Archive for December, 2010

Laughing Into 2011?

“For tonight is New Year’s Eve
Uncork your spirits and welcome it in
Who knows what it’s got up its sleeve
Can’t wait for it all to begin
Stand by the girl with the purple balloon
The look in her eyes just lights up the room
In the corner of her smile
She’ll be seeing you soon
Under a mistletoe moon…”
Al Stewart, from “Laughing into 1939”

This morning I was up at 6:15 to get on the step machine and do my almost daily morning workout.  I hooked up the I-pod to the headphones and…nothing.  I must have left it on, the battery was drained.  Irritated (but already exercising) I had to grab a CD and put it in my disc player instead.  I looked at the stack of CDs, not in their cases, used in recent weeks as background music to my work out, and choose Al Stewart’s Life Between the Wars.

Al Stewart is one of my favorite song writers.   Though best known for his hits “Time Passages” and “Year of the Cat,” he’s got a passion for history and his songs explore personalities and events throughout time — from Helen of Troy to Josephine Baker and even Warren G. Harding.  Given that I find interwar Europe a fascinating bit of history, it’s no surprise this is one of my favorite CDs.   How many artists out there put out a CD that mentions Dorothy Parker, Hedy Lamarr, Hoagy Carmichael, Beiderbecke, Charles Lindbergh, Calvin Coolidge, Lawrence of Arabia, Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, Paul Gervaise, Zelda Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, Coco Chanel, Wallis Simpson, Stalin, Kamenez, Zinoviev, and Bukharin.  He has a song about Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, and the CD captures images between the war from the Versailles negotiations to the Spanish civil war, as well as culture (literature, art, film) and everyday life.

So, I settled in to my workout, enjoying the music and songs, amazed that themes that seem so “intellectual” actually can make melodic, enjoyable tunes, I got caught up in the music until near the end of the work out when “Laughing into 1939” came on.   It’s the last song on the CD with lyrics (the disc ends with an instrumental ‘The Black Danube,’) ending the era between the wars on New Years Eve, 1938.

The music is haunting and melancholy, even though the song is about celebration and parties.  The mental image I get is of large parties in Paris, Berlin and London, with people laughing and enjoying themselves, oblivious to the horror that will be unleashed in the year whose start they are celebrating.   The juxtaposition between the dark music and lyrics depicting celebration has always made that a powerful piece for me.  There has always been something tragic about the interwar period, an era so full of life and experimentation, yet doomed to end in destruction and holocaust.

Today the song was even more powerful, especially as the line quoted above, “tonight is New Years eve…” played.  Tonight is New Years eve!    We’re entering a new year with hopes, expectations, and perhaps even some resolutions.  Like the Europeans in 1939, we’re hoping the economy improves and life gets a bit more normal.   Few people from Berlin to London wanted war in 1939, and the hope was that the Great War of 1914-18 had convinced leader and citizen alike of the folly of armed conflict in Europe.

It hadn’t.   An Austrian born corporal in the German army, temporarily blinded by a British gas attack, went into a rage as he heard of the German surrender.  He vowed to go into politics and redo the war, this time not making the mistakes that doomed Germany in 1914.  He did the Blitzkrieg into France right this time, and then would turn on Russia, following closely the Ludendorf plan of WWI to gain Lebensraum for Germany.   But on December 31, 1938 there was still hope that Adolf Hitler was like a Bismarck, simply wanting equality for Germany on the European stage, undoing the injustices done to Germany by the post-war Treaty of Versailles.   So most people believed there was cause for hope and celebration, as Europe went ‘laughing into 1939.’

No one expects all out war in 2011.   But there are dangers.   The Mideast peace remains precarious and incomplete.  Dangers from Iran, North Korea and of course terrorist groups like al qaeda linger.  Terrorism is probably the most dangerous uncertainty.   We know they are willing to sacrifice anything to try to damage the West, but we don’t know if and when they’ll be able to strike again.   The world can change in a minute.

One can imagine other nightmares.   What would happen if the dollar’s value collapsed, or if unrest in the Mideast caused a massive spike in oil prices?   Will 2011 be a calm year of recovery and continued efforts to solve global problems, or will the uncertainties and imbalances in world affairs lead this to be remembered in a light akin to 1939 — a year when the old order shattered?

I wasn’t planning to blog about this today; I was thinking of something a bit lighter, either a mocking of Tucker Carlson’s call to execute Michael Vick, or perhaps a reflection on the first decade of the new century, which ended a year ago.  But thanks to my last minute choice of background music this morning, images of life between the wars put me in a different mood.   One song, “When Lindy Comes to Town,” captures the belief that the world “had grown no bigger than a pocket handkerchief.

Everyday is better than the day before it
If I see a rain cloud I will just ignore it
Everybody says it will get much better yet
It’s 1927 and my whole life lies ahead!

Listening to that I thought of the bubble economies and optimism we had until recently.  The era between the wars was vibrant, yet doomed.  Is that our fate as well?

I will be laughing into 2011, fully expecting this year to be one of progress.   We’re planning another travel course to Italy, maybe getting geothermal energy for the house, and dealing with the constant job of raising children.   But there is a whiff of discontentment and anxiety in the air.  Was it just coincidence that my I-pod battery was dead and I grabbed this CD on New Years eve?  Is it a warning?   Will the dangers and dilemmas of recent years come to a head in 2011, and put us on a dark path, at least for awhile?   Probably not, but…

“Out onto the balcony
Come the King and the Queen
And the crowd go wild
He’s a little bit nervous
But that’s just fine
And they’re laughing, laughing into 1939…”

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Fear of Uncertainty

“You are either with me, or you are my enemy” – Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader

“Only the Sith deal in absolutes.” -Obi Wan Kenobi
(From Revenge of the Sith)

Humans let arrogance into their psyche and behaviors all the time, often without knowing or recognizing it.   I know I’ve fallen into that trap many times, but arrogance is the most powerful form of delusion out there.  When one is trapped by arrogance, one sees it as ones’ right or duty to fight forcefully for that which causes the arrogance, believing those who have a different perspective are wrong, even evil and dangerous.

I think a key cause of arrogance is fear.   In politics one of the most dangerous fears is the fear of uncertainty.  People want to be right, they want to believe their cause is right, their ideology is right, and their candidates are right.   Yet most people recognize that the “other side” has good points too, and that even the ideals they hold dear may be based on false information.  That yields humility, which of course is the opposite of arrogance.

Those who fear uncertainty are likely to build fortresses around their belief system, defending it so forcefully, with opponents seen as weak minded, dumb, or disingenuous.    They become believers in absolutes.  You either believe their point, or you are labeled as something negative.   A nihilist, a socialist, anti-human, or simply an idiot.

Another tactic to bolster ones’ belief  is to belittle the other side.   When those supporting the war in Iraq countered anti-war arguments, it often was to say something like “the opponents believe we can talk with Saddam and say ‘you really shouldn’t be so mean,’ and he’ll realize we’re not so bad and become our friend.”   Not those exact words, but the upshot was that those who disagree with war are naive types who don’t understand the ruthless depravity of a Saddam Hussein.   Such a tactic allows them to dismiss the real complexities, and keep the issue simple and absolute.

Of course, the anti-war side had similar tactics.  To say “war is murder and George Bush is a fascist terrorist” is the same sort of response.  Saddam is Hitler, Bush is Hitler, well, you get the point.  If the other side is Hitler, then you know your side is undeniably right.

Those who fear uncertainty also tend towards absolutes in their ideological perspective.  If you accept uncertainty, you realize that most of the time principles are unclear, and subject to contextual change.    Strict and uncompromising religious belief, such as Bin Laden’s or those of the most intense Christian fundamentalists probably reflect a fear of uncertainty.   Nationalists, animal rights extremists, militant environmentalists, and others who take their cause to an uncompromising extreme reflect that fear.   Accepting contextual variation or partial implementation of the principle to them feels like an infection that destroys the ideal.   It opens up the possibility that their belief may be wrong or imprecise, and if they cannot stand uncertainty, that becomes unbearable.  A crack in the edifice of a belief can bring the whole thing down.

That’s why “true believers” as Eric Hoffer called them can bounce from one extreme to another.   David Horowitz went from being a sixties radical to an over the top conservative extremist.  There is comfort in defining principles in absolute terms and then refusing to budge from them, deriding and ridiculing all who think differently.   It creates an illusion of certainty and “correct belief.”   It shields them from confronting their true fear: that they not only may not be right in how they think, but they might never know if they are right or wrong.

I think the key for avoiding this way of thinking is to not only accept and acknowledge uncertainty, but accept as a part of life the possibility that many of our core beliefs may be wrong.   Moreover, that in no way should inhibit us from acting on those beliefs and living our lives based on what we hold true.   One does not need certainty to believe, one does not need certainty to have faith, one does not need certainty to fight for a cause.

Yet those with humility will know how to compromise, know how to accept contextual ambiguity, and learn not to judge those with different perspectives.

Those who fear uncertainty and tend towards absolutes will have absolutist responses to what I just wrote:  “If  you might be wrong in what you know, why don’t you jump off a cliff, you might live!”  Or “if you might be wrong, then maybe Hitler was right, so how can you judge the Nazis?”   But that kind of objection is itself rooted in fear of uncertainty.  I may acknowledge uncertainty, but if I am repulsed by Nazism and experience tells me not to jump off cliffs, I can make that call very easily.   I don’t need to claim absolute certainty in order to make moral judgments or try to convince others to condemn or stop that which I hold to be evil behavior.

Fear is probably the biggest cause of violence, abuse and suffering in the world.  Fear produces hate, anger, and self-loathing.   Fear causes people to put up edifices of rationalization to protect their world view, and justifies violence and repression against others.   Fear’s purpose is to help us survive, we are to fear large animals and dangerous situations.  But in the complex social systems we’ve created, totally divorced from the evolutionary reality that shaped our psyches, it gets warped and twisted.   Overcoming that means accepting uncertainty, as well as the temporal nature of all that we hold dear.   Here Yoda may provide the secret to happiness and contentment:

“Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” – Yoda (also in Revenge of the Sith)

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The Historic 111th Congress

They lost their majority in the House and suffered significant loses in the Senate, but one has to look back to the 1960s to find a more active and legislatively successful Congress.   They started with a bang, passing a major stimulus bill, and ended with a flurry of lame duck activity, repealing DADT, ratifying the new START treaty and passing a major tax and spending compromise bill.   In between they passed health care reform, overhauled reform of the financial sector, expanded the powers of the FDA to regulate tobacco products, expanded hate crime laws to protect sexual orientation, increased protection of equal pay laws for women, and increased/reformed financial aid for college students.

To be sure, thanks to the filibuster the Republicans could stop them from tackling immigration reform, institute a CAP and trade system to put the US in line with other industrialized states in fighting global warming, or close Guantanamo Bay.   Even in victory, the reforms of health care and the financial industry required major compromises, though in each case Democrats joined Republicans to make these compromises necessary.   But like the laws or hate them, few will deny that the 111th Congress was the most active in a generation, often because of the personal leadership of President Obama, especially during the lame duck session.

The Democrats paid a price.   Nancy Pelosi went from Speaker of the House to House Minority leader as Republicans gained more seats than any party has since the 1930s.   In general, Americans don’t like their Congress too active, and in undertaking major reforms at a time of economic recession many thought the Administration and the Congress had misplaced priorities.   To be sure, the amount of public spending and investment increased dramatically, designed to stimulate the economy, but the depth of the crisis caused Americans to doubt the wisdom of all these reforms.  Ironically the left wing of the Democratic party, apparently unable to accept and enjoy success, often pouted over what they didn’t get, angry at “blue dogs” and others who forced often painful compromises on the majority.   But politics is the art of the possible, and the Democrats did in two years probably all that they could have hoped to accomplish.   Some acts were historic — repeal of DADT is a major civil rights landmark, while health care reform has been on the agenda since before WWII.    Simply, the last two years may have been critical to shaping the future direction of the country over the next generation.

For President Obama, the goal now has to be to try to digest the changes, and integrate them into the federal bureaucracy and the political culture.  To do that he must win re-election in 2012, regardless of what happens in the House and Senate.   For Republicans opposed to the changes, they need to win the Presidency in 2012 if they want to have any hope of turning back the tide.   Even then, they likely will find it hard to undo what has been done, but they’ll have a chance.   Otherwise, by 2016 the changes will be so integrated into both the government and the public mindset that undoing them will be politically costly and will likely be supported by only the staunchest conservatives.

Republicans are crowing about their 2010 victories, but as Obama showed last month, political winds can shift on a dime.  After all, Obama and the Democrats looked all but invincible in 2008.    Moreover, the 2010 election found a very different electorate than voted in 2008 — more white, more conservative, and older.   If Obama rejuvenates a good chunk of the “less frequent” voters who came out in 2008, that will go a long ways to turning around the electoral fortunes of the Democrats.   By blocking the DREAM act — a path to citizenship to children born to illegals who want to go on to college or join the military — the Republicans also make it hard to make inroads in the group with the biggest demographic shift, Latinos.

Although the census made headlines by showing so-called “red” states gaining representation (though likely not enough to significantly alter electoral math), most of the growth was via immigration.  If you include children of immigrants, it accounts for 60% of our growth.    At this point, that’s actually good news for the Democrats who tend to do very well amongst Latinos.   Republicans thought they’d have a shot at this group, actively courted by President George W. Bush in his campaign.  They are often socially conservative and have world views that align reasonably well with the Republican party.   However, immigration issues have pushed them to the Democrats in recent years, and if the Republicans don’t turn that around, this will be a major force helping President Obama win re-election in 2012.

The economy matters as well.  As noted before, both Presidents Clinton and Reagan were less popular at this point in their Presidency than Obama is now.  Both recovered as the economy recovered.   If there is any good news on the economic front, that could make Obama’s re-election seem like an inevitability by mid-2012.

For the left of the Democratic party, the good news is that the Republicans are unlikely to turn back what President Obama with a Democratic Congress accomplished the last two years.   The bad news is that most of the legislative work of even an eight year Obama Presidency has been achieved.     The next six years will be tweaking programs, and creating an under-gird of regulations and bureaucratic procedures to make the reforms more effective.   There may be qualitative improvements in areas like health care or financial reform, but almost certainly within the framework of what’s been passed.

Two issues that may still see significant progress are immigration and the federal budget.   Assuming economic growth returns in some form, President Obama is likely to become a deficit hawk, and depending on the scope of the problem, this could yield significant changes to how government operates.  On immigration if the Republicans do find that the Latino vote threatens to thwart their ability to win Presidential elections, or hold on to Congressional seats, they may return to the kind of ideas that John McCain and President Bush pushed back in 2007.   In the tea party furor even McCain ran from his past position, but that could turn around and bi-partisan comprehensive immigration reform may become possible.

If the Republicans do win the Presidency in 2012, they’ll find that there isn’t a magic “reset’ button they can push to simply undo what the 111th Congress accomplished.   They’ll be able to make major changes in the health care reform (their headline issue), and may try to undo some of the financial reforms (though that would be politically risky).   DADT will almost certainly stay repealed, the START treaty will remain in effect, and most of the more minor changes noted above will remain.    Once something is passed it’s hard to repeal, though easier to revise.    This means that, for better or worse, the actions of the 111th Congress will have effects that will linger for generations.   While that may motivate Republicans, it also should cause Democrats to take heart, even as they get used to the phrase “Speaker Boehner.”

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Christmas Traditions

Growing up I always counted down the days to December 24th.  That was the day we’d open our Christmas gifts.   We’d start either after the church Christmas pageant (which we were in, at least through sixth grade), or sometime in early evening.   It was a party.  Friends would stop by, my mom would make her trade mark bar-bq’d beef, and the egg nog and drinks would be flowing (though us kids would be satisfied with root beer floats).

I usually was the one to hand out gifts, and we’d go one at a time, with numerous breaks.   That meant that gift sharing took a better part of the evening, and I tended to hoard a couple of gifts so that when everyone was done, I still had one or two to open.   I’d manage to skip my “turn” at opening by not having one ready or handing out a gift to the person after me, realizing that most people weren’t really keeping track of whose turn it was.  I liked being the last one to open a gift.

We’d get our “Santa gifts” the next day.  My parents were smart, they’d put out the gifts, unwrapped, and fill our stocking so when we woke up we could run and start playing with our toys.  Our most expensive and “special” gifts were the Santa gifts, and we’d often get up at 6:00 AM to go find them.   My parents could stay in bed, no doubt slightly hung over from the night before, as we kids would have fun.  Those were the days.  When I was very young we’d head to Madelia, Minnesota on Christmas to my great grandparents house.  After age 12 (when my Great Grandpa died and they sold the farm) we’d say home, with my Grandma from Mankato visiting.     Also up through age 12 we’d go to church Christmas day.  Then in a fight my mom would leave my dad’s Missouri Synod Lutheran home and join the American Luthern Church.   My dad stopped going to church out of embarrassment.  My mom and sisters went to the ALC church, and I stayed home.   At that point I still believed, but really didn’t like church.

One year we did go to Madelia on Christmas eve, and the celebration was huge.  All our cousins were there, someone dressed as Santa handed out gifts to the kids, and the party went most of the night.  I later asked why we usually came on Christmas day rather than celebrate Christmas eve there, and I was told that my family wanted to have our own Christmas eve tradition.   It was a good one.   One year, when I was 19 and my sisters were 17 and 11 I screwed it up.  I had volunteered to work Christmas eve at Village Inn Pizza, where I was a supervisor/night manager.   My boss Warren Andy told me to close at 7:00, and expected I wouldn’t be busy.  I had one helper in the kitchen, and one person busing/dishwashing.

My sisters were disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to start until 7:30, but I tended to volunteer to work all holidays (Easter one year, July 4th double shifts every year because people wanted that day off and I loved getting 18 hour days), and figured it would be easy.   At 7:00 people were lined out the door.  My instinct as night manager took over and I kept the place open until the line dwindled, finally closing at near 8:30.   My sisters were calling demanding I get home so they could open presents.  By 10:00 everyone had left and every table was dirty, and it was a disaster.  My sisters actually came in and helped clean and close the place.   We started opening gifts at near midnight!

The first year I missed Christmas eve at home was  when I spent a year in Bologna Italy, working on my MA.   But I traveled to the Christmas markets in Germany (Munich, Regensburg, Nuremberg, Ingolstadt — I think in total I hit about eight markets!) as well as enjoying the run up to Christmas in Italy.    By the time I was 25 my parents divorced, but the traditions continued.  My mom held Christmas eve with my sister’s family much like we did as kids – a party, my niece and nephew enjoying gifts, and my Grandma coming in from Mankato.  I’d pick her up en route from Minneapolis while working on my doctorate at the U. of Minnesota, and despite some icy roads we made it every year.   My dad would have turkey and we’d open his gifts Christmas day.

When I moved to Maine and got married, the traditions faded as we were so far from South Dakota.   We often opened gifts when they arrived rather than waiting for Christmas eve, and with only two people and families far away, it took awhile to have it really feel like Christmas.   We traveled to South Dakota a couple times, but it wasn’t until we had kids that we started our own traditions.   We still do gifts Christmas eve.  Unlike my parents, we have only one Santa gift Christmas day (my parents give us a bunch), and it’s wrapped.   We also stuff the stockings, of course.   We roast a turkey on Christmas day, and unlike my parents, we don’t have a lot of guests or a party atmosphere on Christmas eve.   Not only are family distant, but most friends work at the University and are scattered during  this time.

We look forward to going to South Dakota for Christmas sometime soon, and we have a plan to go to Christmas markets in Germany some not too distant year.   We don’t go to church, but the kids recognize it as a Christian holiday that we enjoy because we believe in the same values: peace, love, and goodwill to all.   We spend time talking about that, even as we indulge more than I’d like to in the consumer culture in buying remarkably cheap toys and gifts for the kids.    Christmas music fills the house (though as I write this Star Wars music dominates, as the kids are playing Wii lego Star Wars: the Complete Sage, a game they’ve been addicted to for about a month).   And, though I miss the magical feeling I had as a youth, starring at the Christmas tree lights, in awe of the beauty of the colors, tree, presents and decorations, it’s still a great time of the year.  We watch some Christmas movies, decorate the house (though we have yet to indulge in a real tree), and have good family time.

So everyone, have yourself a merry little Christmas, and for those who don’t celebrate it, peace, love and goodwill to you as well.  Those values are real, fundamental and unite humans, even if we choose too often to separate ourselves from them.   Muslim, Jew, Christian, atheist, agnostic and other (and believe me, it’s a struggle to raise kids and explain things when you’re an ‘other’ like I am — it’s harder without an already scripted storyline and set of rules!), love connects us all.    May the force be with you this holiday season!

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Uncharted Territory

We live in an exciting era, one of vast cultural change, political transformation, and economic turmoil.   Yet as we near 2011, it feels different, as if we’re entering territory even more uncharted, confusing, and dangerous than in the past.  Even as technology soars and it seems that daily life remains wired (or Wifi) and normal, the list of uncertainties is large.

1.  Oil.   As I noted, we are emerging from the oil century, where very cheap energy allowed a massive increase in production and enhanced mobility.  The IEA believes oil production peaked in 2006, meaning we could be facing tremendous increases in oil prices soon, especially if the economy perks back up.  Even in recession oil is inching back towards $100 a barrel.  What will a perpetual oil crisis look like?  How will the world respond, and how different will the reactions be on different parts of the planet?

2.  Dollars.  The tremendous growth of public and private debt in the US threaten the role of the dollar as the main global reserve currency.  Already shifts towards Euros and Yen are taking place, with the dollar helped by the fact those other currencies have their own problems.   Gold has increased in value, and unless there is some sign that the US can both decrease debt and reduce its current account deficit, it’s only a matter of time before the dollar loses significant value.    That may not be a bad thing, if it’s a moderate loss of value.    In a worst case scenario, it could be hyperinflation.  Of course, Japan has gone into tremendous debt and its suffering deflation.  That’s a possibility too!

3.  Climate Change.   The propaganda war waged by big business in the US has made skepticism of global climate change the norm, but world wide scientists are convinced it’s happening, and we’ve already seen examples.   Weather has gotten more extreme and dangerous, and this is likely to continue.  What will that do to the world economy, to political stability, and world food supplies?   Again, estimates range from complete havoc to relatively minor adjustments.   And it’s not just heat, but extreme cold and harsh winter weather can be an outcome of climate change.

4. Terrorism.   It never warranted the fear that overtook the population after 9-11, but it’s also more dangerous than the apathy the issue of terrorism evokes now.   The most dangerous type of attack would be one that hits oil supplies, but the possibility of nuclear terror as well as simply high profile attacks is real.   There are also home grown radical groups that could strike, it’s not just Islamic or third world terror that is a threat.   Except for terrorism that hits oil supplies, most scenarios suggest limited and minor physical destruction in any terror attack.  Even nuclear terror would be contained to a relatively small area.   Yet the cultural, economic and psychological ramifications could be tremendous.  Terrorism is most effective when it causes the victim of the attack to engage in self-destructive behaviors, something that we experienced after 9-11 as we got involved in a war in Iraq which weakened us, and we opened up the spigots of cheap credit which helped bring about the economic crisis.   What we do in response to terrorism is potentially more dangerous than the attack itself.

5.   Global depression.  Beyond concerns about the dollar noted above, the world economy could remain enmeshed in a global depression driven by high debt levels across the industrialized world, higher energy costs, and no clear engine of growth to pull us forward.   If this persists, crises and war would become more likely in the third world, while the first world would experience growing unrest and instability.

6.  Political jihad.   At a time when our problems are greatest, our politicians seem inept.   To be sure, President Obama does seem willing to try to work with Republicans and look for common ground to solve problems, but in both the GOP and the Democratic party strong forces want to simply fight war with the other side.   At some level this is OK — feverish rhetoric and political theater are the norm, so long as at the end of the day the two sides recognize that they have to do something to address the problems, even if it doesn’t fit their ideological druthers.   Too often, though, deluding themselves that standing in “principle” means never compromising, democracy gets sabotaged by extremists.   The rhetoric on the right seems more poisonous, as talk radio and Fox News skew coverage in a way that to me is clearly propagandistic.  MSNBC does so on the left, but without as much efficacy.   Right now, it’s still more spectacle than reality, but we’re close to a line where democracy could become dysfunctional if people start seeing the other side as evil, un-American or akin to traitors.    This would be a bad time for that to happen.

7.  Regional conflicts.   Tensions in Korea, the Mideast, Iran, and elsewhere could create a crisis that could have disastrous ramifications.   Given the other problems we face, we’d be best advised not to meddle in other peoples’ conflicts.  Unfortunately, the US like any great power has a hard time reconciling a loss of power with a need to reduce commitments.  We have to rebalance our commitments with our capabilities to avoid getting dragged into something very dangerous and self-defeating.

All that said, the future isn’t necessary going to be suffering and pain!   Technology is growing by leaps and bounds, and the globalization that makes us vulnerable to China’s choice of what to hold as a reserve currency also makes China vulnerable to any impact a US economic collapse would have on world markets.   We’re in this together, and as long as leaders can see that, they can avoid taking the path of fear and scapegoating.

In Europe the EU is a shining example of how cooperation and recognition of mutual self-interest yields results far superior to the myopic self-interest of the first half of the 20th Century.   They’ve also been quietly positioning themselves for effective reaction to both environmental and energy crises.   If they can make subsidiarity real, and recognize that new technologies mean more power can be devolved back to individuals and localities, and not centralized in Brussles or even state governments, they can model a new kind of political organization, one that might suggest a successor to the increasingly obsolete sovereign state.

If worst case scenarios are avoided, and cooperative innovation embraced, we can chart a future in which we overcome these challenges.  The key is to let go of past ways of thinking about the world, and recognize that we’re entering a new era where a new kind of thinking about politics, self-interest, and human values is necessary.   Are we up to that challenge?  Can the US play a leading role, or will we try to hold on to old ideals, kicking and screaming as reality brushes aside the old order?  I guess that’s up to us.

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Anakin’s Redemption

For the past three weeks my seven year old son has been addicted to Wii Star Wars Lego: the Complete Saga.   The game goes through the main parts of every episode.  Before that, he’d been building Star Wars Lego sets, and watched the films.  His brother, who turns five in a week, has been watching, learning and listening.  He even plays the Wii game, not as good as his brother, but better than his father (me).

On Sunday we made the trek to Portland for the Children’s museum, Christmas lights, and a visit to the bookstore.  There the boys found a book of Star Wars stickers.  As we waited in line to pay, they were going through, talking about the characters, what episode they’re in, as well as analyzing the weapons (different kinds of “walkers,” etc.)   Others in line chuckled, “wow, they’re into Star Wars,” one woman remarked.   I thought I was a Star Wars fan, but I don’t know the cast of characters the way they do.   And even though until recently the four year old still thought Darth Vader went to the “dark side of the forest,” they know the material.

I was thinking about this and a recent discussion on a different blog about the death penalty.  One amazing aspect of the Star Wars story is the ambiguity of the Anakin Skywalker story.   In The Phantom Menace Anakin is a lovable young boy, a slave living with his mom and owned by a junk yard dealer.  He wins his freedom, but must leave his mom behind, a very difficult choice.  He is befriended by Padme Amidala, the young queen of Naboo.   In The Clone Wars, now trained as a Jedi, he falls in love with Padme, and battles his own demons, as he feels distrusted by the Jedi rulers, and angered by injustice.  Finally in Revenge of the Sith he is tempted to the dark side of the force, joins the Emperor, and engages in a mass slaughter, including hundreds of children training to be Jedi.

George Lucas has a brilliant way of pulling us along with Anakin, showing how his tortured feelings, especially after the death of his mother and his visions of Padme, now his pregnant wife, dying in pain haunt him.   In weakness the emperor seduces him to embrace evil, telling him it is for the greater good, and that he can help save his wife’s life.   Yet out of anger he ends up being the one to kill Padme, hitting and weakening her to the point that she would die in childbirth.

Of course, in A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the original episodes from the 70s and early 80s (episodes 4, 5, and 6), Anakin has become Darth Vader, the ultimate villain.   To his original war crimes he adds the destruction of an entire planet, torture, and presumably acts of murder and genocide that go beyond any human list of crimes.

The film turns from a rebel group fighting the evil empire to one of Luke Skywalker who, after being trained as a Jedi, learns the terrible fact that Darth Vader is really his father.  He had been told that Anakin Skywalker was killed by Vader.   This creates a similar drama of anger and weakness that Anakin experienced, as Vader tries to seduce Luke to join the dark side.

Luke, however, senses there is still good in his father, even as everyone else is convinced that Anakin has been lost.  In the end Darth Vader, seeing the Emperor ready to kill Luke, turns on the Emperor and saves his son’s life.  He tells Luke that he was right, there was still good in him.   Darth Vader dies, but now he is again Anakin Skywalker.   In a celebration scene we see the spirits of Yoda, Obe-Wan and Anakin together, reunited, as Anakin has rejoined the Jedi.   Luke and his sister Lea (twins born to Padme before she died; Anakin’s children) live to carry on the Jedi tradition.

In the blog discussion I opposed the death penalty, in part because people can change.  A couple of Christians supporting the death penalty made what I thought a rather weak argument – it’s OK for the state to kill because a verse of the Bible says states have the right to wield the sword.  The fact its been proven that the state is sometimes wrong and kills innocents didn’t seem to have an impact, but I also pointed out that it’s possible for hardened criminals at some point to turn their lives around.   Wouldn’t a Christian want life to continue so the soul would have a chance for salvation?  Isn’t that the same argument for opposition to abortion (the Christians arguing with me oppose abortion rights)?

One thing I like about fiction is it’s ability to build a thought experiment and then connect it to emotion in ways that lead us to paradoxical conclusions.  We all learn to love Anakin, hate Vader, and then celebrate his redemption.   Few would stand at the end and say “it’s horrible that Anakin was able to see his son and die happy (and live happy in the afterlife) after all the suffering he caused.”   In this fictional thought experiment, our knowledge of Anakin means we celebrate his redemption, and see his evil as having been caused by fear, hate, and anger — all too human emotions.   We even understand him, and empathize with how he shuts out all emotion when he turns to the dark side.

Clearly, murderers and dangerous felons need to be separated from society.   And most are far from being romantic Jedi knights serving the Galactic Republic.   But perhaps if we looked at everyone as humans acting out of human emotion gone in wild directions in sometimes painful circumstances ranging from child abuse to life stresses beyond what are normally faced, we’d understand and pity the criminal as much as the victim.   Perhaps the self-righteous condemnation of the “perp” and concern for the victim would give way to a more complex set of concerns for all involved.   Perhaps we’d be able to say that the death penalty is wrong — that while we may need to remove this person from everyday society, there still could be a chance he or she could do some good, or choose a different direction.  Perhaps even those close to victims would see that the death of a murderer does no good – it only adds to the tragedy of that death.

To be sure, most probably won’t find their redemption.  They will be more like Emperor Palpatine or Darth Maul, locked in a fog of fear, hate and anger that perpetuates and causes danger.   Many who are guilty of far less serious crimes than murder are likely not going to find a path out of a sad, violent existence.

Still, perhaps we need to see the humanity of all, as painful and ugly as it can be.  The way Lucas made Anakin understandable when he went through his fall was to show him battling with the same emotions we all encounter.   We could all imagine making those same kinds of errors in the right (or wrong) circumstances/moments of weakness.   That realization — that each of us is capable of both the best and the worst behaviors offered by humanity, breeds a sense of humility and compassion.  If we can touch that, we can forgive.   If we can forgive, we can both change and help others change.

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The end of the “Culture Wars”?

Back in the 1980s a new force hit the American political scene.  It was represented by Jim and Tammi Baker of the PTL (for “Praise the Lord”) club, Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority, ” and Pat Robertson’s 700 Club.   Rising preachers like Jimmy Swaggert promised a Christian renewal of American politics and culture.   Their support was widely credited with helping Ronald Reagan defy the odds and become President in 1980, and they brought a new energy into the Republican Party.

This led to what some called the “culture wars,” where social conservatives fought to win back the soul of America, to re-assert the dominance of Christianity and so-called “family values” in US culture.   The secular left saw this as a threat, the rock band Styx put out a whole album, Kilroy was here on the premise of a moral majority Falwell like take over of the country — one that would ban rock and roll and enforce morality.   The focus of the “Christian right” was to stop the spread of the “homosexual agenda,” to end abortion rights in America, and to halt the decaying and to them decadent cultural trends that they argued started in the 60s with the hippy and anti-war movements.

On Saturday, December 18th, the Senate passed a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (DADT) meaning that soon openly gay men and women will be able to serve in the armed forces.  Recently many states have allowed legal marriage for gays, and opinion polls show that public attitudes on homosexuality have turned around completely in the last thirty years.   This is especially the case amongst young people.   Abortion rights remain, and in fact the abortion issue has faded in salience in the voting public.

Americans remain far more religious than Europeans, but as a force, social conservatism seems to be down and perhaps out.   Moderate John McCain led the fight against repeal of DADT, and even there his argument wasn’t about any kind of ‘homosexual agenda,’ but rather concern this is being done too fast while the country is at war.  When President Clinton first tried to remove the restriction from gays serving in the military, he was hit with an immediate political backlash, it was too much for American culture in 1993.   DADT was put in place to retreat from that effort.   Even Democrats thought it too much.   In 2010 six Republicans joined to vote for the repeal, and no one suggests that President Obama will suffer politically — indeed, not passing it would have hurt him more.

While the “tea party” has strong social conservative roots, remaining a force in the GOP, most Republicans lean towards economic libertarianism, with a desire for smaller government.  In popular culture as well, the idea that more wholesome values will replace the “decadence” of the post-60s transformation of television, movies and music has faded.  The public has rejected social conservatism.

What does this mean?   Especially after conservatives and Republicans enjoyed winning back the House, is it fair to say that the culture wars of the 80s and 90s are over?   At one level, no.  In pockets of the bible belt social conservatism is strong, and clearly it will take time for gay marriage and other cultural changes to become incorporated in the culture.  There will be battles to try halt those changes, and the social conservatives will win some.   But they’re fighting on the defense, and they are unlikely to turn back changes made, or advance.   The days of the big name televangelists are not over, but today’s preachers are more inclusive and tolerant than the Swaggerts, Bakers and Falwells.

Meanwhile, the youngest Americans are increasingly raised without religious training, as church attendance continues to decline.   At the same time, many Christian faiths have embraced gay rights, assert pro-choice positions on abortion, and build interfaith dialogues with Muslims and Jews.   Christians have shifted from waging a kind of holy war to win back the culture to instead emphasizing Christian values and focusing on love, charity and humility.

Falwell has died, Swaggert was downed by a prostitution scandal, sex and drug scandals destroyed the PTL Club, and although Robertson’s 700 club still exists, he has gone from being a player in the GOP to making the news primarily due to outlandish statements, covered more for their entertainment value.   Where once Phyllis Schafly vowed to bring back traditional womanhood, now conservatives embrace Sarah Palin, who hardly represents the kind of traditional view on the role of women espoused by Schafly and others in the 80s.

What does this mean?  Basically, social conservatism was the last gasp of the “old guard,” fighting against cultural changes sweeping across the US and the industrialized world.   They probably never had a chance, western civilization has been secularizing and humanizing at a steady pace for over 300 years years, that’s not something you stop on a dime, especially when economic and technological growth is expanding.

Yet while we’re not about to go back to conservative social ideals, the victory of a humanist cultural ideal remains Pyrrhic if questions of meaning and value are satisfied through purely material and even consumerist perspectives.   What drove social conservatism was a sense that life’s meaning and value went beyond mere material and secular pursuits.  They looked back to the values they remembered from the past, and wanted to recapture them.  In our progressive, modern culture, that’s not possible.  However, there is a role for religion.

What we need is reconciliation between the faithful and the secular, between diverse religions and atheists.   We need to find values built on mutual respect and shared principles.  Whether embraced out of spiritual faith or a rational sense of what is best for a quality of life, we need to get beyond negative fights (over rights and specific issues) and pursue positive ideals.  A lot of Christians are doing this now, and interfaith dialogues are growing.   Radical atheists, like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, are to rational materialism what Robertson and Falwell were to Christianity — extremists whose inability to respect the other side leads to conflict and misunderstanding.

Most of us think there is more to life than material consumption.   It may be a psychological need for self-actualization, a religious connection with God, or a spiritual sense of the transcendent.  But if we can agree to disagree about how we see and understand the world, and agree to try to find common values and mutual respect, the culture wars will not only be over, but will have ended with success for both sides.   Sure, the extremists will continue to lob rhetorical grenades at one another, driven perhaps by their own psychological needs more than anything else.  But Christian love, atheistic rationality, Islamic values and Jewish traditions all point to the superiority of reconciliation and cooperation over anger and fighting.

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