Monday, June 20, 2016

An American Nightmare

I feel this storm brewing inside me, but it's lopsided, like a scatter-brained tornado. It starts to gather force and bare down, only to switch courses, dissipate into several little dust devils, and try again another day. So much in my life feels unstable right now, but I can't always put my finger on what aspect most needs attention such that all the others will begin to settle as well. 

My mom is a social worker and recently described a client of hers as having "existential depression". I'm plenty familiar with what depression is, but I asked her what the existential distinction meant, and she described this person as viewing Life as a game which he has lost. In order to avoid losing this game, he decides not to play. Man, I feel you. (image)

I hate reading articles about depression, because I never want to realize that I might have been going through a stretch without realizing it. LIKE I ALWAYS DO. I am what you might call a high-functioning occasionally depressed person, which makes it feel like lying or whining to say that "I can't see past the darkness, and I can't fix it". I even saw a headline that said "depressed mothers are almost never able to put their children first" and something inside me wanted to scream. I can not afford to drown in my own life or even the sorrows of the world at large when I have two precious and vulnerable people to love. Get behind me, Satan.

I have flicked my tongue in the ice cream bowl of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and found that it has no bottom. I'm sickened with awareness of all the truths I have no access to, tomorrow's shooting that I can't predict, and the hopelessness of pinning justice on culprits. I feel my desire for this knowledge and this justice stabbing in the dark, hoping to touch something solid. I am mummied by my smallness in the grand scheme of everything.

A big factor in this instability I've been feeling is a result of a history class I recently finished. I read about several historical events that I considered to be of major impact concerning the integrity of the United States as a nation that I'd never heard spoken of before in text books or classrooms or conversations. Apart from the invasion of Iraq, I would guess that 90% of my peers have never heard of these events or the US's handling of them either. I'm sure that part of this is because many things happened before I was born, but I'm also coming to grips with the realization that this country may never have been Great in the way that I thought it was, even though I have been more skeptical than most from the beginning. 

I feel that I have fallen captive to my own station, age, and place in life. I can't see anything other than what my outlook presents to me, and even when I can break through once in a strawberry moon, it only serves to make me schizophrenicly aware of how little I know. Sometimes truths flit across my screen or occur before me in broad daylight and I think, "this is too sad or obvious not to be news already" or "making a big deal of this makes me a loud nuisance" or "believing that this is real shapes me into a conspiracy theorist", so I move along to something clearer, sharper, bigger.

I can't carry the weight of every secret, but my keen awareness of the existence of ruinous secrets that I can't access makes it harder for me to trust anything. I know that I need not trust anything or anyone but my Savior, but I'm refusing to stop playing this Life game that I can never win. We are called to be in the world and not of it, but how can I even be in this world if I don't know what it is that I'm "in" anymore? Reality feels like a corridor of funhouse distortion mirrors. 

It has been very difficult for me to believe that politicians (and people in general) lie as much as I'm told they do. When I've heard, "well, he/she is a politician, afterall..." or "you can't believe anything you hear from the media", etc., I've always thought that was incredibly cynical. As humans, it is impossible to be completely objective in all circumstances, even if we witness something with our own eyes. 

Yet, there's a level of corruption in our media and our government that up until now, I've just refused to believe is anything but an occasional fluke. I thought critics of the response to Benghazi were just picking a fight, I thought Chris Christy and his staff closing that bridge was too ridiculous to be true, I thought there was something that must be missing to the story that would make a 6-month jail sentence for Brock Turner make sense. Instead, people in charge really do lie and really are petty and really do try and cover their own bums to progress in their careers. None of us are perfect, but even one lie tears a big hole, and there are more holes than fabric left in my worldview. 

Part of the ringing in my ears has to do with the futility of cutting through all the noise we/the media make on a daily basis, on top of scandals themselves. "The web’s algorithms all but removed any editorial judgment, and the effect soon had cable news abandoning even the pretense of asking 'Is this relevant?' or 'Do we really need to cover this live?' in the rush toward ratings bonanzas....And what mainly fuels this is precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness. Online debates become personal, emotional, and irresolvable almost as soon as they begin. Godwin’s Law — it’s only a matter of time before a comments section brings up Hitler — is a reflection of the collapse of the reasoned deliberation the Founders saw as indispensable to a functioning republic." (source)

I feel this so acutely, but the alternative to ignoring the news and the internet is to stop playing Life. Instead, I have to run faster and faster to stay in the game, and I'm more and more confused by what the rules are. Perhaps it's not that the trivial things in the news are not true, just that it becomes impossible to weigh and intake what important truths are, which gives one a sense of mistrust which is only compounded by the fact that many of the things we read - or parts of things we read -  are untrue, and it's very difficult to verify the facts.

Did you know that the US has been at war for 222 of its 239 years (counting from 1776)? That fact on its own is not inherently bad, though to me it suggests that we've been swift to arms for our entire life as a country. In the case of our recent war with Iraq, the US invaded Iraq in the name of deposing Saddam Husayn, which I'm sure was a genuine objective of the invasion, but Iraq had recently annexed Kuwait, and the tension threatened to cut off access to oil in the region which would have been economically disastrous for the US. 

I find that to be a despicable reason to wage war, but even if we overlook that, the US bombed Iraq for days and days and days, despite having wiped out the Iraqi military's capacity to retaliate on the first day. Instead of killing Saddam (which I would dispute the right of the US to do in the first place), they laid waste to an entire country, which ended ordinary life for the entire population of Iraq and severely impacted the refugee crisis that was already going on in the region.

I wouldn't quote textbooks at you if I didn't think it was really important. Since my entire point is that it's really difficult to decipher what is true, I'm trying to cite someone more authoritative than myself to provide as close to factual truth as I can manage. This is some more detail about what I described above, written by William Cleveland.
Throughout the Arab world, the Gulf crisis generated anxiety and ambivalence. Although Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait was generally condemned, the arrival of a major US military force to reverse the occupation was extremely unpopular. The US intervention tapped a deep source of Arab resentment that focused on the United States’ double standard in the Middle East. Arabs noted that though Washington was quick to enforce UN resolutions against Iraq, it had not tried to compel Israel to obey UN resolutions pertaining to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 
By concentrating on the figure of Husayn, the US administration gained popular support for military action directed against a ruthless individual ruler without having to explain the possible impact of such a war on the people of Iraq. Behind the rhetoric about the liberation of Kuwait and the cruelty of Husayn lay a more practical motive for military action. The rulers of the Arab Gulf states provided the United States and Europe with dependable access to reasonably priced oil. From the perspective of the Western oil-consuming nations, the stability of the Arab Gulf monarchies and their continued willingness to sell oil to the West were essential to Western economic well-being. Moreover, the Gulf rulers’ practice of reinvesting their oil profits in the West was vital to the health of the Western economies. 
Evidence released after the war revealed that US reports grossly inflated the size and the abilities of the Iraqi military in order to justify the massive force deployed against Iraq. The Iraqi conscript troops who had managed to survive the bombings were poorly supplied and thoroughly demoralized.

Beyond getting into things for dishonorable reasons, the US has a less-than-well-publicized record of making a massive mess and then not cleaning it up or apologizing. Two examples are nuclear testing in Micronesia and Iran Air flight 665

In the first example, the US detonated a H-bomb for testing purposes during the Cold War on an island called Bikini Atoll, from which they evacuated about 170 indigenous islanders beforehand. However, they did not warn surrounding islands, which woke up to 2 inches of radioactive dust on all surfaces, including sources of drinking water. Within hours, children and adults were experiencing extreme signs of radiation exposure, but it took the US government 2 days to begin treating and evacuating people. The islands have been uninhabitable ever since, and the islanders were ferried from one temporary camp to another, often with inadequate food and water provided. In the 1970s, the residents of Bikini Atoll were permitted to return home after being told that their land and crops were safe again, but the land certainly was not safe, and the entire process of radiation poisoning and evacuation was repeated. Admittedly, the strength of the bomb was not understood upon its detonation (which is an easy argument for why it should not have been detonated in the first place) and none of this destruction was intended, but none the less, great damage was inflicted and then aftermath handled shamefully by the US. The former residents of Bikini Atoll remain displaced today. (image)

In the case of Iran Air flight 665, I linked to the Wikipedia page, which provides a summary of the event, but I initially read about it in this book (which I highly recommend as a tool to see US international conduct more objectively). In one sentence, what happened was that a US Naval ship mistakenly shot down an Iranian civilian airplane, killing 290 people. Here are the highlights from Wikipedia that explain how the accident was grossly mishandled by the US. 
When questioned in a 2000 BBC documentary, the U.S. government stated in a written answer that they believed the incident may have been caused by a simultaneous psychological condition amongst the 18 bridge crew of Vincennes called 'scenario fulfillment', which is said to occur when persons are under pressure. In such a situation, the men will carry out a training scenario, believing it to be reality while ignoring sensory information that contradicts the scenario. In the case of this incident, the scenario was an attack by a lone military aircraft.
"Contrary to the accounts of various USS Vincennes crew members, the shipboard Aegis Combat System aboard Vincennes recorded that the Iranian airliner was climbing at the time and its radio transmitter was "squawking" on the Mode III civilian code only, rather than on military Mode II.
After receiving no response to multiple radio challenges, USS Vincennes fired two surface-to-air missiles at the airliner. One of the missiles hit the airliner, which exploded and fell in fragments into the water. Everyone on board was killed.
Even if the plane had been an Iranian F-14, Iran argued that the U.S. would not have had the right to shoot it down, as it was flying within Iranian airspace and did not follow a path that could be considered an attack profile, nor did it illuminate Vincennes with radar.Prior to the incident,Vincennes had entered Iranian territorial waters, and was inside Iranian territorial waters when it launched its missiles. Even if the crew of IR 655 had made mistakes, the U.S. Government remained responsible for the actions of the crew of Vincennes, under international law.
Three years after the incident, Admiral William J. Crowe admitted on American television show Nightline that Vincennes was inside Iranian territorial waters when it launched the missiles. This contradicted earlier Navy statements.   
George H. W. Bush, at the time vice president of the United States in the Reagan administration, defended his country at the United Nations by arguing that the U.S. attack had been a wartime incident and that the crew of Vincennes had acted appropriately to the situation. 
The U.S. government issued notes of regret for the loss of human lives, but never apologized or acknowledged wrongdoing. George H. W. Bush, the vice president of the United States at the time commented on a separate occasion, speaking to a group of Republican ethnic leaders (7 Aug 1988) said: "I will never apologize for the United States — I don't care what the facts are... I'm not an apologize-for-America kind of guy." The quote, although unrelated to the downing of the Iranian air liner, has been attributed as such.
Despite the mistakes made in the downing of the plane, the men of the Vincennes were awarded Combat Action Ribbons for completion of their tours in a combat zone. The air-warfare coordinator on duty received the Navy Commendation Medal, but The Washington Post reported in 1990 that the awards were for his entire tour from 1984 to 1988 and for his actions relating to the surface engagement with Iranian gunboats. In 1990, Rogers was awarded the Legion of Merit "for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer ... from April 1987 to May 1989." The award was given for his service as the commanding officer of the Vincennesfrom April 1987 to May 1989. The citation made no mention of the downing of Iran Air 655.
As you can see, the US handled the situation both dishonestly and uncompassionately. It is a great wonder to me why many Americans think that Middle Eastern nations harbor anger against the US for "no good reason", especially when our leaders publicly state that we never apologize for our actions. It's an entirely separate story, but did you know that the US removed a democratically elected prime minister in Iran without the consent of the people? Anyway, I do not believe that the US conspired to kill Iranian civilians in the airbus shooting, but consider that if the tables had been turned and Iran had accidentally/hastily shot down a US airline, the US military would most likely have bombed Iran to smithereens in retaliation

I understand that there's no need to flog ourselves continuously over past mistakes, but I'm appalled that I felt that these acts on the behalf of a government I have trusted and supported and spoke up for were not only swept under the rug, but never even owned up to as problems in the first place.

Now I want to pivot to what's currently happening in the US, and how it has affected my view of this country. I think we can all agree that whatever is happening is about as complicated as that pile of wires for electronic goods that you may or may not still own, but are afraid to get rid of in case you might need one of them someday. You know the one I'm talking about. I'm not going to be figuring anything out in any solid terms here, but I am trying to offer some critically considered avenues of thought, none-the-less. 

We can't talk about this American ball of wires without talking about Donald Trump. Strangely, he doesn't scare me as much as he did initially (once he became an apparently real option, that is). He's even said a few things I like. However, he doesn't represent me as an American, and that has really led me to question what being American means if I'm unable to align myself with anything that my country stands for. Ultimately, I think this 2016 election is less about the candidates and more about what We the People have become, and why. I don't really know what America is right now, and not knowing what it is or where it's going makes me wonder what is used to be, and where my place was and is and will be in it. 

This little bit (also from Revolutionary Iran) from Ernest Gellner from 1995 struck me, and I've read it over and over trying to fully grasp it: 
"A collectivity united in a belief is a culture. That is what the term means. More particularly, a collectivity united in a false belief is a culture. Truths, especially demonstrable truths, are available to all and sundry, and do not define any continuity of faith. But errors, especially dramatic errors, are culture-specific. They do tend to be the badges of community and loyalty. Assent to an absurdity is an intellectual rite de passage, a gateway to the community defined by that commitment to that conviction."
What I think that means is that we, as a culture, are defined by our collective beliefs (which are separate from Truth itself), and we are especially knit together by our dramatically erroneous collective beliefs.  Once again, I feel trapped in time and space and the probability that being part of the group called Americans makes me unable to see our collective errors at times. At the same time - and maybe this is a beauty of being American - I think the essence of American culture is being able to say, "no, I see the way this is going, and even if I'm the only one, I'm going to be a different kind of American." As of right now, that is still legal in this country, and that's something I'm proud of. The statement may come from weak and exhausted lips, but it's being spoken none the less.

Even more encouraging, I'm far from the only one who is trying to fall out with whatever the collective course of error is. I don't want to go back to the way things were - they used to be worse in terms of poverty and racial injustices in this country. I want to move FORWARD, just in a different direction than we seem to be headed. 

My brother-in-law shared this loooong but excellent article (by Andrew Sullivan), that simultaneously helped me understand how Trump has garnered so much legitimate support (for so long I wondered, who are these people who like him?) and made me more concerned of the possibility of him as President than ever. 

The article talks a lot about Plato having predicted an arc of democracy and how, rather than democracy crumbling and giving way to a leader like Trump, it's democracy on steroids (literally everyone's opinion matters, and the emotions of the people - many of them idiots - take over in the place of reason) that leads to Trump. Sullivan notes, "It’s as if [Trump] were offering the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities....And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment...The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force".(Sullivan). Oddly, this is a very similar thought to what Michael Axworthy (Revolutionary Iran) puts forth, "In a revolution, new leaders emerge from unexpected directions, surprising those who were too quick to think themselves the masters, or proprietors."

In the past year or two, I have begun to question whether democracy is as worth promoting as I once thought it was. I'm embarrassed that the US pushes democracy on others in light of where ours has led us. I would rather be under a decent king than in the hands of a Trump-loving democratic mob.

I've been thinking a lot about revolution after reading about the Iranian revolution of 1979 and finding so many parallels to what is happening in the US right now. If you think that something like the Iranian revolution and its aftermath (generally thought of in the US as the epitome of oppressive societies) can't happen in the United States in the next five years, if not this very year, you are wrong.
"Mass movements, he notes (as did Tocqueville centuries before him), rarely arise when oppression or misery is at its worst (say, 2009); they tend to appear when the worst is behind us but the future seems not so much better (say, 2016)....When those who helped create the last recession face no consequences but renewed fabulous wealth, the anger reaches a crescendo."    
Sullivan goes into more (very helpful) detail about who Trump supporters are and why, but suffice to say:
"For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome."  
"The jobs available to the working class no longer contain the kind of craftsmanship or satisfaction or meaning that can take the sting out of their low and stagnant wages. The once-familiar avenues for socialization — the church, the union hall, the VFW — have become less vibrant and social isolation more common. Global economic forces have pummeled blue-collar workers more relentlessly than almost any other segment of society, forcing them to compete against hundreds of millions of equally skilled workers throughout the planet."
Don't get your panties in a wad when I say this, but I tentatively admire resistance groups like the Black Panthers (here's their 10-point agenda) and the Muslim Brotherhood, which were born out of a desire to retake pride and control from political power figures gone sour. Both groups are known for their periods of violence, but neither sought to be characterized by it. Both groups offered social benefits to people that the government was not providing. I must stress that I have merely surface-level knowledge of both groups (I know more about the Muslim Brotherhood), but I find it very interesting to study them as I ponder what my role is in an over-ripe democracy.

I'm contemplating what civil disobedience might look like under a President Trump. I can think of several things that he has suggested making into law which I would unabashedly disobey, even at the cost of going to jail or perhaps even harsher punishment. I would rather my children see me punished for breaking an unjust law than see me ignore injustice. (image source)

Sullivan's breakdown of Trump's character is very helpful, but also terrifying. I said before that I'm not afraid of Trump, and that is mostly true. I am more afraid of the atmosphere that has allowed him to gain prominence, and the possibility that that atmosphere will continue to encourage tyrannical leaders to rise up. As in Iran, even a democratically elected anti-establishment resistance leader can (and certainly does) seize control when trusted and that may well be the end of democracy as we know it. More than Trump as an individual, his rhetoric about shutting down the press (he's already banned the Washington Post from being in his presence) and threatening military and government leaders who oppose him signal something far scarier than a questionable individual for President. 
(Sullivan quoting Plato) A tyrant is a man “not having control of himself [who] attempts to rule others”; a man flooded with fear and love and passion, while having little or no ability to restrain or moderate them; a “real slave to the greatest fawning,” a man who “throughout his entire life ... is full of fear, overflowing with convulsions and pains.”....To call this fascism doesn’t do justice to fascism. Fascism had, in some measure, an ideology and occasional coherence that Trump utterly lacks. 
No modern politician who has come this close to the presidency has championed violence in this way. It would be disqualifying if our hyper­democracy hadn’t already abolished disqualifications....[He's] giving legitimacy to the most hysterical and ugly of human impulses.... It remains a fact that the interests of ISIS and the Trump campaign are now perfectly aligned. Fear is always the would-be tyrant’s greatest ally.
I'm not entirely sure how to sum up all the main points of this post. Perhaps I can just say that I want my children to grow up thinking that being the President is a cool job, worthy of respect as it is meant to be a position of servant leadership. I'd like to see the return of dual-party tickets. I'd like to see Kasich or Bernie win and share his ticket with the other, instead of a candidate being investigated for varying degrees of law-breakage (pick your party...). I'd like to see millennial women and first generation immigrants in the President's cabinet. But maybe this is the beginning of the end after all, and maybe there is an upside to that. Maybe I will figure out what it is and write another really long, some-what disjointed post about it. 

When I was a kid and we lived in China, our home was in a concrete block of apartments on the 5th floor. My parents never drove in China, so when our family was out past bedtime, a taxi would take us all the way to our building, and then if we were asleep, my dad would pick us up and carry us up all those stairs (no elevator) and into bed. I was rarely 100% asleep, but I still played dead so that I could be carried. I remembered how safe it felt to be in my dad's arms, knowing I didn't have to do anything but rest in that space and have everything I needed taken care of.

I was praying somewhat dejectedly in the midst of the mental and emotional exhaustion I feel from everything mentioned above (plus debilitating sickness in our home and multiple mass shootings, stabbings, and assassinations in the news this week) when that memory came out of nowhere. I had this intense desire to be taken care of in the eye of this storm, and to relinquish my burdens (Matthew 11:28-30). I'll get back to you if I figure out what being American means anymore, but in the mean time, I'm googling "can white people join the Black Panthers" (mostly kidding, but did you know that there was a BPP endorsed White Panther Party?!) and trying to rest in the thought that Jesus has already won Life, even if I never do. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails