flaws, Gallup admits that it debunks the notion that terrorism enjoys wide support in the Muslim world, noting that, “Not only are those who sympathize with terrorist acts a relatively small minority, but the most frequently cited aspect of the Muslim world that Muslims say that they admire least is ‘narrow-minded fanaticism and violent extremism.’” After a terror attack, why do you think that there are so many condemnations of violence from the Islamic community?
Third, all religions have extremist fringe components. Catholics like Timothy McVey and Christian members of the Klu Klux Klan in America have committed acts of terrorism, as have radicalized Hindus and Sikhs in India, as have Catholics in Rwanda and Orthodox Christians in Bosnia. (More on that below.) One would be surprised if Islam did not have radicalized adherents.
Finally, although this may be slightly beyond the strictures of the argument, we should put things into perspective. The tiny number of Islamic terrorists who actually carry out acts of violence should be compared to the very few people who have been killed by terrorists since 9/11 along with those killed by other means. For example 19 Americans were killed in terror attacks in 2013, compared to 10,000 by drunk drivers, 53 by bees, and 23 by lightning strikes. From September 11, 2001 through 2013, a total of 3,380 Americans have been killed in terror attacks, compared to 406,496 firearm deaths (homicide, suicide and accidents). In fact, according to the FBI, between 1980 and 2005, only 6% of terror attacks within the U.S. were carried out by Islamic extremists.
Will America’s response be yet another invasion of an Islamic country, more drone strikes, serving only to further radicalize more Muslims? As Malala Yousafzai has said, “With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism.”
Islam is a grand religion with a rich history of scientific achievement, architectural beauty, charity, literature, and provides comfort, hope and fraternity to billions of people. It shouldn’t be condemned by ignorant people who think that a tiny minority of misguided sociopaths who claim to be Muslim speak for true peace-loving Muslims.
Well, let me start with what I think is largely irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion. Is Islam a “grand religion”? I don’t think so, but then again I don’t think any religions are grand, or even good; indeed I think religion is a cancer on societies, which perhaps I’ll address later.
There is one broad area where we agree, and that is another military adventure in the Middle East would be the worst of all possible responses to terror attacks, and indeed counter-productive if history is any guide. (Hegel may have been right when he said that we learn from history that we do not learn from history.)
With that minor throat clearing out of the way, let me point to why your argument must fall, and by its own weight.
While it is true that terrorism “only” claimed 19 American lives in 2013, globally it took the lives of almost 18,000 innocents. That is no small number. And let us not forget that history did not begin on September 11, 2001. Your clever use of the FBI database from 1980 to 2005 hints a bit at obfuscation. So 6 percent of attacks were carried out by Muslim extremists, but this would have had to include the 9/11 attacks. The more relevant question would be: how many people were actually killed or wounded by jihadists? Incidentally, since 9/11 some 74 Islamist terror plots have been foiled – cold comfort I submit. But playing the numbers game is largely point-missing for the obvious reason that is evades the topic under debate: Why do some want to condemn an entire faith with over 1.6 billion adherents for the admittedly heinous acts of a tiny majority of extremists? So let us move on from this digression (we can debate the entirely unrelated topics of traffic safety and gun control another time).
This question to be completely coherent must be broken down into parts. First, what do the numbers actually represent? And second, are these extremists really “extreme” within the Islamic faith?
The first sub-question is easier to deal with; you haven’t quibbled excessively with the Gallup poll, so neither will I. Let’s low-ball “Muslim extremists” at 1 percent of the population. That’s 16,000,000 extremists. Again, no small number. And let’s say 1 percent of those would be willing to act on their extremism. That’s 160,000, and scary, when you consider how many innocent people one extremist can kill with a single car bomb or a few magazines of automatic rifle cartridges.
The second part (whether jihadists are in fact “extreme” under Islam) is both more interesting and more difficult. The best answer is – it depends on who you ask.
So I looked at three Muslim scholars’ views which seem representative. According to Reza Aslan, Islam in neither a religion of peace nor violence – it’s just a religion. His essential argument is that people take their values and culture to their religion, and interpret their religion through that lens, not unlike the KKK in America, an organization which maintains both its Christianity and its overt racism and violence. Tariq Ramadan, by contrast, insists that Islam is a religion of peace, and jihadists have misinterpreted the call for jihad literally instead of as an inner struggle. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (a terrorist with a PhD in Islamic studies) has a different view:
Islam was never a religion of peace. Islam is the religion of fighting. No one should believe that the war that we are waging is the war of the Islamic State. It is the war of all Muslims, but the Islamic State is spearheading it. It is the war of Muslims against infidels. O Muslims, go to war everywhere. It is the duty of every Muslim.
This presents us with a bit of a problem: When Muslim scholars, Muslim leaders, and average Muslims themselves can’t seem to agree on the correct interpretation of the Qur’an, how are non-Muslims to decide? Or as Christopher Hitchens has said, “Who am I to adjudicate?” One could argue that Islamist terrorists and ISIS – the most literal interpreters of Islam – are the true Muslims and other nominal Muslims are simply misguided un-Islamic pseudo-fakirs. (Again, who is the true Scotsman?)
As any religious historian can tell you, all of the holy books of the Abrahamic faiths are oral stories of semi-literate Bronze Age desert dwellers cobbled together hundreds of years after the events they purport to describe; they are all chalk-full of vagaries, internal contradictions, inconsistencies and outright immoral ideas, as one might expect. This largely explains why there are no less than 5 Jewish sects or “movements,” more than 35 different Christian denominations in the United States alone, and 5 major sects within Islam (and many more minor ones, each with their separate schools of jurisprudence and divinity). Each, of course, believes that their interpretation is the correct one, and each can point to specific scriptures which support their interpretation. In the case of Islam, these schisms often lead to violence comparable to the horrors found within the Pentateuch. As Hitchens said in God is Not Great (pps. 123-24), “The Koran is borrowed from both Jewish and Christian myths,” and “If one comprehends the fallacies of one ‘revealed’ religion, one comprehends them all.”
So no, all Muslims should not be condemned for the acts of a few extremists. But that most salient fact carries with it a troubling but necessary question of its own: Are these Islamist jihadists committing acts of terror really “extreme” or are they simply following the commands of their holy book? As I said, it depends on who you ask.
Argument 2: The West caused terrorism through imperialism and the oppression of Muslim peoples, which is why terrorism is driven more by political ideology and less by Islam
Let us imagine for a moment a different world. A world in which the richest, most powerful country on our little blue dot of a planet was a conservative Muslim one. Let’s call it Islamalandia. It has the largest standing armies and navies in the world. It is rich beyond imagination, except for one thing: petroleum. The United States and Britain are comparatively poor, have no navies, and their armies are small, poorly trained and ill-equipped. But in the alternate universe, they have lots of oil. Islamalandia – to ensure political stability and the flow of oil – for centuries continually meddles in the internal politics of the U.S. and Britain: participating in coups, installing friendly dictators and puppet governments, invading and dividing the U.S. into different political areas without regard to religious and ethnic concerns, dropping bombs as felt necessary, and wantonly exercising Machiavellian Realpolitik at will. Much of the U.S. and Britain are occupied by Islamalandia’s forces, and are forced to concede parts of their territories for Islamalandia military bases. Unconcealed racism is rampant, and people with white skin are routinely discriminated against, ridiculed, caricatured, and mocked in the media. Islamalandia imposes its religious and political ideals of sharia law within its empire. The U.S. and Britain have no hope of fighting this giant.
Would not American fundamentalist Christians, Catholics, Jews and English Anglican Christians resort to terrorism? In doing so, wouldn’t they claim that they have license to do so in the name of their gods to keep the Islamic menace at bay?
The point is obvious: we caused Muslim extremism.
Where were Islamist acts of terror before the U.S. and Britain ham-fistedly exercised there imperialist ambitions in the Middle East after WWI?
Is it a coincidence that terrorist attacks escalated dramatically after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? The primary cause of terrorism is feckless and immoral foreign policy by Western powers. It’s not difficult to see the causal connection.
To answer your first question, I don’t know if Christians would resort to acts of terror, though I tend to doubt it, and hope never to have to find out. Your second question is easier to answer: Islamic extremism and terrorism goes back to the 7th Century Kharijites. Muslims have been killing each other in sanguinary feuds, killing apostates, killing infidels, since the founding of the religion.
I wouldn’t want to, and haven’t, claimed that Islam is the only cause of terrorism, but rather it is the prime cause. True, academicians, think tanks, writers and intellectuals have come up with a plethora of alternative, some competing, some complimentary, explanations: western foreign policy, group pressure, socioeconomic frustrations, political ideology, a rebellion against modernity, the abuses of kleptocracy, and according to Thomas Piketty’s recent musings, income inequality, to name a few. I was surprised to find that the competing theories are not only encyclopedic in their breadth, depth and scope, but also grasping and largely point-missing. It could conceivably be one, all, or any combination of these things. Omitting religion as a prime causal factor, though, I think could only be described as an intentional fatuity.
It’s not as if Islamic terrorists are exactly shy about stating their motivations. Why not go to the source?
Jihadists say they commit acts of terror for religious reasons. They’re unambiguous and explicit in crediting both their motivation and success to Islam. Ihsanullah Ihsan’s statement is typical: “[o]ur animosity is based on religion. We hate Americans for their secular ideology.” Find a jihadi waxing on about group pressure, poverty or foreign policy. You won’t find many. But you’ll find thousands of examples of terrorists giving purely religious reasons their acts of terror.
Is there some reason we should not believe them? Are they so self-deluded that they don’t even know why they’re doing what they’re doing? Apparently many people think so, but this seems to defy credulity.
Which brings me to your second question: In the same or similar circumstances, would Christians do the same? We need not speculate. History has already given us a pretty convincing answer, as Sam Harris pointed out recently in an interview for Salon. When asked about colonialism and the portioning of the Middle East after the First World War, I can do no better than quote his response at length:
But the religious lunacy and tribalism was already in place—and that is why the West’s careless partitioning of the region was so problematic. I agree that the history of colonialism isn’t pretty. But the example you raise just proves my point. In fact, this practically became a science experiment that dissected out the crucial variable of religion. There are (or were) Christians living in all these beleaguered countries. How many Christian suicide bombers have there been? Where are the Pakistani, Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, and Palestinian Christians who are blowing themselves up in crowds of noncombatants? Have there been any? I’m guessing there must have been a few, but the Muslim supply of such people is apparently inexhaustible. In every case, we’re talking about the same people, speaking same language, living in the same places, enduring the same material deprivation. In fact, the Christians of the Middle East have it worse. They’ve not only suffered the legacy of colonialism, they’ve been hounded out of their countries and often killed outright by their Muslim neighbors—and they still haven’t organized themselves into a death cult. What’s the difference that makes the difference? Religion.
We can also look outside the Muslim world to see that mere injustice and inequality rarely produce such destructive behavior. Many countries in Latin America have legitimate grievances against the U.S. Where are the Guatemalan suicide bombers? Where are the Cherokee suicide bombers, for that matter? If oppression were enough, the Tibetans should have been practicing suicidal terrorism against the Chinese for decades. Instead, they practice self-immolation, for reasons that are totally understandable within the context of their own religious beliefs. Again, specific beliefs matter, and we deny this at our peril. If the behavior of Muslim suicide bombers should tell us anything, it’s that certain people really do believe in martyrdom. Let me be very clear about this: I’m not talking about all (or even most) Muslims—I’m talking about jihadists. But all jihadists are Muslim. If even 1 percent of the world’s Muslims are potential jihadists, we have a terrible problem on our hands. I’m not sure how we deal with 16 million aspiring martyrs—but lying to ourselves about the nature of the problem doesn’t seem like the best strategy.
Argument 3: Critics of Islam who blame the religion for terrorism are hypocrites: there are plenty of examples of Christian acts of terror but it’s seldom called that in the media
Ancient, contemporary, and modern history are rife with acts of terror by Christians in the name of Christianity, but you curiously never see it couched in those terms. I can mention two recent ones: the war in the Balkans, and the near-genocide in Rwanda.
I see that you’re a fan of Harris and Hitchens. With regards to the Balkans war, did not Mr. Hitchens mention in god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (p. 22) that “the extremist Catholic and Orthodox forces were colluding in a bloody partition and cleansing of Bosnia-Herzegovina. They were, and still are, spared the public shame of this, because the world’s media preferred the simplication [sic] of ‘Croat’ and ‘Serb,’ and only mentioned religion when discussing ‘the Muslims.’” He goes on to say that “confessional terminology was reserved only for ‘Muslims,’ even though their murderers went to all the trouble of distinguishing themselves by wearing large Orthodox crosses over their bandoliers, or by taping portraits of the Virgin Mary to their rifle butts.”
The atrocities committed against a civilian Muslim population by Christians for religious reasons would be a perfect opportunity to “call a duck a duck” to use your phrase.
In the same book (pps. 190-93) Hitchens in some detail tells the story of the Catholic Church’s collusion in the massacre of the minority Tutsi population by the majority Catholic Hutus in Rwanda. As Hitchens tells this macabre tale, it begins in 1987 when a Catholic visionary called Little Pebbles begins seeing visions of the apocalypse, bloody massacres, and the eminent return of Christ (these visions oddly coming from the Virgin Mary). The Church investigated the appearances of the apparition of Mary on a hilltop and concluded they were reliable. At the given moment in 1994, the massacre of the Tutsis began. Frightened Tutsi and dissident Hutu sought refuge in churches, and the interahamwe relied on priests and nuns to point out where the targets of the massacre were hiding. Father Weceslas Munyeshyaka was smuggled out of Rwanda with the assistance of French priests, later to go on trial for war crimes for providing lists of civilians to the interahamwe, among other acts of collusion. Sadly, equally culpable in the atrocities, Bishop Misago, escaped justice, with one official in the Rwandan Ministry of Justice saying, “The Vatican is too strong, and too unapologetic, for us to go taking on bishops. Haven’t you heard of infallibility?”
As of this writing, despite intense pressure, the Church has never apologized for the role of its clergy in the Rwanda massacres. Ironically, after every Muslim terrorist attack, we see peaceful Muslims in the streets and on social media saying, “This is not us! We abhor radical jihadists! This is not Islam!”
Of course there are ubiquitous examples of radicalized Jews committing acts of terror on peaceful Muslims, not to mention the bombing or attacking of abortion clinics by American fundamentalist Christians, equally illustrative of the double standard. I’ve never seen a headline that said, “Christian Terrorist Attacks Clinic.” Are these people not also motivated primarily by their religion?
Forgetting the method of killing a terrorist might employ for a moment, this seems to poke some holes in Sam Harris’ question, “How many Christian suicide bombers have there been?” I submit: quite a few, actually.
Finally, if you go back a bit in time, Christianity in its various permutations has been responsible for horrific crimes against humanity – do you not remember the crusades, the inquisitions, the burning alive of apostates, the beheadings and torture of non-believers?
Let me begin by saying that this line of argument is something of a non sequitur. If I were to concede everything, I would have conceded nothing. It does not follow that if adherents of other faiths commit acts of terrorism because of their faiths, Muslims do not.
Now let me concede something more substantive: the religious (Christian) aspects to the violence and atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda were seldom discussed by the media – they should have been, as they played important roles. But once that has been said, we’re still left essentially where we started.
Indeed, I think you over argue your case. Hitchens used these two examples to buttress his thesis that religion poisons everything. He did not argue that religion was the root cause of these atrocities, or that Christians are compelled by their scriptures to commit them. His central point throughout the chapter from which you draw these examples, is that religion does not only not make people behave better, but often makes them behave worse. He did not indicate, nor even intimate, that religion in these two case studies were the prime factors in the atrocities committed, but rather, important factors in a mix of ethnic tension, politics, and historical animosities, adding fuel to the fire, if you will.
Second, it has never been claimed that the majority Roman Catholic Hutus were somehow an oppressed class and resorted to mass murder as defense mechanism, as some claim is the appropriate rationale in explaining Islamic jihadism. Indeed, the Rwanda situation has been explained quite adequately in terms of political and ethnic grounds. (Which of course is not to say the Church’s role wasn’t shockingly complicitous and revolting.) Bosnia is a better case for Christian terrorism, but there, too, religion was one part of a complex mix of history, geography, ethnic tension, and political ambition. Both of these stains on humanity could have been committed, and would have been committed, in the absence of any religious motivations. The same can’t be said of Islamic terrorism, and thus, I think Sam’s question stands untouched.
Your last point regarding the past atrocities of Christianity is an important one. Christianity underwent several reformations. Islam has not. Christianity – with the notable exception of some fundamentalist sects mostly in the United States – has (begrudgingly and all-too-slowly) accepted science, and in doing so has had to concede great swaths of its theological underpinnings. Islam is anti-science. Christianity has accepted the principle of the separation of church and state. Here, too, Islam has not. Harris has a salient point to make on this as well: there is no concept in Islam of “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” Perhaps as importantly, the Church has apologized for many (by no means all) past wrongs and injustices – either through overt action, silence or sanction – perpetrated by it or by others. Islam has not, and being that it claims to be the final and unimprovable word of Allah, and no further knowledge is either needed or desired, it is hard to account for how it could.
The reader of course will make her own conclusions. Mine is this.
All Abrahamic religions – as well as many other religions – are bad inasmuch they are quite demonstrably man made but purport to be the word of an omniscient god. But they’re not all bad in the same way, and some are worse than others.
Islam has a problem. A problem that cannot be easily explained away by the mental gymnastics it takes to account for Islamic terrorism in lieu of the elephant in the room – the teachings of Islam itself.
I understand the reasons politicians proclaim that Islam is a religion of peace and has been hijacked by radicals or “nihilists.” It is much more difficult to put one’s finger on why so many of my fellow atheists, progressives, and secular humanists with no dog in the hunt, make the same claim. They can be viciously critical of other religions such as Christianity, or religion in general, but are silent on Islam. Or worse, side with the jihadists, and label people such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher racists, bigots and Islamaphobes. But they save their worst vitriol for moderate Muslim reformers themselves such as Maajid Nawaz, a former member of a radical Islamic group, who has co-written a book with Harris. The most curious case must be that of Glenn Greenwald, a homosexual Jewish atheist who not only routinely defends radical Islam, but attacks those critical of Islam with ad hominin diatribes (one of his assistants even calling Nawaz a “talking monkey”). Leaving the Jewish issue aside, surely Greenwald must know that he and his husband would not be long for this world if they were to move to one of the 10 predominantly Muslim countries (all in the Middle East or North Africa) where homosexual acts are punishable by death.
Could it be that progressives (Nawaz refers to them as the “Regressive Left”) would be too uncomfortable finding themselves on the same side of an issue (for obviously different reasons) with Christian neoconservatives? This seems to be the primary complaint Chris Hedges has about Harris and his fellow intellectual travelers, but that wouldn’t explain how these otherwise very bright public intellectuals could be so intellectually unserious, if not dishonest, on this single issue. Alternatively, Douglas Murray is of the opinion that since the end of the Cold War the Left has been in short supply of fascists, racists and bigots – too few to maintain their own political identity – and so have turned to cannibalizing their own. There may be other theories out there as well. My own guess is that the secular but nonetheless de facto apologists for theocracy have drunk too deeply from the Liberal ideological trough, which is fed from the spring of egalitarianism – that we’re all basically the same, with same potentials for success and failure, and our successes are more often due to luck or the enjoyment of advantages that others don’t have, and likewise our failures are due to disadvantages not within our control. A slight simplification, but only slight. When applied to religions, and more specifically Islamic jihadists, one can see how easily it is to slip into the Pavlovian impulse of defending those who have and which have, been historically oppressed and manhandled by the ham-fisted geopolitical machinations of Western powers. If this, too, does not fully explain this dichotomy, then I am left wondering.
Is there hope one day that Islam can credibly claim that it is indeed a religion of peace? Sure, but if it happens, it will be a long, slow, painful process. It took Catholicism centuries to become the paper tiger that it is today. Hitchens has said that because Islam is the youngest of the Abrahamic faiths, it is also the most insecure, and therefore also the most fundamentalist. For reasons mentioned, Islam doesn’t have within its toolkit the important principle that secular government can be separated from religion. This is an obstacle, but then again there are examples of peaceful forms of Islam to draw inspiration from. The Islamic practitioners of Sufism, for example, are primarily motivated by the spiritual and not literal (and thus often detested by the devout).
Be that as it may, I believe one thing is certain. There is nothing to be had worth having by looking to Islamic or secular apologists to confront the problem of Islamic terrorism. Nor is another feckless military intervention proposed by Chickenhawks on the Right. Malala was right, and her words bear repeating: “Guns can kill terrorists, but education can kill terrorism.” If there is any education to be had, it must come by way of Muslims from within Islam itself. Which means reformers like Maajid Nawaz, and others, must be given a voice and not be shouted down by the Regressive Left playing a political game at the expense of global security and respect for human rights.
Williams Recovers from Falling on His Sword, While O’Reilly Never Even Thought about Falling on His Own.
Real journalists, when caught in a lie, get fired. Brian William finally returned to TV as a breaking news anchor for MSNBC on September 22nd after being canned by NBC in February when it was discovered that his mostly off-air comments about his experiences in Iraq, among others, were not true. O’Reilly, on the other hand, after being caught in numerous on-air and off-air bald-faced lies, kept on keepin’ on. What gives?
Lying is nothing new in the course of human history. It’s not even unique to our species ─ chimpanzees have been known to do it, and other species as well. And of course we Homo sapiens are the grand masters of lying. The fact that there are no less than 43 synonyms for lie in the English language, is telling. If George Washington ever actually said, “I cannot tell a lie,” it is almost proof that he was a liar.
We are also all embellishers, the slightly less ugly cousin of the liar.
Seriously ─ just look at your resume. Were you really responsible for the increase in sales revenue? Did you really supervise the whole kitchen brigade? And does your more distant (and less verifiable) work history somehow improve with the passage of time? Memories are like photocopies of photocopies: they degrade. But in many cases they mysteriously degrade in a good way, making us look better, braver, smarter, wiser.
Outright liars usually get caught, and pay a price. History is rife with examples. If you claim to have graduated from Princeton University, but actually graduated from Podunk University, you’ll eventually get caught, and perhaps, fired. (Hard to argue it was just a typo.) This is especially true if you’re a public figure, under the microscope, with every journalist in the world, and every enemy (who may also be journalists) looking for the scoop. Which is all the more reason public figures, especially journalists and politicians, would be well advised to be extraordinarily careful.
Brian Williams was suspended from CBS for making mostly offhanded comments that his helicopter was forced down in Iraq by RPG fire, as well as statements about what he witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. None of which were true. But he is a journalist, and we are right to expect more of him. He didn’t obfuscate. He manned-up, fessed-up, and lost his job. He didn’t demonize his critics, engage in schoolyard-esque ad hominem attacks about perceived bullies. He apologized. He packed his personal belongings in cardboard box along with his crumpled pink slip and went home. His recent reemergence on MSNBC after 7 months left him looking somewhat haggard. He’s probably been sitting on his sofa, wearing a stained t-shirt and boxer shorts, bleary-eyed with two days of beard growth, nursing a scotch, glued to his TV watching Bill O´Reilly’s own scandals unfold. In my imagining of this scenario, Williams is confounded by Bill’s pernicious resilience.
O’Reilly’s fabrications, as outlined in Mother Jones and further confirmed, were by order of magnitude more egregious than Brian Williams’. He’s accused of lying when he said, “I saw nuns get shot in the back of the head” when recounting his time in El Salvador in 1981. Impossible, according to Media Matters. But Bill graduated with a B.S. degree in embellishment to take a full-blown PhD in lying, defending his doctoral thesis with tooth and claw. He claimed to be in the thick of the Falklands war zone in 1982, having guns pointed at him, of rescuing a coworker, of having witnessed a mass riot where citizens were killed. None of it true, according to every source that was there, except of course, Bill himself.
The latest “gotcha” is a doozy. In his book Killing Kennedy he claims to have heard the self-inflicted shotgun blast that ended the life of Lee Harvey Oswald’s friend George de Mohrenschildt in Palm Beach Florida in 1977, while he was outside of Mohrenschildt’s daughter’s home. A phone call recorded at the time, however, uncovered by journalist Jefferson Morley two years ago and aired recently on CNN’s Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter, clearly shows that O’Reilly was 1,200 miles away at the time. Oops. No way for O’Reilly to credibly claim that the audio tape isn’t true. Or that he misremembered. Or it’s some kind of left wing conspiracy.
This time O’Reilly’s right wing supporters and conspiracy theorists have fallen conspicuously silent. As has O’Reilly. He didn’t fess-up, take the blame, or pack his bags.
We’ve all lied, we’ve all embellished, we’ve all misremembered. We’re all human. But we’re not all journalists, and we’re not all habitual liars. As Jon Stewart has pointed out, though, Fox News is. And Bill O’Reilly, in the greatest Fox tradition, does not just play fast and loose with the truth, he has an actual contempt for it.
Which explains why his job was never in any danger. And why Teflon Trump can utter the most supercilious asininities without negative affect. Fox doesn’t even pretend to value facts, despite its slogan of “fair and balanced.” Facts are for losers, as I can easily imagine Trump saying. O’Reilly is still around because nobody seriously expects him to tell the truth, unless of course their only source of news is Fox News, in which case they have no other source to compare.
Just look at the universe! A new humanoid fossil was recently found in Ethiopia, and a whole gaggle of bones from an intermediate humanoid species in South Africa. Further evidence in the existence of God, contrary to what antitheists like Richard Dawkins might believe.
As an author (17 books), a scientist (phrenology), a philosopher (epistemology and logic), historian (world religions) and theologian, and through many decades of interdisciplinary studies, I have developed a simple argument for the existence of God, in complete agreement with the principle of Ockham’s razor, dispelling the need of the overly-complicated ontological arguments of those vapid and boring religious apologists. If I sound immodest, please withhold your disapproval until you’ve read what follows.
We live in a virtual infinity of stars, planets, galaxies and solar systems. We haven’t even begun to map them all, as our instruments are as yet too primitive. Our little planet is akin to a bacterium on a speck of dust on a leaf of a tree on a massive forested continent. Yet that analogy can’t even give us much of an appreciation of how small our world is compared to the cosmos it inhabits.
The most amazing thing is that the creator of all of this unimaginable wonder took the time to set out in detail the rules that we ─ not even significant enough to be microbes on this scale ─ must live by. For example, He is concerned that we not eat ham. Pigs are dirty, after all. Also, we must worship Him constantly, now and for all eternity, or face eternal damnation. He is adamant that the female of our species be conspicuously modest and subservient to her male masters, to the point of being chattel. (This is almost self-evident, but God knows of course that some of us less intelligent humans might be tempted by the Devil’s fatuous proposal that women are somehow equal to men.) He tends His cosmological garden by forming galaxies and destroying others, over billions of years (a blink of an eye on God’s timescale); He commands stars to swell into orange giants, enveloping and killing their orbiting planets by the trillions; He simultaneously muses about his own handiwork ─ the beauty of the force of gravity bending light and reversing time. He awes his subjects with miracles so amazing we can barely comprehend them ─ like burning bushes and pigs possessed by demons ─ and he heals the blind and cancerous (but somehow has not explained as yet His grudge against amputees). Despite this, our Creator still shows concern about what we molecules on this minuscule bacterium wear for clothing, and in what positions we copulate. The fact that we are even a remotest concern to Him demonstrates what a devoted Father he is! He takes sides in our tribal squabbles, and hears every one of our prayers. He thinks it best that we stone to death disobedient children, modify the genitals of the obedient ones by cutting parts off, and kill adulterers (only the females of our species of course). He commands us to kill our neighbors who cut their lawns on Sundays (we in the West have unwisely mostly abandoned this commandment, and thus are plagued by tornadoes and floods).
We are right to worship him, as his benevolent concern for the wellbeing and moral character of such a tiny species on such an infinitesimally small corner of the cosmos is evidence of his love.
God, of course, blessed us with big brains, which came up with something called the scientific method. We should worship him for that as well. Through this method of inquiry, we discovered that our Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, which seems to conflict with the Holy Scriptures, but then again, it was we who were taking dictation from God, and being human, we were bound to get some things wrong. (The skeptic might protest at this point that God could have just given us the Word, avoiding the inevitable errors of transcription, to which I reply yet again: Who can know the mind of God?) Anthropologists tell us that we Homo sapiens have graced its surface for a couple of hundred thousand years. For the vast majority of that time, our lives were nasty, brutish, and short, to borrow a phrase from Hobbes. Those of us that did not die in childbirth were lucky to live into our twenties, dying from things like simple infections or burst appendix. We lived in tribes and fought brutal and deadly wars for resources and women and territory. Not an ideal situation, to be sure.
But now for the real proof. What follows is a modified argument once made by the late Christopher Hitchens (who is surely as I speak boiling in excrement for eternity), and as you will undoubtedly note, I turn Hitchens’ pompous argument on its head.
God watched this for the vast majority of our species’ existence, but then quite recently decided this would not do. Why he waited so long is uncertain, but is would be silly to think we can know everything. Nevertheless, a few thousand years ago He decided to reveal Himself and command us to be moral with the carrot of immortal bliss and the stick of eternal damnation. (Who does not understand the power of reward and punishment?) It is wholly unapparent why this was necessary, as being all-powerful and all-knowing, it seems that he could have simply commanded us to goodness, but then we wouldn’t have free will; wait, I think actually the Bible denies free will. Never mind. Let me get back to my point. But instead of revealing himself to all people at the same time across the planet, or even less ambitiously to the most populated literate continent at the time (Asia), he chose an inconspicuous patch of desert inhabited by semi-literate nomads. This indeed seems odd, but he is God, after all, so what right do we have to question him?
So there, refute that, Hitchens! (Oh, I forgot, you’re in Hell.)
If we reduce the age of the earth to our own familiar 24-hour day, the time that elapsed prior to the appearance of humans is 23 hours and 58 minutes. And of the two remaining minutes, which represents the time of humans on earth, the period of civilization is less than the last ½ second. Given this time scale, is should be no surprise that we know almost nothing; certainly what we don’t know vastly dwarfs what knowledge we have sown from science so far in our still brief awakening to sentient existence.
That quotation represents the illogical piffle of unbelievers. The author was obviously a retard. Of course we know all that we need to know! It has been revealed to us through the Bible (Jewish or Christian, take your pick)! Or the Qur’an (if you’re into false religions and false prophets), or the Book of Mormon (there’s actually a good argument that Jesus went to Missouri after his resurrection), or Scientology (who are we to say that our bodies are not inhabited by Thetans?).
So there you have it. Religion ─ it’s what’s for dinner. Any questions?
An up close and personal second look at American culture after a decade abroad. What the fuck have we become?
Sympathy for the Devil in a Hellish Desert
We came to buy some groceries at the Wal-Mart in Globe, Arizona, pulling into the blistering asphalt parking lot with the air conditioner working overtime and the Rolling Stones’ raucous, rhythmic “Sympathy for the Devil” blaring from six speakers. “Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name!” Sure, it’s Globe. Population 8,000, Gila County, home of the Tigers (oddly, not the more appropriate Apaches).
Upon an unstudied glance it could have been any Wal-Mart anywhere. The staff were friendly and helpful to a fault (oddly annoying perhaps because I’d become too accustomed to the indifferent customer service common throughout Latin America). The parking lot was serried with motorcycles, motorhomes and American flags, perhaps the only other thing distinguishing it as a distinctly American Wal-Mart. Well, perhaps one more thing. The customers mostly looked sickly, odd, and inappropriately dressed. Either skinny grannies wearing tank tops without bras and cut-off jean shorts exposing spider webs of blue-green veins, or the morbidly obese wearing pajamas and cheap bling with yellow eyes hobbling along the isles stacking their carts with beer, carbonated sugar water, Cheetos and frozen microwave food. I didn’t count, but it seemed that a full quarter of the patrons were riding three-wheeled electric meat wagons, even the healthier-looking ones, some dragging kids behind them, which has apparently become a type of sport, a free form of recreation.
(Future stops at Wal-Marts in other cities and states indubitably confirmed two things: (1) the website peopleofwalmart.com hardly exaggerates, and most probably has a hopeless backlog of photos waiting to be posted, and (2) Americans dress down, or hardly dress at all, when they venture out into public.)
If I could characterize the mood, it seemed to encompass a somber, dystopian indifference. I saw no hope, no laughter, no passion, and no anger. Just lodes of soft drinks and watery beer. People intent on spending their Saturday afternoon enjoying the solacing hum of the swamp cooler’s struggle against the searing heat outside, the comfort of satellite television, driving out of the parking lot towards their trailers and stucco ranch-style cottages in cars and pickups emblazoned with red, white and blue Support our Troops! bumper stickers, secure in the knowledge that America is the most exceptional country on the face of the earth buried somewhere deep within their cerebral cortex amongst the arterial plaque, perhaps not even a conscious thought requiring the flicker of a sickly synapse.
The land of plenty on full display. To the point of diabetes, heart disease and liver failure.
Yes, I’d been away for a while, and still made embarrassing mistakes like speaking Spanish to convenience store clerks with puzzled looks, before re-remembering my English. I fumbled at gas stations, having not pumped my own gas for over a decade. But it seems to take only a couple of days to re-acclimate.
There was something else at work here, though, something more than getting reacquainted with a long lost friend. What has happened in the last decade? Or has it always been like this but I’ve forgotten?
From Steinbeck’s 1939 The Grapes of Wrath and Travels with Charlie in 1960, to Kerouac’s On the Road published in 1957, to National Lampoon’s cult classic comedy “Vacation” in 1983, the great American road trip has come to symbolize the only real way one can really get to know America. And perhaps it is.
America is a land of interstate highways, local freeways and county roads, connecting often disparate communities, local cultures, accents and languages, and by doing so, creating the sense of a larger community, something defying easy definition, but nonetheless distinctly American. You won’t find the homogeneity of countries like Japan or Argentina in the US, which is after all, a land of immigrants. This creates a palpable vibrancy and excitement for the traveler. And of course also tension.
Born in the USA
I was born in and grew up in America, served 4 years in the Army, and went to college and law school in California. After meeting my future Mexican wife in Alaska (of all places) in 2002, we moved to Mexico, never looking back, and I never earnestly missed the US. Certain conveniences, sure, but no profound homesickness. I adapted, polished my Spanish, and grew to love the culture, the food, the colonial cities, the UNESCO World Heritage sites, all the while developing an empathy for her people who have had to suffer through a half a millennium of bad governance, endemic corruption and senseless wars. (Most Americans no doubt would feel uncomfortable if they really knew how much alike we are.)
But I digress. This essay is about coming home, not about Mexico.
In between air travel for work or vacation, every couple of years my wife Margarita, I, and our children Samantha and Sebastián scratch the itch to take an epic road trip. Chihuahua to Mazatlán, Cancún to Belize and Guatemala, and all points in between. It almost always involves heat, car trouble, the kids intermittently fighting, playing, sleeping, getting carsick and blaming each other for that unpleasant yet familiar smell that fills the car; police bribes, menacing military checkpoints, frayed nerves, sometimes some fun, and always a lesson.
My mother living in northern California and my father living in southern Oregon are in their late 70s and “not getting any younger” which is of course just a euphemism for dying, as we all are. I hadn’t talked to my sisters in ages. We’re not exactly a closely knit family. We’ve been scattered like so much summer pollen, finding places to settle more through the blustery happenstance of the job market and the asperous terrain of love, gathering, as it were, in the crags and crannies of both the big cities and rural hinterlands of California, Oregon, and in my case, Mexico. And while my kids aged 9 and 7 have US passports and attend a private bilingual school in Chihuahua, their English skills needed some work, they’ve never met their American grandparents, and other than weekend shopping trips to El Paso, they know nothing of the country that they are citizens of. A strange fact, perhaps, but I suppose an increasingly common one in the world of globalization and rising mobility. (Almost a million Americans live in Mexico full-time, larger than any other American expatriate community in the world).
So this year, for the first time in almost 12 years, our road trip target became America, specifically the West and Southwest ─ an ambitious 4,816 mile round trip challenge, but doable, we thought, in 2 weeks. I was allowed to choose the music for the long stretches of western highways on the condition that I drove the whole way. Fair deal. Classic American rock & roll (with some Beatles and Pink Floyd thrown in for good measure), blues, folk, country, and a smattering of classical.
Country Road, Take me Home
So it was this philosophy of travel, this motivation to make a working vacation of it, this perhaps even genetic restlessness (my father was a notorious greener-grass job-hopper, traveler and intermittent hobby enthusiast his whole working life), that we found a room the Super 8 Motel in Cottonwood, Arizona which enjoyed a view of the thunderstorm-soaked cars in the parking lot, all at least 10 years old. The rain was a welcome respite from the dusty pitilessness of the desert. We and our fellow budget travelers were close to uber-chic Sedona, but not close enough to stay in one of her boutique hotels or eat in one of her trendy restaurants. Or shop at the ubiquitous gaggle of art galleries and shops selling various, and mysterious, magic energy crystals, which looked like rocks to my untrained eye.
This is the way we’ve always traveled – we do what we can on the budget we have. It’s also more than that. It’s about learning, about curiosity, about eschewing the comfortable for the real. And you can never get that from the best reservations at the swankiest hotels and a stack of American Express traveler’s checks.
We avoid the sophisticated metropolitan hubs, even most of the state capitals. We take the two-lane highways when possible, visit the local stores, and explore the ethnic neighborhoods and suburbs where the commuters live. Whether in Mexico, America, or Canada (or any other country for that matter), the pickings are rich in knowledge, gilded in the understanding of what a country is really about when stripped bare of its adorning jewels and the disguises of elaborate raiment. Perpigan preferred over Paris, Málaga rather than Madrid, Bremen over Berlin, Mérida superior to Mexico City. Walla Walla better than Washington, D.C.
Countries, in my view, should not be judged by their great cities, their best museums, their most spectacular cultural events, or the rankings of their most prestigious universities, but rather by their lesser ones of each. That is where real life unfolds, develops, and sometimes flowers. Saul Bellow’s Augie March infinitely more interesting than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby; the struggle for survival on Chicago’s cruel and cruddy Depression-era streets meaningful, the false opulence of the Roaring 20’s on the pocket utopia of Long Island not so much. At least for me.
Prisons in Podunk
I am sometimes accused of being a self-hating American, a traitor, which is of course nonsense. I suppose this is because I am often deeply critical of American policy, both foreign and domestic (not especially difficult), and occasionally praise Mexico’s policies, among other countries. But in the eyes and brain stems of jingoists, any criticism of American policy or culture is traitorous, and any praise of a foreign country’s policies is traitorous too. Apparently we’re the shit. End of story. I never knew.
During our three day whirlwind trip through Arizona (the first leg), only one thing stood out as being more plentiful than the natural wonder of her single national park, her ex-mining towns like Jerome turned artisanal tourist centers, and her spas promising rejuvenation and new life to wealthy aging baby boomers, were her prisons.
One can smell the pills in Beverly Hills, the Jambalaya in New Orleans, the sewers in Newark, and the nostalgia when passing the many sun-bleached road signs advertising local travel lodges and kitschy tourist attractions in Arizona, almost all of which evoke either overtly or in form of art Route 66, although it may indeed be hundreds of miles away.
With Credence Clearwater Revival or Billy Holliday booming in high digital fidelity, it was easy to get high on the wistfulness of better days gone by, until I started to pay closer attention to the old farming or mining or ranching towns dotting the backroads. The main industry now seems to be corrections (the oddest euphemism of all as we’re not correcting anyone, we’re enslaving the mostly minority underclass). Almost every town had a prison attached to it. Douglas, Eyman, Florence, Lewis, Perryville, Safford – some 16 in all (some for-profit private prisons) in addition to 5 federal prisons and some 15 county jails, including Sherriff Joe Arpio’s infamous tent city jail, which he himself referred to as a “concentration camp.” (An insufferable braggart and horse’s ass of the The Donald-class. Why he hasn’t thrown his hat into the ring with the other 2016 Republican presidential aspirants is somewhat of a mystery.)
But this is hardly a phenomena unique to the Grand Canyon State; the US incarcerates more of its population than any other nation in the world; in fact, America accounts for only about 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. And prison labor is good business. You can pay your “employees” 23 cents an hour, and you know where they live, so absenteeism is seldom a problem. Mass incarceration, often for non-violent petty drug possession offenses, is the new slavery, the last in a long line of exploitive labor practices, with companies like Whole Foods making a bundle from legalized slave labor. Forget the argument for raising the minimum wage. When you only have to pay your laborers the equivalent of what it would cost to clean a fart stain on your silk pajamas, well, that’s a profitable business model.
The only prison in Arizona not still in use is apparently the “sliding jail” in Jerome, a victim of a dynamite blast in the 1920’s causing a shifting of the Verde Fault, where the two-cell jail slid 225 feet down Mingus Mountain, deemed to be too unsafe for prisoners (a rather progressive concept for the time).
The Calliope Crashed to the Ground
We spent a wonderful morning at Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park, hiking, taking snapshots, and listening to park rangers talk about its gradual formation for over 6 million years, and how we can see 2 billion years back in time into our planet’s geology (almost half her age). We looked over the South Rim out into the mile deep mind-bending desolation. Pictures of course, as beautiful as they sometimes are, can do this wonder of the world no justice. A recurring thought was, this just can’t be ─ this can’t exist. My 7 year old son apparently was thinking the same thing when he asked me, “Is this real, papi?” Indeed, no human mind could have conjured this beautiful wound in our planet’s crust through imagination alone.
I asked a park ranger what she said to creationists who think the Earth is less than ten thousand years old. She smiled and gestured with a wide sweep of her arm at the void below. Some things are easier, and more convincingly, shown, than said.
But our schedule was tight, and we still had a long drive to see Hoover Dam before diving into Las Vegas ─ the belly of the beast itself.
And I’ve always loved to gamble. Sit me down at a blackjack table and leave me be for 20 hours, or dollar slots, or Texas Hold’em, or Pai Gow Poker. You name it, but if I had to choose only one, it would be blackjack. I thought that this would be the high point of the trip for me. I had been fanaticizing about it for six weeks. Winning my fortune. Showering my friends and family with expensive gifts. Basking in the warmth of the big win. Proudly declaring my hundred thousand dollars in cash winnings at the border complete with the appropriate Treasury Department’s FinCEN Form 105, perhaps giving my basement office back home in Chihuahua a much needed remodeling.
But I never bet a single hand, dropped a single coin, or wagered on a single sports event.
It’s been more than 20 years since I last visited Las Vegas. What struck me as most odd in driving into town from the Arizona side this time was the sheer number of churches – not something I expected in modern-day Gomorrah. Mega churches the size of casinos, Catholic churches, Baptist churches, Pentecostal churches in strip malls, churches on wheels. Can’t these people let sinners alone to sin? Apparently not. But it didn’t bother me much; it came as a novel surprise, but little else.
My favorite church, albeit decidedly secular, is the gambling casino where the focus of worship is money, or so I’ve always thought. But no longer single, no longer with a full head of hair, no longer horny, my impressions were somewhat different. Casinos smell of humanity: body odor, cigarettes, free liquor and stale beer. The people of Wal-Mart have come here, too, not to be denied the American Dream, having thrown off the melancholy shackles of quietly desperate lives, sitting camouflaged amongst the foreign tourists, slumping behind slot machines in a haze of blue smoke, pulling handles, pressing buttons, inserting coins. Here, all of our failures can be forgotten, all of our dreams at long-last fulfilled. All it takes is a little luck. We don’t notice the stink because we’re blinded by the light (thank you Bruce Springsteen for the ready-made metaphor and Earth Band for making this song a No. 1 hit in 1976), the ching-ching rattling bell-and-whistle sounds of winning mesmerize us. And we reach yet again into our buckets once filled with tokens, almost to the bottom.
The Grand Canyon was liken to a glimpse of the miracle of our universe seen through Hubble’s spectacular images of our closest galactic neighbor Andromeda. Las Vegas by way of comparison was a glimpse at the most banal of miracles, a burning bush, pigs possessed by demons running headlong into the endless deep. Las Vegas, like TV preachers and faith healers, exists to empty the pockets of rubes, selling products that don’t even exist: for the religious, the hope of immortality, and for gamblers, endless riches of this world. And people can’t seem to quite get enough of the ether, at almost any price.
So after cruising the Strip and getting some fast Chinese food we headed back to our hotel. The kids were naturally ecstatic and animated, enthralled by the lights and noise and excitement. I was tired from a long day of driving and I bickered with Margarita about something I remember not what, as long-married couples too often do. She took the kids up to the Stratosphere’s tower for a view of the city, and I walked the length of the casino floor to get to the north elevator. Never once tempted to drop a coin, to join a lonely blackjack dealer in a fait acompli of loss. I felt sick, but it wasn’t from the food at Panda Express.
A promising morning had gone sideways, turning into the funky mourning of a useless afternoon.
Back in the room, I poured myself a tequila, filling a paper cup, sat on the toilet, and opened the Stratosphere’s paper The Roxy Reporter, which contained a minor manifesto:
Somewhere along the way, Vegas lost its way. A pool chair became a privilege. A nightclub became fodder for paparazzi. A dinner tab tipped the scales of the National Debt. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! PLEDGE: TO HELP US REDEDICATE VEGAS TO REAL FUN FOR REAL PEOPLE.
The article went on to extol the virtues of the comfort food served in the hotel’s Roxy’s Diner: chicken fried steak smothered in gravy and butter pecan bread pudding for dessert. But ordering to go will cost you an extra dollar per entrée, and an 18 percent gratuity will be added to your bill if you elect the privilege of sitting down to eat. And strangely, the menu also includes Tomato Caprese Benedict with pesto hollandaise and Citrus Herb Roasted Chicken. For casino resort marketing executives, this must be known as having your cake and eating it too: sell the dream or sell the reality; like America, Las Vegas can be whatever you want it to be.
The smooth burn of El Cabrito in my throat was the only thing that felt good. I turned the AC on high and burrowed into the sheets. Tomorrow will come, I told myself. Couldn’t leave Las Vegas soon enough.
This Land is Your Land…
One of my favorite songs as a child was Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which is as much wonderfully patriotic and filled with American imagery, as it is subversive and ironic:
This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.
As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
A patriotic reaffirmation that this is your and our land, when in point of fact we pushed out the lawful residents, who occasionally summoned the temerity to resist our Manifest Destiny to their peril, resulting in the virtual extinction of a culture, genocide, and of those few who survived European diseases and American bullets, mass incarceration of native peoples to reservations awaited. But the ever-subversive Guthrie didn’t think private property rights should be respected either, an irony not lost on him, as before we came to rule the continent, land ownership by the Native Americans was a concept with no purchase in reality. When we didn’t take the land by force, we bought it with worthless trinkets and beads.
There could be no better family-sing-along song to be playing as we crossed from the hot inland desert of Nevada along a ribbon of highway called Interstate 395 into California between the Sierra Nevada on our left and the White Mountains to our right. A spectacular landscape where snow-patched (formerly snow-capped) peaks rising to over 14,000 feet can be seen, where the highest point in the contiguous US (Mt. Whitney) shares the same geography of the lowest point in the US (Death Valley), separated by barely 80 miles.
…This Land is Dry Land
One need not live in California to be aware of the drought; it’s big news, the worst in the state’s history. Forests are dying, once great reservoirs like lakes Shasta and Oroville and scores of others have been transmogrified into mud puddles. The water table is at an all-time low. Some form of water rationing is in effect in all communities. California has always experienced cycles of drought, as both recent human history and ancient geologic history tell us. The rains will come again, as they always do, but when? When they do come, how much damage will have been done? Well drillers seem to be the only ones who are busy making money digging ever deeper into the aquifer, racing the water table ever lower for desperate commercial customers trying to keep their heads, so to speak, above water.
We stayed overnight in the mountain resort town of Mammoth Lakes, California, high in the Sierra Nevada, and a prettier pine-forested town could hardly be imagined, rivaling perhaps only Flagstaff, Arizona. No observable evidence of drought, until you ask the locals. The patches of soon-to-be gone snow on the high peaks would normally be perineal (the glaciers having long disappeared, and the snow pack is the lowest it’s been in 500 years). Same story as we drove into one of America’s crown jewels of nature, Yosemite National Park, cresting Tioga Pass at almost 10,000 feet above sea level and descending to view, on yet another ribbon of highway, El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. Summertime afternoon thunderstorms bathe the High Sierra in refreshing moisture, but hardly enough to sustain an increasingly thirsty state.
It wasn’t until dropping into America’s breadbasket, or more accurately her fruit and vegetable basket ─ California’s great Central Valley ─ that the severity of the drought became apparent: fifty shades of grey grass rather than green lawns, water drilling trucks manned by tired sunburned men barreling down interstate highways and county roads, the airwaves filled with weather forecasts and news of water rationing quotas community-by-community, highway signs employing residents to conserve water, and people forever glancing up at cloudless skies and down at waterless reservoirs.
Despite California’s advanced water management practices, its complex levy systems, its network of hydroelectric dams providing both electricity and some form of control over water storage and conservation, Californians are like everyone else at the mercy of nature, and are not too-far distant from our ancestors, dancing and sacrificing and praying to the gods so that the rains may finally come.
We could of course follow the scientific studies and listen to people with PhD’s in climatology, who tell us that severe weather patterns and droughts are almost certainly due to global climate change caused by man-made CO2 emissions. But that conclusion is intensely unsatisfying. It would imply that we’ve done something wrong, and that dog just won’t hunt. We’re Americans, after all. It would require us to think very seriously about our economic models, as well as what potentially disruptive alternative energy sources could do to them, or enhance them. We generally don’t like change when it involves potentially impinging on our way of life: if it ‘aint broke, don’t fix it; even if it is broke, don’t fix it either. If what our parents did was good enough for them, it’s good enough for us, and our children.
By default then, many of our politicians have taken the two-steps-back approach to explaining California’s worst drought since records began to be kept. For example, it’s abortion, according to California Assemblywoman Shannon Grove. Yes, god is angry at California for the availability of family planning services, and therefore is punishing the state with drought. (Why drought and not locusts or frogs is somewhat unclear.)
Indigenous cultures in the Americas have always danced, prayed, sacrificed and genoflexed, trying to appease the gods when the rains didn’t come. We’re doing the same, although we should know better. We now have access to the scientific method and powerful meteorological models. Yet we ignore them in favor of simple answers to complex problems.
Over 50 years ago Eleanor Roosevelt said,
The American Dream can no more remain static than can the American nation….We cannot any longer take an old approach to world problems. They aren’t the same problems. It isn’t the same world. We must not adopt the methods of our ancestors; instead we must emulate that pioneer quality in our ancestors that made them attempt new methods for a new world.
I tend to over-quote Hegel, but I’m afraid I must succumb to doing so yet again: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
On a cloudless day in Marysville (where even the stoutest Valley Oaks seemed to wilt like delicate herbs in the afternoon heat) Steve Neal, a good friend of the family and professional water well driller for over four decades, gulping an iced tea on my mom’s porch, and coated with god knows how many geologic layers of sweat and dust, said, tiredly, “I’m supposed to be retired now, but there’s too much work. I hope it starts raining soon.” Perhaps it will. Or won’t.
Born on the Fourth of July
The most American of all American Holidays is arguably Independence Day. We (at least ostensibly) celebrate throwing off the shackles of British imperialism by choosing a different destiny, an American one. But this celebration seems, at best, quaint now. We’re too far removed from the historical events. Thanksgiving is a better American holiday, in my view, where we give thanks for our good fortune in the land of plenty, helped by natives who we later destroyed when they were no longer of any practical use, gorge ourselves into a stupor, fight with our crazy drunk uncles and half-sister whores, and shop on Black Friday until our feet are swollen enough to burst our shoes and the banks freeze our credit. Even so, there seems to be less and less to be thankful for.
We spent the 4th with my sister Kerri’s family in Yuba City, California. Barbeque, swimming pool, family, sun, and cheap, somewhat disappointing fireworks. Some good conversation loosened by beer and some even better gossip. A good time had by all, to be sure, but that was about it. It’s been so long since Independence, the passion is no longer there, the jubilation seems somehow forced, the concept of England as a former enemy, while historically accurate, now seems just, well, weird. So we’ve gradually, almost imperceptibly, supplanted Independence celebrations with celebrations of veterans’ sacrifices sprinkled with odd platitudes about “freedom” and “democracy” and “the global war on terror.” We’re impelled to celebrate victory, at sporting events, barbeques, church pot lucks, parks, and recreation areas, even when fewer and fewer can be found.
Perhaps one day our greatest celebration will be for a victory over victory.
The next day we drove up Interstate 5 and cut across Highway 299 toward coastal Highway 101 north, through the majestic Redwoods National Park, craning our necks at the Lady Bird Johnson Grove at the world’s tallest trees, shrouded in perpetual mist, a grey twilight, the grand giants straining upwards for thousands of years as if to escape the fog that sustains them, before falling from their own weight. Having come from the scorching Central Valley, we shivered without sweaters, yet comfortable in the knowledge that the cold wouldn’t last, as we would again be moving on to warmer climes, completing the loop back into the Valley towards Disneyland and again into the furnace of the Southwest, before gliding onto Mexico’s northern high desert plateau like a paper airplane gentling landing in the sand.
And we came, finally, to my father’s and stepmother’s home in Brookings, Oregon. I hadn’t seen my dad in more than 12 years. As a Marine Corps veteran, he was proud of my own Army service. He had saved my old dress greens and BDUs, as well as lots of old photographs. He was gracious, funny, getting a little long in the tooth, and amiably forgiving of my too-long absence. He retold old stories to raucous laughter. He was also, along with most of my family and their friends, a religious and political conservative along the lines of a Limbaugh-Falwell hybrid. God, guns and unapologetic conservative principles. I braced.
California is, contrary to popular belief, not an entirely liberal state. It is two states, but difficult to define contiguously as such. The great population centers of the Los Angeles basin and the San Francisco Bay area are liberal enclaves, and because they are also the major population centers, they make California a decidedly Blue state, putting her comfortably within the Democrat bank when it comes to electoral college votes in presidential elections, explaining why Republican presidential candidates hardly bother wasting campaign funds getting out the vote here (though fundraising is ubiquitous).
People living in the rest of the state ─ the rural communities far removed from San Francisco sophisticates and Hollywood liberals, in towns like Redding (my birthplace), Arcata, Mt. Shasta, Bakersfield, Modesto, Weed (yes this is really a town), and Sacramento, among many others ─ are as politically and religiously conservative as the Midwest and the Bible Belt. The government is the enemy, which must be guarded against and never trusted. Mexican immigrants are taking over the country, the younger generations are lazy, Obama is a secret Muslim who wants to turn America into a Third World backwater (for reasons, once again, never entirely much less convincingly defined). A patchwork quilt of ideas rooted in epochs past, an entrancing vestige of a comforting egalitarian pioneer spirit, in which the answers are always easy. Back in the 19th Century it was the Chinese railway and laundry workers poisoning us with opium, or communists. Now its illegal immigrants, pot smokers, queers, abortionists and tweakers are to blame for America’s endemic decline. The answer is, for the CCC (my acronym not for the California Conservation Corps but rather Country California Conservatives) not surprisingly, Donald Trump, who is at the time of this writing, leading in all major polls amongst his GOP brethren, with his ostensible scorched-earth strategy of making the easy sell to undereducated rednecks, peddling fatuous sloganeering as plain spoken wisdom. His conservative brethren sell us on solutions to problems that exist only in our minds: global climate change is bullshit, the wealthy among us are job creators and shouldn’t be taxed, any kind of gun control will result in a totalitarian world dictatorship, quite possibly organized and run by the United Nations, and of course (piggybacking on the GOP’s senior polemicist Ann Coulter) illegal immigrants are both figuratively and literally raping us to death.
I grew up among these general ideas, discarded them for the stupidity they represent, but somehow half-convinced myself that things must have changed over the last decade, that the uneasy progressive truths would bubble up to the surface over time. If they have, they’ve been skimmed off as impurities in a chef’s stock of politically pure ideology and relegated to the kitchen sink drain. It was yet another culture shock to discover that the convincing beliefs in failed ideologies and irreconcilable philosophical contradictions were very much alive and well.
During a family lunch these ideas were being spouted about without shame, without critical analysis, and heads were nodding in universal agreement. I listened politely, realizing that a counter-argument would have been useless. When the discussion came to the deindustrialization of America and the shipping of jobs overseas, I saw a possible inroad, a basis for potential agreement, and so I readily and enthusiastically agreed that NAFTA was a bad idea, and we needed to raise the minimum wage, mentioning some of the ideas championed by Bernie Sanders, Paul Krugman and Robert Reich, among others (like Ross Perot), a fact apparently lost on my almost-captive audience.
An uncomfortable silence ensued. Some eyes rolled (Sanders is a socialist after all, and Nobel laureates like Krugman are most definitely not to be trusted, just ask Bill O’Reilly). Then the subject bounced around to religion, which is where I took my leave to go to the bathroom and then outside to smoke, where my stepmother cornered me and told me that she loved me but wanted to punch me in the face.
When I returned there was blackberry cobbler and homemade ice cream. And the conversation had turned to cars. I was safe, and was even able to contribute some witticisms such as “there’s no replacement for displacement” to universal approval, but it somehow rang hollow coming from a professor with soft hands and clean fingernails.
In conservative rural California counties, like much of the rest of the country, anecdotal evidence is much more than enough to support one’s conservative views – it’s the only thing listened to. An illegal immigrant who committed a crime equals all immigrants are criminals. The feds financially supported an energy company that went bankrupt equals the government can do nothing right. The list could go on and on. In this other California, like much of the rest of the nation, superstition supplants science, anecdotes spouted by Trump trump real analysis, public policy based on empirical evidence rather than political ideology is anathema. Trump’s autohagiography The Art of the Deal sits on mantels next to family bibles (a slight exaggeration I admit).
One lesson I learned on this road trip from the friendly park ranger was to try to show more, and tell less. Confirmation bias among conservatives is Hercules-strong, and empirical evidence is deeply suspect. I imagine my parents are still scratching their heads that my Mexican wife is not a maid, but rather a world traveler with a Master’s degree and fluent three languages.
The Long and Winding Road
After an awkward breakfast at a local café in Brookings, Oregon (the Eggs Benedict were surprisingly good) we took our leave to stay one more night with my mom in Marysville, California. It was no small miracle that I got my only speeding ticket on the trip from a California Highway Patrolman on State Route 295. He, a monolingual mestizo with the family name of Santos, was somewhat confused by our Mexican license plates and proof of US insurance purchased from BBVA Bancomer weeks before, and seemed apologetic as he wrote me the ticket, fumfering about with stupid questions: “Do you know why I stopped you?” (Of course I know why you stopped me ─ I was driving too fucking fast!)
Mom cried when we left, making me feel like the shit that I surely am.
We headed down California’s interminably boring Interstate 5 with a significant, and necessary (to quash the suicidal ideations), detour into Big Sur: breathless cliffs rising high above the Pacific, hugged by two-lane Highway 1, winding its way in hairpin turns and switchbacks for 90 miles before descending into the rolling hills of San Simeon, with Hearst Castle conspicuously perched above. Was the detour worth it, putting us into Anaheim at midnight after 13 hours on the road? Yes, if only to marvel at the ambition, dedication and ingenuity of the engineers and laborers who carved that road into the mountains and built bridges spanning impossible precipices, dedicating 18 years to the endeavor. Which leaves me wondering: In today’s day and age, would we have the strength, the will, to do it again, to take on a seemingly impossible and dangerous task for nothing other than a view into the wonderment of what is the California coast? Or would we only take the safer, less expensive, and easier eastern route (Highway 101) around the Coast Range, sacrificing beauty for utility?
A Tragic Kingdom
The very last stop on our epic road trip before heading home was the Magic Kingdom, Disneyland. I dreaded it. I am decidedly not what one might call a “Disneyland dad.” I would take a seedy bar to commercialized fantasy any day. But kids don’t seem to like seedy bars much. And it is, after all, about the kids. They squirmed uncomfortably in the heat while waiting in line for up to an hour and a half for a two-minute ride, and seemed to rightfully mind. They marveled at the classic “It’s a Small World” (after all) ride, but didn’t seem to notice the molding, clumsy papier-mâché animatronic dolls, the dusty floors strewn with extension cables and cobwebs. I, on the other hand, couldn’t help but notice. Along with peeks from the aging Monorail of maids emptying trash cans, the paint-pealing rooftops crammed with the detritus of air conditioning technicians, hidden alleys with workers smoking cigarettes and delivery drivers waiting for invoices – glimpses of real life in the midst of America’s greatest daydream, fleeting, but not hard to find if you look.
We drink our illusions straight in America. No fancy umbrellas, no mixing, no diluting, no chasers, just the hard stuff. The exits from the rides often lead into restaurants where you can and often do buy a dry $12 chicken sandwich which comes with a teaspoon of coleslaw and thimble full of baked beans (or more accurately baked bean), or a gift shop where kids, adolescents, recently formed adults whose memories of pimples and crushes are still a little too close, or the elderly without the strength to resist or too feeble of mind to even want to, purchase and wear felt Mickey Mouse ears and $20 Disneyland T-shirts. But grown men and women? Oh, the humanity. Perhaps they’re reliving their childhoods, looking again to the past for comfort, blind to the idea that memories and scrapbooks are free, and that the answers to our troubles lie ahead, not behind.
Disneyland is Plato’s famous allegory The Cave writ large, more than the suspension of disbelief. It is the belief that this fantasy, one that we created, is more real than the reality we could experience outside of the cave, and not only that, it is more real than what scientists and scholars tell us is even an effortless step further toward the truth. But few seem especially interested.
Disneyland looked to me like it was in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint, undoubtedly too busy collecting those hundred dollar day passes from millions of visitors to reinvent itself. Perhaps a theme park or a country can only be reinvented so many times before it must be scrapped altogether and a new foundation laid.
With 9 hours under our collective belts, sore feet, and stomachs aching from tasteless churros and stale popcorn, we skipped the parade and fireworks. We went to yet another Wal-Mart (indistinguishable from the one in Globe) to purchase our fix of crusty baguette, Parma ham and caffeinated drinks for our 12 hour drive from Anaheim to El Paso starting in the early morning.
Back through the Desert on a Horse with no Name
I, for one, could hardly wait to get back home, back to work teaching, back to work writing, back to our modest life, my comfortable routine. Margarita and the kids, too, were tired of sitting for endless ours in the car listening to music they didn’t like much, punctuated by only by a few hours of activity outside the shell of sheet metal and rubber. Which meant on this day, Friday July 10, 2015, I got to call the shots, got to be a patriarchal dictator ─ driving straight through, stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks, which, according to my rules, could only coincide with refueling stops, requiring some discipline of the bladder. (It reminded somewhat of the single purposefulness of driving in convoy through East Germany to get to West Berlin when I was a young soldier, unable to stop, pissing into coffee cans half-filled with gravel to keep sloshing to a minimum.)
Alas, it was not to be. A scheduled stop at a gas station and rest area along Interstate 10 in New Mexico was closed. Samantha shat her pants. The music ran out, leaving us with boorish religious talk radio or country music. Couldn’t even pick up NPR, the stolid, featureless voices at least saying sensible things. So no radio. Only fatigue, the kind that scares you when you nod-off at 90 miles an hour into an intense wakedness that lasts only a few minutes until nodding-off again. A version of hell, and not a bad one if god had torture in mind.
But when the 16-ounce Red Bull finally kicked in there was ample time to reflect on the trip.
So let me give praise where praise is immediately and legitimately due. America’s national parks and monuments, and many of her state parks, are the most spectacular in the world. The interstate highway system, too, is the most easily-drivable and well-marked on the planet, with ample shoulders and clean, often scenic, rest areas. (What could they be with proper national infrastructure funding? Surely the Utopia of roads, the Mother of all Roads, a man-made wonder to rival all others.)
The other non-utilitarian man-made stuff is not so great from my perspective: from grungy Hollywood Boulevard to the insufferably over-commercialized theme parks, to the growingly ubiquitous Indian casinos. Nature has done a much better job at inspiring awe in us humans and providing real recreation, real solace, and real opportunities for useful contemplation of our human condition.
I’m decidedly not an absolutist, or a conspiracy theorist, or a claimer of access to revealed truth, but I will go out on a limb and claim at least one thing absolutely: if our national parks are ever privatized, making them accessible to only the privileged few, we need to fold our hand, cash in our chips if we still have any, and relegate ourselves to living in the dystopia we willingly, if not enthusiastically, created.
Much is exceptional in America, but surely not everything, perhaps even, to don my cynic’s cap, not most things. We are in, as a point of fact, an unquestionable decline. Once the envy of the world on almost every front, we now rank 70th in health, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation, 31st in personal safety, and a surprising 24th in internet availability. University graduates are crippled with debt. We’re 1st place in per capita incarceration rates, belief in angels, and adult onset diabetes. The middle class is dissolving like precariat bathtub scum sprayed with oligarchic bleach, and our political process more closely resembles a plutocracy rather than a representative democracy. Wall Street bonuses for a few thousand employees last year amounted to twice the amount of the earnings of all minimum wage workers in America combined. All of which calls for the obvious (I hope) question: Are the finance-degreed so much more valuable to American than the working class? The road builders, the bridge builders, the day laborers keeping our pantries stocked with processed grains and or refrigerators full of fresh fruit and vegetables so much less important that we cannot even provide them with a living wage, a minimally dignified life?
To ebb this decline (reversing it seems so unlikely as to be a pipe dream), what must be done? I don’t know, other than to posit that a paradigm shift of political ideology, indeed, away from ideology, towards pragmatic evidence-based non-dogmatic solutions is the only hope. But that seems unlikely as well. Our public policy is almost wholly ideologically based, rather than what it needs to be based on ─ the fact-based social sciences.
The high tides of the 1950s and 1960s, touching virtually every shore on Earth with American industrialism, idealism and spirit, has been so slowly receding that it is almost unnoticeable. The seabed being reclaimed inch-by-inch stretches further and further with fast food franchises and strip malls, engulfing entire cultures with Hollywood movies and dreams of senseless wealth and fame in lieu of lives well-lived.
America is like the proverbial frog slowly heated in a pot of water, dead before realizing it’s getting uncomfortably warm because too many of us, to evoke that prescient Pink Floyd lyric, have become comfortably numb.
Eyes on the Prize
Perhaps luckily, my wife and children don’t have direct access into my darkest thoughts and musings. We were on, after all, a family vacation. I tried – with varying degrees of success – cheerfulness and excitement, and wrote in the wee hours of the mornings mostly in dimly-lit hotel bathrooms.
But my eyes, after 12 days of relentless travel only occasionally punctuated with rest, were on the prize – Chihuahua via El Paso, Texas. And we made it. With enough time to do some clothes shopping in that iconic West Texas city before collapsing into stinky beds at the Motel 6 at 10 pm (yes the light was left on for us) after a nightcap of warm box wine drunk from paper cups.
With the music on MP3s and CDs gone, used up, listened to too much, we drove in silence toward the port of entry into Mexico at Santa Teresa, New Mexico. I remembered I had some music stored on my computer, but could only find Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which turned out to be a fitting, and haunting, farewell to the US for our last 12 miles to the border. We listened to it twice.
It was still playing as we rolled into the checkpoint on the U.S. side, met by a gaggle of a half-dozen Border Patrol agents wearing ridiculous olive drab uniforms (it seems that the DHS can’t quite decide whether or not the Border Control should look like clerks with guns or elite desert soldiers) not-so-enthusiastically scanning the incoming traffic for possible arms or cash smugglers. Checkpoint Charlie it was not. (Disappointingly, I was in no need of any Treasury Department forms for transporting more than ten thousand dollars in cash as I had hoped.)
My wife handed in her travel permit and the agent asked us where we’d been. I began responding with the litany of destinations, but he cut me off at Las Vegas, and diffidently said, “go ahead” with an expressionless face and a half-hearted sweep of his hand pivoting on a wrist that had undoubtedly made the same gesture a million times. Apparently not happy to be working on a Saturday, in a job that promised excitement but produced only boredom. No drug busts, and few export violations. Just Mexicans returning home from vacations or shopping trips, and brave American tourists ignoring the usual State Department travel warnings.
We got unlucky with a red light at customs on the Mexico side. The random inspection mostly consisted of jovial chitchat and a cursory look at our luggage, which was never opened. Some interest in my military uniform laying on top of it all, more small talk and some double-entendre jokes so famous in Mexico. Smiles. A fat female Mexican border control agent eating a taco, not to be bothered immediately to help with the inspection. I had my receipts readily in-hand from Ross and Marshalls in case there was a question of us importing goods for resale in Mexico, but they weren’t needed. More smiles and a “Bienvenidos,” and we were on our way.
As we drove down the highway we listened to Mexican radio – Rancheras and an occasional ballad by Lila Downs. But we didn’t glide into the desert like a paper plane as I had imagined. The highway was horrible – not as I had remembered it going norther only two weeks earlier. I kept asking my wife, “Are you sure we’re on the toll highway?” Doing 95 MPH on a U.S. interstate highway in a new SUV was a breathless exercise in smooth, but on a Mexican highway a bone-rattling back-breaking insight into slow torture. In only two weeks I had grown accustomed to glass-like asphalt, wide shoulders and rest stops with running potable water and scenic views. How quickly we adapt. And forget.
But we were home, and it felt good.
While we were away the summer rains had begun, and the desert bloomed, turning green, looking more like Scotland than Mexico. The sky was a hard blue porcelain veneer and the air felt like brushed cotton.
We were back in a land of hope, where there has never been a significant middle class, where inflation is at an all-time low and GDP growth is expected to break records in 2016 and beyond, due in large measure to U.S., European and even Asian factories taking up shop, and despite the crippling effect of low oil prices.
Compared to most of the US, Mexico is gritty, for lack of a better word. It is a land, too, of endemic problems, too many to name unless in a book-length work. And yet it is also a land of smiles, and an enduring, endearing, culture. Access to the middle class in Mexico is seen more as an aberration rather than a right. Expectations formed over 500 years of virtual chaos are low, so when a windfall of jobs come from direct foreign investment, one might rightfully expect an uptick in spirit.
The security guard in our gated neighborhood greeted us as old friends.
Neighbors’ kids came to play and see what we brought back from Gringolandia.
I discovered that my tomatoes and zucchini had not only survived, but thrived in the summer rains.
America is more than a country, it is a civilization, and my fears about its fall were confirmed, my nightmares of Los Angeles becoming a post-apocalyptic hell like Belize City or Detroit made more vivid, my opinion that we are only a half-step from realizing The Hunger Games writ large, sadly unchanged.
Our house was dusty, as expected. But it was good to be home. Very good.
We’re slaves to the pairing of two simple words: common (something shared by all) and sense (rationality). Common sense, once our only friend, has become our worst enemy. We need to defriend it, to scuttle it, to relegate is to the ages past.
The most frequent phrase uttered by my conservative friends when arguing about law and public policy is, “It’s just common sense!” E.g., imprisoning drug dealers and addicts will reduce drug use and abuse, sealing our borders will keep out undesirables who take our jobs and commit violent crimes against us, releasing the shackles of tax and regulation will allow our job creators to create more jobs, and not coddling sexual deviants like homosexuals with equal rights will promote healthy traditional lifestyles.
True, Thomas Paine ─ who Glenn Beck and other Republicans have oddly idolized to the point of beatification ─ used common sense to great effect in his famous pamphlet by the same name.
Paine argued that, among other things, there was little reason for an island to rule a continent, the distance between America and Britain made governance difficult, and that Britain ruled America in the interests of Britain without considering the best interests of the colonists. Written in plain language. And solidly based on common sense.
A beautiful pamphlet. Simple. Elegant. And correct.
When Paine wrote Common Sense almost two and a half centuries ago, science was a novelty, Benjamin Franklin had had only just discovered that lightning was electricity, the extinction of species was but a hypothesis, the basis for modern chemistry was still a decade away, and the germ theory of disease wasn’t even on the radar. Indeed, for most of human existence, the only two pillars upon which civilizations could be supported were common sense and religious dogma. Often they complemented one another.
Our political systems, too, were crude. Slavery was ubiquitous, as were religious inquisitions. Political corruption rife. Women were treated mostly as property without full suffrage. The list of the failures of good governance were long and ghoulish, and Paine railed against some of them, speaking truth to power.
The central problem we face today is this: while science has progressed remarkably, our political institutions have remained largely stuck three centuries in the past.
Why Epistemology Pisses-Off Republicans
Common sense, to perhaps state the obvious, is necessary to our survival. Looking both ways before crossing the street. Not driving motor vehicles if under the influence of alcohol. Refraining from sex with intemperate women (or men). Avoiding contact with lions. Not defecating where you eat. Among millions of other things. Through evolution by natural selection, we are biologically disposed to have it (some more than others, as “fail” videos on YouTube amply demonstrate); it keeps us alive so that we can reproduce and spread our genetic heritage.
But common sense rationality also often fools us. We think, for example that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. We are, after all, the center of the universe. At least that’s what humanity believed for the vast majority of its existence. But now we know better (thank you Copernicus). The sun does not rise or set. We live on a planet rotating on its axis and revolving around a rather ordinary star, and the appearance of a rising and setting sun is merely a spatial illusion; we’re rotating on our axis at 1,037 miles per hour through space travelling through the cosmos with our solar system and galaxy at a rate of 2.7 million miles per hour. We cannot feel this of course, because we have evolved to sense only the force of our planet’s gravity, the impingement of other movement on our senses would not serve any useful purpose for our survival. Common sense deceives us. It is only through science, which gives no credit or importance to common sense, that we now understand that when compared to the cosmos, we are at best a bacterium, a micro-fauna, on a speck of dust on the leaf of a tree on an entirely forested continent.
The video below of a small corner of our closest galactic neighbor Andromeda puts things into perspective.
David Hume said some two hundred years ago that we know nothing. What we pass off as knowledge is the product of custom, habit, and the application of common sense which is almost bound to be wrong; even in science we cannot observe causation, the best we can do is falsify theories, never prove them. Kant, Schopenhauer, and later Karl Popper seized upon these ideas, creating an impressive body of philosophical work. (Some people still can’t get their heads around Kant’s famous premise that objects conform to our knowledge of them.)
We’re limited by our biology; there are some things which may be forever unknowable to us (what Kant called the noumenal) because of our very limited apparatus of apprehension. Without getting too deep into the weeds of epistemology, the central idea can be summarized by way of a simple analogy. A beetle may get to “know” Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness as a comfortable place to build a nest or eat its pages, but will never understand it as a brilliant literary work. We humans are no different. There are some things we know, some things we don’t but perhaps will someday, and some things, like the beetle, are forever out of our grasp.
As I’ve said before, paraphrasing a long-out-of-print college history textbook:
If we reduce the age of the earth to our own familiar 24-hour day, the time that elapsed prior to the appearance of humans is 23 hours and 58 minutes. And of the two remaining minutes, which represents the time of humans on earth, the period of civilization is less than the last ½ second. Given this time scale, it should be no surprise that we know almost nothing; certainly what we don’t know vastly dwarfs what knowledge we have sown from science so far in our still brief awakening to sentient existence.
It seems that we have willingly imprisoned ourselves in Plato’s Cave, refusing to believe the reality presented to us through science. We tend toward finding comfort in the solace that is ignorance, in stolid platitudes and silly slogans posted on social media by the millions a day.
Thinking is hard work.
If this were not bad enough, we are wired to be seekers of patterns and causal connections, no doubt contributing to our survival, but this has a down side, too. When we don’t know something, we are inclined to invent knowledge, mistaking ignorance for truth. Our brains interpret the lack of knowledge as pain, and understanding with pleasure, whether that understanding is based on verifiable data or not. A troubling observation, to be sure.
In a purely intellectual sense, these problems of perception, epistemology, psychology and evolutionary biology fascinate me, but they are also key to the most basic problems of human existence on this planet: How are we to govern ourselves? How are we to create free, just, and equitable societies?
The answer for America has been a representative democracy, but this doesn’t seem to be working nearly as well as it seemed to a half century ago.
Good manufacturing jobs are gone. The middle class seems to be slowly becoming extinct while the wealthiest are living lives of opulence never seen before in human history. Our prisons are splitting at the seams. Racial tensions and police brutality seem to be where they were during the Civil Rights Movement. Otherwise intelligent people believe that the result of sin is bad weather. We are more politically polarized than ever. We seem to be perpetually taking one step forward and two steps back. At this rate, our children will be doomed to live “nasty, brutish and short” lives to quote Hobbes. We seem to be but barely a generation away from The Hunger Games writ large.
In order to understand where we’re going and how we got to where we are, we must first understand what we are.
I Am Primate, Hear Me Roar
Bryan Magee in his book Confessions of a Philosopher made a particularly salient observation. He said that asking, “What is the meaning of life?” is a stupid question (as I recall he didn’t use the word “stupid”). This is because if one pursues this question without first ascertaining if there can there be such a thing as a meaning to life, and equally important, if we have a reliable mechanism ascertaining what it might be, one is likely to waste quite of lot of time, perhaps a lifetime, pursuing a question without a proper foundation, leading to infinite false starts, wrong turns, and poetic, perhaps even soothing, casuistry, with no real knowledge to be gained.
So too, we must first ask ourselves a foundational question before moving on to the subject of what is good as opposed to bad public policy. That question is: What are we? For example, if we were created in the image of god, and the Abrahamic traditions are the divine revealed truth of our creator, then the policies of ISIS would be the only way to go. (For reasons I think I need not elaborate on, I do not think this is true.)
Once we have answered the question of what we are (a much easier question that whether or not there can be such a things a meaning to life), we can tackle the next question: What is the best form of government to achieve maximum freedom, economic prosperity, and justice for all?
With disrespect to creationists, we are highly evolved primates. We are the products of evolution by natural selection. Our propensity for violence, for tribalism, for irrational cognitive biases, among many other things, are deeply ingrained in us, and it takes an educated and conscious effort to recognize and combat them. We are predisposed to seek out, interpret, and focus on information in a way the confirms our own preconceptions, and arguments against our closely held beliefs only tends to make them stronger, such as our beliefs in particular religious dogmas or political ideologies. (This particular propensity is known as “confirmation bias” ─ but there are hundreds of others well known in psychology.)
We are highly irrational animals, perfectly evolved for living on the African savannah, but not so much for living in modern, complex, crowded and technologically-driven societies. This is a problem. The answer, in part, is education, especially within the sciences.
The lack of the application of science to law and public policy explains, largely, why conservatism and its ugly younger brother, libertarianism, are failed ideologies.
Let’s take a brief look are four areas of public policy and why they’re abject failures: the war on drugs, immigration, the free market economic model, and gay rights. (There are, of course, many more, but including them all would necessarily require a book-length work.)
U.S. Drug Policy ─ Bad Policy Makes for Good Politics
As has often been said ─ and correctly so ─ the War on Drugs has never been about drugs. It’s always been about social control and xenophobia. The first marijuana prohibitions were targeted against Mexican and Sikh immigrants. Opium prohibition targeted Chinese immigrants. Cocaine prohibition targeted the black community. Nixon’s War on Drugs targeted the liberal hippie counter culture. Why? Because we have evolved to be tribal.
A hundred thousand years ago, there was a survival advantage to be tribal: to keep within your small group, to be suspicious of other groups who might be competing for the same scarce resources, to the point of war. There is a limit to the number of people we can we can “know”; in other words, with whom we can maintain stable social relationships. That number is thought to be around 150 (Dunbar’s number): the size of a large tribe. After that, we have to rely on stereotypes or generalizations to assess the threat from other groups. This goes a long way in explaining the roots of racism, and how U.S. War on Drugs began, but less as to why we’re still fighting it.
The War on Drugs has been an abysmal failure. We have spent over a trillion dollars on it since 1970. And the results have been in for some time. We have the highest prison population of any country in the world, incarcerating the low hanging fruit of the poor and minorities, the most disenfranchised in society for low-level non-violent drug related crimes despite the fact that their drug use is the same as the white middle class and rich. The rate of drug use and abuse is essentially the same as it was in 1970. What’s more, studies confirm that illegal drug use is far less harmful both in terms of public health and socioeconomic wellbeing than alcohol, tobacco, or prescription drugs. Fighting senseless wars may be in our nature, as recent history suggests, but this war we’re fighting is against ourselves.
One reason we’re still fighting it is because making drugs illegal, as the conservative argument goes, and jailing those that use them, will reduce drug use, leading to a more productive, sober, and less violent society. It’s common sense, after all. It’s also wrong. Completely backwards. Jurisdictions that have decriminalized drug use have enjoyed the outcome of fewer drug users, increased drug rehabilitation rates, reduced rates of HIV/AIDS, and a diminution violent crime. The U.S., the other hand, not only has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, but also has the highest illegal drug use rates in the world, despite having some of the strictest drug laws.
The reason we’re still fighting this fatuous war largely comes down to what I previously described in an academic paper an intricately interconnected and “immensely powerful trifecta”: counterintuitiveness, propaganda, and money.
Making drugs illegal makes them more available, not less so. This is contrary to common sense, but easy to explain. It is easier for a minor to purchase marijuana, cocaine, or any other illegal drug, than a beer or a pack of cigarettes (street dealers don’t generally ask for a photo ID before purchase). Alcohol and tobacco, on the other hand, are regulated and controlled. There is no black market trade in Budweiser or Marlboros.
We have for so long been fed the line on the evils of drug use that it has become a part of our collective mental furniture. We have created huge agencies giving drug enforcers and prison guards (and the communities that support them) well-paying jobs, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars annually. How do you dismantle this monstrosity? If you’re a politician from a conservative district, you don’t even suggest doing so. As for the proposition that illegal drug use propagates violence, Harry Brown’s (Libertarian) response is the most salient:
There are no violent gangs fighting over aspirin territories, There are no violent gangs fighting over whisky territories or computer territories or anything else that’ legal. There are only criminal gangs fighting over territories covering drugs, gambling, prostitution, and other victimless crimes. Making a non-violent activity a crime creates a black market, which attracts criminal and gangs, which turns what was once a relatively harmless activity affecting a small group of people into a widespread epidemic of drug use and gang warfare.
Even a blind Libertarian bird sometimes catch a worm. The simplest, most pragmatic and effective thing to do would be to scrap all federal drug laws and let states decides their own drug policy; most state drug laws are duplicative of federal laws anyway. I don’t see Democrats having any real objection, and Republicans and Libertarians would be hard-pressed to pose intellectually honest and philosophically consistent objections, since the popular mantra among them is a smaller federal government and more states’ rights.
Of course, for the reasons stated above, this won’t happen.
The Great Unwashed
Immigration policy in the U.S. is another area everyone should consider a “fail.” According to Ann Coulter in Adios, America, our problems are mostly a result of immigration, legal or not. We’re apparently being overrun by stealing, raping maids and gardeners and migrant workers from Mexico with funny accents. Again, tribalism raises its ugly head. We’re most comfortable wearing the false raiment of victimhood, rather than admitting that our problems are generated from within, not from without.
The fact is that the Obama administration has deported more illegals than any administration before him, despite the fact that illegal immigration from Latin America is at net zero. As The Economist recently reported, immigration from Asia now outpaces immigration from the Americas. Yet Conservative automatons surround buses filled with child immigrants from Central America, shouting, “Impeach Obama,” decrying a law set in motion by George W. Bush. Obama is often portrayed as the “Smuggler in Chief” by the Right and “Deporter in Chief” by the Left.
There are some 11 million undocumented workers calling America home. We could, conceivably, deport them all, to devastating effect to our economy and socioeconomic wellbeing. Or we could be pragmatic and pass laws such as the proposed and long-defunct Dream Act, allowing for permanent resident status to illegals who pay fines and back-taxes, attend universities, serve in the military, and who prove good moral character. But this has been successfully labeled as “amnesty” by the GOP, a party that apparently does not have access to dictionaries. (I am wholly at a loss to explain how paying fines, undergoing criminal background checks, and paying back-taxes could be considered amnesty under any stretch of the definition.)
When one looks at the peer-reviewed academic studies and census data, illegal immigration is a net benefit to our economy. Which is one of the reasons why the GOP has no interest in sensible immigration reform. It is a classic case of having your cake and eating it too. The corporate and agricultural lobby like the status quo ─ the dystopians who often work for below minimum wage, don’t unionize, and don’t complain too much for fear of deportation. At the same time, GOP politicians can rail against illegal immigration to good political effect. The success of Coulter’s book is evidence of this love-fest of xenophobia. If you’d like to buy a copy, I suggest you buy a new one, though; if it’s used it’s likely to be flecked with the enthusiastic spittle of neocons.
The facts, stripped of the glitter of conservative rhetoric, suggest that illegal immigrants are no more predisposed to criminal activity than the average citizen, are less likely to report crimes committed against them, and take fewer public benefits than citizens or permanent residents. Somewhat surprisingly, the conservative think tank American Action Forum has admitted that immigrants, legal or illegal, are a net benefit to the US economy, and increasing immigration would reduce the federal deficit.
Yet a recent Pew poll indicates that 73 percent of “steadfast conservatives” believe that immigrants are a burden to our county. Why? Because, once again, we are tribal and immigrants are different, misperceived as a threat. Also, we are naturally predisposed, whether as individuals or societies, to attribute the cause of our own problems to outside forces (the self-serving cognitive bias). The GOP (whether knowingly or unknowingly) has seized upon these proclivities, explaining why anti-immigration propaganda makes for such good politics.
What we need, of course, is a sensible and pragmatic immigration system including a guest worker program. But this, too, seems entirely unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Laissez Faire, Laisser Passer
Free market capitalism is another sacred cow of American public policy on the right, and one which served us well for about three decades, but which has now proven to be a failure. The middle class is wilting on the once-succulent vine of manufacturing hegemony. Ross Perot, as batshit-crazy as he was, was right about the great “sucking sound” of well-paid manufacturing jobs going to Mexico as a result of NAFTA. (Wall Street neoliberals must share the blame here, too.) Jobs continue to be shipped overseas. Corporate profits are at all-time highs while wages are at their lowest in 65 years. Income and wealth inequality continue to accelerate. At this rate, the Middle Class is soon to become as rare as the Kihansi Spray Toad. Meanwhile, in Mexico the economy is booming, the middle class is growing, and inflation is at an historic low, due in large measure to direct foreign investment, despite endemic corruption, a violent drug war, and falling oil prices.
The problem, once again, comes down to common sense. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is all about common sense. It was the mantra of Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate economist and darling of the Reagan and Bush (the Younger, or Dumber) administrations. It is a simple economic theory. It is elegant. Even beautiful. It is also garbage. It’s based on the proposition that businesses that don’t serve the consumer, that aren’t competitive, that don’t offer the consumer the best service or product at the best price will fail in the free market of competition, as will the stakeholders. “Good” businesses will prosper, and all participants in the economy benefit. Regulation is not only not needed, but counterproductive, because the profit motive will ensure that businesses producing the safest, cheapest, quality products or services will prevail in the free market over others that don’t. Problem is, it doesn’t work. It depends on completely rational behavior by interested parties, namely the businesses themselves, but also Wall Street investors, traders and bankers. It ignores the warts of the human condition: greed, ambition, selfishness, and the cognitive bias known as the gambler’s fallacy or “representativeness bias.” Wall Street has operated for too long as a casino, largely behind every depression, every financial crisis, every crash, every recession in the nation’s financial history.
It gets worse. Despite its sketchy (at best) history, free market capitalism, with low (or no) taxation for corporations and the rich, has become a religion within the GOP, an untouchable dogma. And it sells. It is, after all, common sense that corporations and wealthy individuals are “job creators” who should be left alone. But common sense fails yet again. Corporations and the wealthy are in point of fact “value to the shareholder creators at all costs” (not nearly as catchy, but far more accurate). And that often means reducing costs by moving operations overseas, lobbying for the maintenance of public benefits for the working poor so companies can continue to pay below-living wages, or if you’re a for profit private prison, lobbying against immigration reform because incarcerating illegals is good business, or maintaining coffers for now-virtually-unlimited campaign contributions allowing for “access and ingratiation” (read, political corruption) in order to obtain lower corporate taxes or special loopholes and subsidies, and laying off full-time workers is favor of cheaper crowdsourcing alternatives, among other things.
Naturally, conservatives can’t admit that this free market corporatist system also produces 1 in every 25 households living on less than $2 a day. Therefore, there must be something wrong with the poor. They must be lazy, living too comfortably on public assistance, claiming that it is a disincentive to hard work, to pulling oneself up by one’s mythical bootstraps. If being poor weren’t enough of a stigma, there’s been a movement among conservative politicians (also on the public dole) to further stigmatize the poor by publishing their names, limiting the amount of money they can withdraw from ATMs daily, and proposing that they be excluded from eating certain foods. After all, their own irresponsibility is the result of their poverty. We must save them from themselves. Or so the narrative goes. Which is, of course, bullshit. Municipalities finance themselves on the backs of the least able to pay, keeping them in the dystopian place where they belong. We are waging (and have been for some time) yet another war, this time on the underclass, the American Valmiki caste.
But times are changing. Despite snubbing by the media, Bernie Sanders (I-NH) is getting big-time traction. People are waking up, beginning to question a once unquestionable dogma. Senator Sanders probably can’t win of course, because he makes too much sense and has too little money. But he can change the debate; in fact, he already has.
God Hates Fags, and Ham Too (Or Why Being A Gay Pig is the Worst of Al Possible Existences)
Discrimination against gays is almost wholly driven by religion, despite the fact that god’s displeasure at homosexuality is only mentioned specifically two times in the Bible. God seems to be more concerned about not eating ham or shellfish, which peoples should be enslaved, which virgins should be taken, what pagans and apostates should be killed, which women are to be considered chattel (all), that disobedient children should be stoned to death, and how to properly sacrifice animals in a manner that pleases him, among many other things particularly useful to us humans.
(It seems the religious right has somehow gotten their priorities out of order.)
Be that as it may, the idea that homosexuality is an immoral choice is tantamount to left- handedness being an immoral choice. The arguments are often silly: for example, homosexuality is immoral because gays can’t procreate (“it was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”). But of course the religious don’t stop there. A senior cleric in Iran recently preached that immodest women cause earthquakes. Apparently Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal thinks homosexuality caused Hurricane Katrina. An assemblywoman in California is certain that the horrible drought there is causally linked to abortion. Sadly, these perfidious views are not from backwoods home-schooled (if schooled at all) hillbillies, they are coming from the mouths, keyboards, pens and pulpits of are our educated clergy and public leaders.
It should be no surprise that biologists have observed around 450 species of animals that exhibit homosexual behavior, Homo sapiens obviously being no exception. As it turns out, giraffes engage in homosexual behavior more than 50 percent of their sexual contact, perhaps making them the gayest mammals of all.
Why do many within the Religious Right believe that severe weather is god’s response to sin, rather than global man-caused climate change? One reason people believe this nonsense is yet another cognitive bias commonly known as the just-world fallacy. Here, humans tend to believe that noble actions are bound to be rewarded and evil actions punished, giving rise to the concept of Karma and expressions such as “you reap what you sow.” (It’s common sense, isn’t it?) It is a powerful belief, one almost impossible to avoid at some level, but no evidence exists for it being true. Innocent children die horrible deaths from famine, cancer, and natural disasters; war criminals go unpunished; Wall Street bankers who caused the 2008 financial meltdown live in mansions and not prison cells.
As this fallacy goes, god simply cannot allow immoral behavior to go unpunished, in this life or another. When combined with tribalism (queers are different from “us” after all), and the mind-bending power of religious dogma, you get a perfectly rancid recipe for bigotry, intolerance, and the belief in laughable superstitions.
What to Do?
Our democracy is not working. Unless of course you’re a wealthy, white, fundamentalist Christian. Then everything’s just fine.
The central problem is twofold.
First, the electorate is mostly ignorant. Conservative American voters believe ridiculously asinine things, as mentioned, such as gays cause hurricanes, we’re being besieged by immigrants, and the wealthiest among us are the job creators. (The complete list is obviously quite a bit longer.) In order to get elected and reelected, politicians pander to these voters, and some may even believe their own pernicious preachments on these subjects.
Second, America, as I’ve said before, is a democracy only in name; with Citizens United and it’s malformed progeny McCutcheon now five years old, we have morphed into a plutocracy where the interests of wealthy take precedent of those truly in need of political representation; where minorities and the poor are living increasingly marginal lives, where the tired cliché “the rich get rich and poor get poorer” is actually true, as amply demonstrated by Thomas Piketty in his magnum opus Capital in the 21st Century.
And there’s not just anecdotal evidence that the wealthy control the political process. As Elias Esquith previously reported, BYU professor Michael Jay Barber conducted a study of US Senators and found that the interests of wealthy political donors were served far more than the interests of the voters in their states.
Our government is controlled, then, mostly by morons and Robber Barons, the latter perfectly willing to support the views of the feeble minded voters whom they exploit. Odd bedfellows, indeed.
Contrary to popular conservative belief, the parasites of society are not the poor on public assistance or undocumented workers ─ the parasites are the rich who prey upon the most helpless. Thomas Jefferson’s words prove prophetic: “The issue today is the same as it has been throughout all history. Whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite.” As Hegel said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
Would the election of Bernie Sanders (by almost all accounts a long shot) help? Surely, but not much. It wouldn’t change the fundamental organization of our government or our “democracy”; it wouldn’t make people smarter.
The endemic decline of America can only be reversed by a new Constitution. Ours is the shortest and vaguest constitution in the world. Not that it isn’t an amazing document, one constructed by men of genius, the elite of America in the stifling hot summer of 1787. Before electricity, the telephone, the automobile, air travel, the mapping of the human genome. Thomas Jefferson also thoughtfully said that we should have a new constitution every 19 years. Were he alive today, he would undoubtedly be shocked that we’re still operating under the same founding document, and giving it such reverence, as if it miraculously materialized from the mind of god.
Because our constitution is so short, and leaves so much unstated, and because we live in such a complex society of over three hundred million people, the task of SCOTUS to “interpret” it correctly is absurd, leading to the most impressive of mental gymnastics often seen in Supreme Court opinions, and the resulting accusations of judicial activism, from both the left and the right.
Were I god, I would order a new constitutional convention. The result would be as thick as a textbook. It would be specific, using the social sciences and hard sciences, psychology and social psychology, as its basis. Perhaps a little common sense too, but very little of it, as I’ve thus described it.
Pipe dream? Not even realistic enough to qualify for pipe dream status. It will never happen, certainly not within my lifetime, and undoubtedly not within my children’s lifetime. I mention it only to cite it as the best of all the available possibilities.
The next best thing within the realm of possibility would be a series of constitutional amendments, updating our founding document for the realities of the 21st Century, the first of which should be to end political gerrymandering of congressional districts, which results in in the absurdity that in 2014, the congressional approval rating was 14 percent, but 95 percent of incumbents were reelected. But that, too, seems entirely unlikely. Amending the Constitution, especially in our currently polarized, fractured, decayed political environment, would be nearly impossible. The last constitutional amendment (the 27th) was approved by Congress in 1789 and ratified by the states in 1992, taking almost 203 years to become law. That should give you some idea how difficult it is to get a majority of both houses of Congress and 38 of the 50 states to agree on anything, even in the best of circumstances.
What, then, are we left with? Sadly, not much. Alas, we are not at the tipping point, but staying on the current course will eventually lead to a violent civil war, a new American Revolution. Alarmist? Perhaps, but we’ve been there before, and come close in the 1930s before FDR’s New Deal. (Historians disagree whether it was the New Deal or the Second World War that turned the nation around economically ─ probably some combination of the two, although in what proportion it is impossible to know).
The most realistic option ─ not to reverse the endemic decline of America but rather to slow it ─ is that Bernie Sanders assumes the presidency in 2016 and there is a paradigm shift in attitudes about our policies. He would be working against a vocal and obstructionist opposition, those that look with nostalgia to the past instead of possibilities of the future.
It requires no sleep, vacations, sick days or maternity leave. It knows nothing of leisure, and demands neither love nor comfort. It can learn, and it never forgets. It does not age, does not slow down; indeed, it only becomes exponentially faster. It is artificial, often digital, sometimes neural, sometimes quantum, but ever present, and here. If it hasn’t already, it may soon take your job. Welcome to the brave new world.
Artificial Intelligence (AGI) has lived in the fertile minds of science fiction writers and futurists since the advent of the computer. But as incredibly powerful as digital computers have become, they have, until now, fallen short when it comes to the most impressive characteristics of the human mind: simply being human (creating art and exhibiting empathy for example), unstructured problem solving, deciding relevancy within a maze of undefined phenomena, and non-routine physical work.
Imagine, for instance, that we build a computer that is no more intelligent than the average team of researchers at Stanford or MIT—but, because it functions on a digital timescale, it runs a million times faster than the minds that built it. Set it humming for a week, and it would perform 20,000 years of human-level intellectual work. What are the chances that such an entity would remain content to take direction from us? And how could we confidently predict the thoughts and actions of an autonomous agent that sees more deeply into the past, present, and future than we do?
Interesting, and troubling, questions, to be sure. Computers, for example, are now breaking the law, seemingly deaf to moral, ethical or legal human compunctions. The Swiss, for example, created a computer robot shopper, giving it a weekly Bitcoin budget of $100, to shop until it dropped, making random purchases as it pleased within the budget. In November of 2014 it purchased Diesel jeans, a pair of Nikes, and, somewhat embarrassingly, 10 ecstasy pills. Oops.
However, the practical implications a machines out-thinking us, and thus performing tasks once thought could only be performed exclusively by us Homo sapiens, is already upon us, having crept up so slowly that many don’t even realize it.The philosophical and moral implications of humans creating self-aware machines that can out-think us, and that may put their own self-interest above their creators, is troubling, but so far relegated to the minds of futurists to be more seriously considered at a later date. Perhaps, though, in the not-too-distant future.
The outsourcing of manufacturing and many service jobs has essentially destroyed the middle class. Corporations moved manufacturing and call centers to cheaper locals. Domestic manufacturers increasingly use robots: they don’t tend to complain about low wages or unionize. But computers have not only replaced repetitive tasks once exclusively performed by human laborers, they are gradually replacing intellectual talent as well. Jacob Silverman’s brilliant piece in The Baffler, “The Crowdsourcing Scam” is destined to become a prophetic classic. He describes how once lucrative, prestigious full-time jobs in advertising, sales, marketing, consumer reporting, among many other areas, have been eliminated, sometimes completely, with the help of computing power, sophisticated software, and the internet. Geographical location has been becoming less and less important for decades. Professional freelancers are becoming the norm: they’re cheap, and they work on a per-project basis. No payroll, no benefits. Contractors only.
And of course, it gets worse. Digital computing, neural networks, and other computer technologies such as quantum computing, have become so efficient they may even replace what we’ve always thought to be irreplaceable: intellectual human talent. Computers are no longer sophisticated calculators. They are thinking machines. Increasingly sophisticated, they may in fact be poised to think us goopy, stinky humans out of jobs, leaving only elite, rich, human super-supervisors in (at least some semblance) of control.
IBM’s Watson, which won the 2011 Jeopardy! Competition, is now doing legal research with a program called Ross: “It’s able to do what would take hours to do in seconds,” says Andrew Arruda of Toronto’s Azevedo & Nelson. Another Watson prototype, called Watson Discovery Advisor, is advising doctors on more effective treatments by scanning the medical literature, performing in two seconds what would take a medical researcher two weeks to accomplish. Journalists may even be replaced by Quill, an “automated narrative generation platform.”
Of course there are some things that artificial intelligence may be forever incapable of. But what we once thought were impossible tasks for machines no longer are; the boundaries are being pushed back every day. What might be replaced next? Surely more jobs, and not just in the trades, but even in professions once performed exclusively by humans.
Which raises an even more disturbing question: If the trend continues (there is no serious argument that it will mysteriously and suddenly stop), what are we replaced working humans to do with ourselves? The Utopian view is that we will be released to pursue our leisure interests, our families, our passions apart from work for the sake of earning an income through work with which we often have no real interest. But how might we survive, let only thrive, without a salary? The dystopian view is that the majority of us without a super-specialty, an irreplaceable talent, will simply be cast off to the new majority underclass, while corporate profits skyrocket on the backs of machines. If history is any guide, and I were a betting man, I would have to place my chips on the latter proposition.
There is of course, another option. Manitoba experimented with this it the 1970s, investing $17 million in the small community of Dauphin, giving everyone a Universal Basic Income (called “Mincome”). Everyone received a set amount for basic needs, tax free. If they chose to work, invest, or start businesses, any income thereby derived was taxed. The result? Life improved: fewer accidents, fewer hospital visits, and better mental health. People were free to pursue their interests, their passions, without the risk of losing everything. This was a very progressive idea at the time, and controversial ─ there was a certain smack of communism to it. Critics claimed that a minimum basic income, unrelated to need, would rob people of motivation. It didn’t. People formerly on public assistance transferred to Mincome, where there were no restrictions on how they could spend the money. They started businesses, enrolled in school, and in job training programs. Not surprisingly, when then Conservatives took control of the government in 1979 the program was scuttled. 1,800 boxes of data were packed up and sent to storage; a final report was never released.
Of course the idea of universal basic income has its critics, but one criticism cannot be that it is communism under a different name. There is no central planning, recipients are free to spend the money how they wish in the economy, and the free market remains in place. Needs-based social welfare spending, and the massively expensive bureaucracy it employs could be eliminated. Creating a smaller government, and people freer from government intrusion. More freedom, more individual autonomy.
And we’re not talking about some progressive, liberal, socialist social experiment here. No pseudo-hippies singing Imagine or All We Need is Love, sitting in a tepee smoking a hookah. An Oxford study concluded that 47 percent of current occupations are likely to be replaced by thinking machines in less than 20 years. Bakers, construction workers, journalists, taxi and truck drivers, farmworkers, paralegals, pharmacy workers, medical workers, real estate agents, airport security and customs officers, airline pilots ─ all virtually gone from the human job market.
But where would the money come from to provide everyone with a minimum basic income? Well, there would be an enormous boost in corporate profits from the elimination of half of the salaried work force, to be sure. And then there’s the $51 billion spent annually by the U.S. on the fatuous and unwinnable drug war (trillions annually worldwide). Of course cutting back on the nearly $600 billion annual military spending might not be such a bad idea either. This list is long. The money is there.
So it seems that there is a choice looming very near on the horizon of human civilization. It is a choice between the unleashing of The Hunger Games, or the unleashing of human potential, where all have the opportunity to lead dignified, fulfilling lives.
As the academic year gets going, college Freshmen are taking their general education courses and contemplating majors, hunting for the hot new professions that might allow them to pay their crippling student loan debts, often eschewing what might actually interest them.
As it turns out, the hottest new profession ─ and the one that pays the least ─ is robot, but I’d rather just focus on humans for now. There’s lots to choose from if you look labor statistics and employment trends. All the STEM related professions are good bets, for example. There’s an embarrassment of choices, so to make things easier I’ll start at the other end and give my opinion on what professions to absolutely avoid, but not because they won’t make you rich. They’re just useless to our species.
Dog Whisperer. I’m with Leo Rosten on this one. Dogs are assholes. They’re insufferably needy. They require constant attention and praise, unfailingly to be found at your feet, begging for approval, saying, “Look at me, look at me, don’t you love me?” Kind of like god. Cats, on the other hand, are cool. They don’t give a shit. Forget to feed them? Not a problem. They’ll hunt down a rodent or dig through your neighbor’s trash, which is okay because your neighbors are Mormons and Mormon trash doesn’t contain anything interesting. No makeshift bongs made from apples, no porn, not even coffee grounds (what a scandal that would be). But we have to pay someone $200 an hour to psychologically analyze our dogs and tell us the reason he pisses on the sofa? Cats don’t need professional advice or life coaches, they’re just ‘livin it.
Let me save you the money. Dog’s piss on the furniture because they’re dogs. My wife recently got mad at me for refusing to give our impetuously spoiled asshole of a miniature poodle a piece of steak. Really? He eats three squares, sleeps all day, occasionally finds the energy to shit, and I still need to feed him prime steak? When I was a kid, our dogs licked their balls, laid around all day, humped an available leg on occasion, and seemed perfectly content without the advice from experts. He (a barky little bastard of a miniature poodle) was recently neutered, but retains his scrotum for some odd reason. I woke up last week in the wee hours of the morning with a distinctly uncomfortable feeling. I couldn’t breathe. Was I having a heart attack? No. Our dog found a comfortable sleeping position on my face, backwards. His scrotum (devoid of their original contents) was comfortably resting within my left eye socket, his penis (flaccid, thankfully) laying across the bridge of my nose, and his chocolate starfish stuck to my forehead. I did what any reasonable person would do at 3 a.m. I threw him across the room, where he hit the wall, and then found another place to sleep, far away from my face. But I’m still being accused of domestic violence on canines. Thankfully, we live in Mexico and these types of criminal complaints are not high on the priority list of local police.
Lumberjack. I’m not a tree-hugger. But stop killing trees. Granted, they’re not great conversationalists, but they do absorb our carbon dioxide and give us oxygen. Occasionally they fall on us and crush us, but apparently without felonious intent. And their wood makes horrible building material. It rots and needs to be constantly replaced. Like fat people at IHOP on Sunday mornings, termites find wood delicious. Is there some shortage of concrete in the world? Where I live, houses are made of concrete, rebar and brick. Good stuff – sturdy, inorganic and plentiful. No other useful purpose, really. Gets stronger with time. Yet in America, we continue building with cotton candy and fussing about our leaky roofs. Get over it. Get some concrete and rebar and build a house that will last a thousand years.
3. Fashionista. I get some things about fashion. Don’t wear white after Labor Day (or is it before? Or is it Memorial Day? I could Google it, but I can’t seem to care enough to make the effort). Pony tails on men with male pattern baldness look stupid. Sporting your pajamas in Wal-Mart probably isn’t great. If you’ve got a fat ass, you might want to avoid stretch pants (unless it’s one of those Brazilian butts ─ fat, but in a good way). If gravity is winning the war on your boobs, a bra is probably not a bad idea. If you’re a business professional, a stifling, uncomfortable suit and tie is inferior to a loose blazer and a t-shirt, but baggy cargo shorts and a puke-stained wife-beater might be under-doing it a bit. Steve Jobs got it about right: comfortable jeans and a black shirt. Neither too pompous nor too avant-garde. But where fashion becomes art is I lose it. Did anyone watch New York Fashion Week last year? WTF? Bone-bags on the runway wearing the most bizarre shit I’ve ever seen; flopping off the stage like so much wind-blown litter, either from anemia or ill-fitting high heels. No one would dare wear that shit on the street for fear of public ridicule and spontaneous laughter ─ not just a role of the eyes, I’m talking side-splitting, eye-watering, spittle-flecked eyeglasses type of laughter. Maybe it’s just a blind spot I have with high fashion. But I still wouldn’t risk it. You’ll have to be constantly explaining to people what the color puce actually is, and debating with the seriousness of thought akin to opposing anthropologists, such things as the best belt lines and shoe types for summer. Spend your life doing that if you like.
2. Theologians and preachers. I group these two together, but for different reasons. Let’s start with theologians. Universities employ them. They’re listened to on talk shows. They’re deferred to by politicians and pundits. They’re also full of shit. The most common response to a difficult moral problem like, “Should apostates be killed?” is “I’m not a theologian.” Well, a literate person doesn’t really have to be an expert on theology to be able to read and interpret religious texts written by semi-literate Bronze Age cave dwellers. God could have, of course, told us how to pasteurize eggs, the germ theory of disease, that our appendix are useless vestiges of evolution (for which he also owes us a long-overdue apology) and how to fix them when they burst, but he instead gave us more useful information, such as how to properly sacrifice a goat, and avoid eating ham (the latter apparently displeases him greatly). But killing our adult male enemies and reserving their virgins as sex slaves? That’s cool. My 9 year old daughter recently asked me to tell her the story of Noah’s Ark. On one of her trips to Catholic Sunday school with my mother in law, she’d heard something about this. So I told the story, without criticism, without laughing (okay, I chuckled a couple of times). To my surprise and infinite delight, she had some questions. Like, “How did the Koalas from Australia get all the way to Mesopotamia – I don’t think they can swim.” (Thank you Discovery Channel.) But even more poignantly, “Did god drown babies too?” Yup. “Did no one else have a boat?” Apparently not. “Hmm,” She said. “I’m going to have to think about that,” before turning her attention back to her newest doll, a “Neonatal” named “Cocada.” I’m lobbying her to be awarded an honorary PhD from Harvard Divinity School. These least interesting religious authorities are the ones that try to square the circle, equivocate, overuse casuistry, and lend credence to alternative interpretations of obvious literal religious texts by employing the tools of parable, metaphor and allegory. While being a theologian might be an interesting profession, it requires seriously strenuous mental gymnastics, and it doesn’t even pay all that well.
Evangelical preachers, however, can make some serious bank by selling something that doesn’t even exist. Now that takes talent. But consider something first. What if you accidentally get it right and your particular religious truth (thousands to choose from) is exactly the one god likes? You’ll be bound to spend eternity in heaven with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Adolph Hitler, and Jesus (an annoying pseudo-hippy philosopher wearing Birkenstocks and casting demons into pigs for fun) ─ the boss’s son is always the worst. And you know what? Anthropologists tell us that Jesus was probably about five feet tall, dark skinned and clean shaven, just like your gardener with the same name. No, no. I’m all-in for hell, for boiling in fiery excrement forever with the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens. Much better company, if you ask me.
Nutritionist. Why are you fat and have heart disease? This just in to the newsroom: you eat too much. Once eggs were the culprit. (Try to find an LA restaurant serving omelets with yolks in the 90’s.) Then saturated animal fat became the boogey man. Turns out now they’re okay now. Protein is now the greatest evil, but vegans die with the same frequency and have the same life expectancy of Paleo activists. Margarine, it now turns out, is worse than butter. Avocados, we’re told, once the anathema of healthy eating, are actually good for you. The Mediterranean diet? Piffle. Coffee causes heart disease and cancer? Nope, it’s actually really good for your liver, among other things. Salt bad for you? Not at all. We now know that the increase in blood pressure from excess salt intake gives an almost infinitesimally small result. Some things are still apparently bad for us, like bacon and sugar, but you can’t have it all. Breakfast is the most important meal, and will increase your metabolism throughout the day? Bullshit. Why have the food sciences gotten things so wrong on so many levels over the years? One possible answer is that journalists have sensationalized scientific studies which may only point to weak correlations between some foods and health ─ they get paid to write headlines, after all. Or it could be that many studies link ill health with certain foods, without providing good causal links, which get debunked in further more thorough studies with wider control groups. Or my theory: there’s not much money in telling people the simple truth. Eat what you like, but less of it. There seems to be a growing body of evidence that this is the answer. But, it’s much more profitable to keep people on fad diet after fad diet, to promote new “super foods”, to extoll the virtues of whatever low fat commodity your industry needs to boost revenue. “Big Food” has more influence on U.S. dietary guidelines than one might think. Of course the health supplement industry is the worst of the worst at charlatanry. It turns out that chewable vitamins are about as effective as chewing on the gangrenous rectal warts of a homeless man. And just as pleasant.
So get on with life and avoid the above. Follow your passions and your intellectual curiosity. Be the best at something, or if not the best, just good, or if not good, well, just don’t suck. The money will follow, and even if it doesn’t you’ll have a better and more fulfilling life than if you simply choose a career based solely on employment trends.
 According to an Oxford University study, 47 percent of all jobs will be taken over by thinking machines by 2034, including the following professions and trades: bakers, journalists, drivers, farm workers, paralegals, pharmacy workers, some medical workers and technicians, real estate agents, airport security and customs officers, and airline pilots.
To convince poor, undereducated, socially conservative white males to stop voting against their own interests, to spark in them the temerity to question the lie of laissez-faire corporatism to which they have been so long been gavaged that it has become a part of their mental furniture.
To ignite that single sickly synapse toward a single simple thought: What if the GOP pandering, sloganeering Orwellian economic doublespeak somehow wasn’t true? The horror.
We’ve all seen the Facebook posts from our conservative friends: the problem with socialism is eventually you run out of other people’s money; taxing the job producers will make us all poor; if you vote left you’re not thinking right; I’d rather be a conservative nut job than a liberal with no nuts and no job, ad nauseam. Empty platitudes passed off as wisdom.
But the hard seed of truth may have finally germinated. Whether it will be choked out by the weeds of failed economic ideology remains to be seen, but I doubt it.
Many conservatives are now openly wondering whether or not free market capitalism in its uniquely American form is really a good thing for the working man and woman. And one need not tread too deep into the thistles of economic theory or read Krugman and Reich, or for that matter Piketty. Growing wealth inequality, growing income inequality, the evaporating middle class, and our political transmogrification from a representative democracy into a plutocracy, is all over us, palpable like an infected boil turning necrotic, no longer confined to a remote academic debate or a partisan pundit’s table. No longer sequestered, no longer able to hide behind the anecdotal stories of bootstrap entrepreneurs moving from yokeldom to yachtsdom. Those happily-propagated myths are mostly a century old, and reality has caught up. We’re living in the world of Augie March. And we know it.
We see it in our neighbor’s faces, the forced smiles and tired-distant stares of people half-engaged in banal small talk about the weather, but really preoccupied with credit card bills, of making the rent payment, of getting kids into college, and increasingly often, food on the table. People who have voted Republican their whole lives and are now reassessing Reaganesque coming-of-age political dogmas. People who hated Bill Clinton for staining a dress are now uneasily waxing nostalgic about the no-deficit upwardly-mobile Clinton economy, before crowdsourcing and the replacement of humans by robots.
The power of conservative rhetoric and outright sophistry may have met its limit, the convincing right wing legerdemain finally encountering a wall constructed from the concrete of empirical fact and the rebar of personal experience. You can only for so long tell people that the earth is flat before they start wondering why it appears, at the very least, curved. The sad thing is that this took so long, that things had to get so bad, that telling wasn’t enough, showing wasn’t enough, that actually experiencing dystopia up close and personal was needed. It took working two jobs and still qualifying for SNAP to convince us of the truth that book learning could not.
Are these wishful musings of a progressive? Perhaps. But Bernie Sanders is leading Hillary Clinton in recent New Hampshire polling, and closing the gap in other states as well. That’s not surprising. Nor is it surprising that Sanders has grown increasingly popular among the conservative punditry, undoubtedly for ulterior motives having to do with Hillary, and the misguided belief that he couldn’t win the general election. What is surprising, however, is that Sanders is beginning to poach conservative votes. So far the evidence is mostly spotty, but one might expect that to change if the current trajectory continues.
Few now think that our trickle-down economic model (either by design or chance, take your pick) is working for the middle class and the poor. The conservative argument that if you just free the market from regulation, let it turn its swag on, and lower taxes for the “job creators” then all would be right with the world. This perfidious view has had a century to take root, to prove itself, and it has failed, demonstrably. Wall Street capitalism has been touted by the right and, at the very least, tolerated by the neoliberal left, but the evidence is in, and in hillbilly vernacular, “That dog just won’t hunt.”
The common view is that Sanders’ populism is the left’s version of Trump’s, and that both will fade. The chance of that happening seems small. The rise of Sanders and Trump, and their apparent staying power, are here to get used to, for very different reasons.
Trump’s populism is of the basest kind: the roots derive nourishment from the self-serving cognitive biases of tribalism and hyper-nationalism. Foisting our anxiety upon the great unwashed underclass for our self-made troubles, packaging fear as policy, is an easy sell. It requires little thought and no analysis. Sanders’ populism, however, feeds not upon the empty calories of shameless pseudo-dangers and hectoring, but rather hard facts; facts that are easily demonstrable in everyday American life.
Horse-race political pundits may dismiss both Sanders and Trump, but keep in mind that they’re wrong most of the time.
True, money is king in American politics. But don’t count-out reason just yet. I’m sanguine by nature. If Bernie Sanders does not become our next president, so be it. He’s already changed the debate. And he’s not done it by way of hyperbole or the cult of personality or Ben Carson-like fumfering barely-intelligible outworn slogans. He’s done it by reasoned argument. He’s done it by pointing out what should have been obvious. He has opinions and ideas to be sure, but unlike his opponents’, they are based on verifiable fact, and not psychologically comforting mythology.
The “class warfare” meme of Fox News is waning. Socialism still carries an underserved stigma, still carries with it an unnatural conflation with communism, still triggers an negative emotional response with conservatives, but it is no longer tantamount to the F-word (France). What most conservatives don’t realize, of course, is that we’re already a quasi-socialist country. The social security system, for example, is overtly socialist: if you receive more than you paid into the Social Security Trust fund, which you likely will, you’re a socialist. If you pay property taxes but don’t have kids enrolled in your local public school, you’re a socialist. The list of socialist programs is long and obvious. And the rich, along with corporations, like the system the way it is. They take advantage of not only special tax breaks, loopholes, and subsidies, but also the working poor: public assistance for the laboring classes lets corporations get away with paying a lower than living wage. On the backs of taxpayers.
If a paradigm shift is to occur in our body politics’ collective thinking about economic policy, now is the time. Putting off the inevitable by electing a “safe” candidate will surely result in our further, perhaps endemic, decline as a nation, as a civilization.
And that sea change is already happening. There is a growing grassroots movement, led by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, among others, challenging the obvious: trickle-down economics doesn’t work for the poor and middle class, in fact, money doesn’t trick down at all, it concentrates at the top, and when top earners make more, it actually slows the economy. What we need is a trickle-up model, where actual living wages are paid to workers, who then spend that money within the economy, creating more demand, and more jobs. Suffering, always having had a voice, is finally being heard.