Ikaros

I haven’t spent much time on the blog lately, but it has been a busy summer and fall nonetheless. After moving back to Chicago this year I began searching for a sailboat, its purchase being something I have been planning for several years. I’m really excited to say that, despite the snow covering the ground and the sub-zero temperatures outside, I am a boat owner.

Even before closing I had a list of names. One thing was reasonably certain: the existing name would have to go. That decision is not inconsequential, since renaming a vessel is considered bad luck at best, and suicidal at worst. Considerable tribute, in the form of Champagne, must be paid to Poseidon and the Four Winds in order to rechristen a boat (which will take place in the spring of 2017, if you’re interested.)

I knew from the beginning that my sailboat should pay homage to a great starship from the science fiction canon. As a big Star Trek fan, I gave serious consideration to Defiant from my favorite series Deep Space Nine. Serenity of Firefly fame seemed like a good choice, but it is apparently the most popular name for sailboats, something like naming your daughter Ashley (no offense to all the Ashleys out there.) Names from Iain Banks’ Culture novels also made the short list, Irregular Apocalypse being a favorite. Finally, one of my own story characters, Eloquent Profanity, held on for a long time (to be vetoed by my partner.)

We finally settled on Ikaros, a bastardization of the Japanese interplanetary craft IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun), the first spacecraft to deploy and be propelled by a solar sail. Johannes Kepler proposed the solar sail in a letter to Galileo in 1610, noting that comet tails pointing away from the sun must be reacting to “heavenly particles.” Four centuries later, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully detached IKAROS from the AKATSUKI Venus probe and deployed a 200 square meter sail. Since then it has been sailing toward a point on the far side of the sun.

The IKAROS sail deployed.

The solar sail encompasses many of my interests: the great historical narratives I enjoy, my own recreation, and the science fiction stories I love so much. It seems fitting that a simple idea, four centuries old, could present us with a vision of the future. It is an exciting idea and I look forward to talking with fellow sailors and neighbors in the harbor about what it stands for and how it represents an exciting technology.

However, as I write this I am bracing for ten more inches of snow and a long spell of freezing weather, so I will spend the next few months performing some maintenance projects, enjoying the Strictly Sail show in January, and dreaming of sailing the stars.

Holiday in St. Louis

Going home for the holidays always provides fodder for a family essay, but this is not one of those opportunities. My visit was not stressful, there was no crazy uncle berating my liberal lifestyle in the “big city”, nobody pressured me to get married and have children. I caught up with family and visited dear friends.

Nevertheless, I cannot return to St. Louis without experiencing a sense of ennui, a stifling sensation that strikes the moment I leave the jetway and enter Lambert’s East Terminal. Progress is marked by the closing of the smoking lounge. What some might consider comfortable familiarity is more honestly described as profound stagnation.

With the advantage of reflection the entire visit can be characterized by the word static. It describes the landscape, it describes the urban development, and as we all witnessed with the #Ferguson affair, it describes the personal attitudes of those in power. St. Louis revels in maintaining the existing order of all things. Despite it being a Democratic bastion in Missouri politics, it is one of the most conservative cities I have experienced.

My hotel was in Clayton, the county seat. If you are not familiar with St. Louis, it is where the Grand Jury examined evidence against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown. It represents both power and wealth. Clayton has some of the most prestigious homes, an impressive public school district, and the best business address (relative to St. Louis, of course.)

Downtown Clayton at Bonhomme and Bemiston avenues.

Downtown Clayton at Bonhomme and Bemiston avenues.

Nothing has changed much since my departure six years ago. There have been a couple of small projects, not the kind of growth you want to see in a healthy city. The view from my hotel window told a valid story, one of a bucolic neighborhood that is under no pressure to change. Showing up its neighbors, the brick and glass building in the right background of the photo is a new county jail (although by “new” I mean ten years old.) Most of this urban hub speaks to the glory days of the 1960s.

This is the pace one becomes used to when traveling St. Louis history; what exists serves the status quo and what could be threatens it.

A brief visit to the St. Louis Public Library in downtown served to remind me of the logistical difficulties navigating what is, by all appearances, a small town. The library is a truly beautiful building and I was excited to spend a couple of hours reviewing microfilm of the daily newspapers from the late 1970s. Unfortunately it took me almost 45 minutes to park, not because the neighborhood was busy, but because I had to drive back to midtown in order to find enough quarters to feed the parking meter.

Most serendipitous was an article I came across from 1977 about an urban planning conference held to address population decline in the city. An academic from Washington University in St. Louis asserted that population flight to the suburbs — already a concern at that time—was actually good because it would leave the cosmopolitan demographic in place. In St. Louis-speak that means the poor whites and people of color will move to the county and leave the élite alone in their grand houses. The political machine will remain intact. Life will improve by remaining static.

The old Schnuck’s market at the corner of Hanley and Clayton roads.

The old Schnuck’s market at the corner of Hanley and Clayton roads.

That didn’t work out so well. Worse is that the flight is continuing to erode the county as people flee to exurban communities. Public policies promote flight to the surrounding townships in controlled ways: infrastructure provides the means while eminent domain provides the bludgeon. The unfortunate consequence is an impotence within the core neighborhoods. Even the abandoned Schnuck’s grocery store at the corner of Hanley and Clayton roads—one of the most heavily trafficked intersections Clayton—has not been able to attract a viable development project for over six years. Growth is being exported in order to maintain the familiar.

The situation is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ opening to The Great Divorce. He describes a city that has continued to spread as its residents move farther from each other, until they are barely cognizant of their neighbors. Lewis was illustrating purgatory, and sometimes I wonder if that same sense of limbo exists in St. Louis.

Sameness. Order. Who would dare to rock the boat?

Different faces at the news desks told familiar stories during the morning broadcasts (I wonder if they realized it?) The old feud between Reverend Larry Rice and downtown power brokers took a step forward. Rice, the leader of the New Life Evangelical Center and brash champion of the homeless, is going to be shutdown by the city. The NLEC has provided a safety net and shelter for the homeless in downtown St. Louis for three decades; the city has relied on his private organization in lieu of funding their own program.

As if something psychoactive is in the water supply, the élite believe that closing Rice’s shelter will eliminate the homeless in downtown St. Louis. Instead of recognizing the need for Rice’s shelter and his ability to provide a private solution to a public problem, politicians and developers will scatter the consequences of capitalism to the doorways and park benches that lie below downtown’s renovated loft warehouses.

What lies beneath the 1977 urban planning conference, the Larry Rice feud, and yes, even Ferguson? Social stasis. St. Louis is stuck in a mid-19th century framework while the world grows around and through it. Instead of adapting to powerful social forces, those in power reinforce the defensive walls. The pressure builds.

People like me move away and grow. When we return we see the anachronisms that surround us. Hence the ennui that permeates. Like a dysfunctional love affair, there is deep knowledge that things won’t get better. Attitudes haven’t changed for two centuries, optimism would be folly. Declaring “irreconcilable differences” and asking for a divorce is the only choice. Oh, you might remain sociable at family functions, but the trust and intimacy are gone. The investment has petered out.

Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise

[Note: This review appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books in December 2014. I am reproducing it here with some minor formatting changes.]

Seminal moments in our popular culture arrive less often than we claim, and their impact on our lives often requires time to manifest. Chris Taylor, deputy editor of Mashable and an undeniably rabid “Star Wars” fan, presents a compelling argument that the premiere of “Star Wars” was just such a moment, touching the entire human population. His new book, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise, is a social history of the franchise. More than a chronicle of movie production or an inventory of licensing agreements, it is a far-reaching examination of how the six-movie (and counting) film series changed the world and how the world shaped the franchise.

Taylor weaves his story through many short chapters, and he is not afraid to wander afield when necessary. He starts at the beginning with the founders of the science-fiction genre – H.G. Wells and Jules Verne – to illustrate the distinction between fantasy and science fiction. Later, this legacy explains the divergence of George Lucas’ space opera and Gene Roddenberry’s (the creator of “Star Trek”) futurist vision. Taylor discusses the influence of serial science fiction from the 1940s and 50s, including Lucas’ favorite, “Flash Gordon.”

As any good history demands, this is not simply a story about the movies or George Lucas. We are not only given a cohesive picture of Lucas’ formative years and social influences at home and in school, but also an adequate look at the cultural influences that preceded “Star Wars.” Film school social networks suggest how the Creator – Lucas’ self-proclaimed title – moved toward the realization of his childhood dream of creating a space fantasy/opera. Even Alejandro Jodorowsky’s stillborn “Dune” project demonstrates how failures liberated ideas and talent to change the direction of science-fiction filmmaking by cross-pollinating writers and special effects people. George Lucas may have occupied the watershed position for science-fiction cinema, but he was the product of hundreds of incremental forces.

The cornerstone of any franchise is the fan base, and multiple stories throughout the book emphasize its passion and influence. Albin Johnson’s tragic injury in an automobile accident created a circuitous route to the “Fightin’ 501st” Stormtrooper legion and their adoption as an official standard bearer at Star Wars events. This more than cosplay, it traces both the depth of cultural assimilation across the globe and the embrace of such movements by Lucas. What became known as the Expanded Universe of books, animated series, and other media not only allowed for creativity outside of the franchise, but also provided an environment for ideas to germinate. The success of the movie franchise – despite its uneven critical acceptance by fans – is intimately linked to the familial communities that flourish around the world. Taylor does an excellent job documenting these stories.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe excels when finding anecdotes to reveal its message. In this regard, there is no stronger writing than the Introduction, which recounts Taylor’s visit to the Navajo Nation for the first screening of “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” dubbed in the native language of Diné. This visit – 35 years after the film’s premiere – hoped to discover the few people left on the planet still unaware of the franchise’s cultural impact. We are introduced to George James Sr., who is not only significant for his isolation from “Star Wars,” but also because he is one of the last Code Talkers, a group of World War II veterans who crafted unbreakable code from the Navajo language. Their code was impenetrable because of the cultural barriers between the Navajo and the rest of the world. Now these folks are the latest adopters. James represents the difficulty of transporting myth across cultures, but by the end of the tale (and the screening of the movie), we realize that “Star Wars” has achieved that very goal.

A disappointing omission from the book is an explanation for the movies’ limited distribution channels. After finishing the chapter on the filming of “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back,” I took a break from reading in order to rent the movie. It took no time to realize that it was unavailable in digital format (although you can still buy a LaserDisc version). A bit of research on the Web uncovered myriad conspiracies and explanations, but none could be verified or seemed credible. In a world in which even this 50-something no longer keeps a Blu-ray or DVD player, this strikes me as a huge revenue opportunity being ignored. With all of Taylor’s access to executives from Lucasfilm and its owner, Disney, finding the answer to that question would have been valuable and insightful.

Still, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe engaged me in much the same way as the movies: It was informative and entertaining, even though I had to overlook its flaws from time to time. Taylor’s narrative occasionally strays, but there are great benefits to his storytelling. The book has iconic moments (like the Navajo Nation discussion) and there are sections that fade quickly. But as many fans of the “Star Wars” franchise will tell you, we watch the cable-TV marathons, are instantly transported back to that Memorial Day Weekend in 1977, and talk online with giddy excitement about the next release. Our parents are familiar with the Force and our children play with light sabers. For all of us in this global community, this is definitely a book you will want to read.

#Ferguson Observations from an Erstwhile Local

Less than two weeks ago an altercation between teenager “Big Mike” Brown and Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson ended with bloody finality and ignited sub-surface social tensions in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. There has been no dearth of coverage throughout the media. Much of it has been excellent, but with few exceptions I — a native St. Louisan who only left at age 47 — have not found good descriptions of the overall dynamic present in the region. Unable to experience the situation firsthand, I keep waiting for the narrative of St. Louis’ evolution to emerge. As people are beginning to realize, Ferguson is emblematic of much larger problems; a symbol in a language of oppression. This is not to diminish the importance of individual stories, but to add another layer of nuance and demonstrate that the events of Ferguson are not materializing from thin air, and they will not disappear when the current tension abates. The St. Louis metropolitan area is a product of social, civic, and economic segregation practices that date back to the late nineteenth century.

For a topic so volatile, opinions have varied widely and clustered within a couple of broad narratives: oppression of a minority people and the maintenance of law and order. In one of the best essays I have read, Jeanette Cooperman — a St. Louis writer — reaches back to the eighteenth century to illustrate how those in power used social and civic levers to segregate and control black communities. Recently, a 1937 map of redlined neighborhoods in the St. Louis region has been making the rounds on Twitter. Although it is dangerous to attribute today’s tension in Ferguson to redlining six decades ago (when the town’s demographic composition was quite different,) the idea that minority neighborhoods have traditionally been deprived of wealth and capital is relevant. However, that is not a phenomenon unique to St. Louis, and therefore leaves me unsatisfied when looking for causes. Anthropologist Sarah Kendzior wrote a positive and compelling piece about St. Louis that reminds me of its vitality and opportunity. Christian Davenport — a professor of political science at University of Michigan — wrote this post on the different outcomes of policing when the race of protestors and law enforcement varies. Finally, on the law and order side of the debate, there are posts demonstrating support for Darren Wilson and asserting that compliance to authority is the answer to avoiding trouble.

If we use Mike Brown’s tragedy to find abiding Truths — and I think that is an excellent, noble purpose — then we discover St. Louis fixated on its past. The structures and processes that led to Ferguson, social oppression, and economic inequality are rooted in the nostalgia of a great city at the nexus of commerce.

Early image of the Veiled Prophet.

Early image of the Veiled Prophet.

One manifestation of power in St. Louis is the venerable Veiled Prophet Ball. Although rebranded recently to discard some of its controversial past, the ball has been a symbol of wealth and power for 140 years. Even at its inception in 1878, its purpose was to advance St. Louis as an industrial and agricultural powerhouse to compete with Chicago, despite the fact that the competition was over. The secret society that hosts the event has been comprised of St. Louis’ most powerful men — white, Christian men — who asserted that the ball was designed to boost civic identity and celebrate the success of the region’s élite. Not surprisingly, many working class and non-whites have not shared this interpretation. Apparent in the early symbolism of the pageant (see photo) are racist and authoritarian themes that concerned those outside of the society. The ball was the target of civil rights protests in the late 1960s, which further polarized the population. Blacks were not allowed to join the society until the 1980s, enforcing the dividing line between those who rose through the alleged meritocracy and those who truly held power. The ball is no longer televised, nor does it receive much media attention, but its legacy of asserting social power remains.

On a more mundane level, hierarchy is negotiated in the common starting point of conversation amongst St. Louis natives, “where did you go to high school?” Regardless of age or distance from your home, meet a St. Louisan and they will ask the question, although some do so apologetically. Although I have moved to Chicago and New York, I still must answer it, and it is an embarrassing one. The response immediately conveys your geographic, social, and economic status. North, south, or central; working class or old money; someone with a desirable network or not. These answers provide a potentially big ego boost to the questioner, or alienate all parties and stifle further discussion. It is a bit like asking someone how much money their parents make, or whether they have had many lovers. And lest we question the concreteness of the hierarchy, realize that the successful graduate from Normandy High (the school from which Mike Brown graduated) will never merit the same consideration as the washed-out drug addict from a school like John Burroughs or MICDS (the Country Day franchise.) This is but one way that social mobility is stifled. Like the Veiled Prophet, this structure projects and enforces differences throughout society, beyond the élite all the way to the poorest strata. It may be cloaked in pride, but the only purpose it serves is to perpetuate difference.

The fears of the past and the desire to maintain political dominance manifest in the evolution of civic entities. Other writers have addressed the fragmentation of the region; there is little controversy in asserting that this is by design. St. Louis is one of two American cities that is apart from a county (the other is Baltimore) because it seceded from St. Louis county in 1877. At the time the city was prosperous and metropolitan and it resented the “double taxation” imposed upon it by the rural county. The result can almost be described as a civic schism, ironic in the present day because of the change of fortunes between the two. Additionally, the surrounding county (which includes Ferguson) contains ninety separate municipalities, creating a bizarre mosaic of enclaves witnessing impoverished neighborhoods next to wealthy ones. This plurality of townships often prevents economies of scale and creates risk of capital flight from small neighborhoods. The loss of one employer can mean impoverishment for a city government. One result of this — discussed this week by Jeff Smith on Real Money with Ali Velshi — is the reliance on misdemeanor fees collected through citations. Residents are harassed through fines in order to maintain vital services. A second consequence is the use of county police in lieu of a local force. This separates officers from the community and prevents the relationships necessary for the peaceful maintenance of order.

In response to decades of neighborhood deterioration and population loss, the city implemented a plan in the mid-1990s to redevelop the central corridor between downtown and the Central West End (uptown.) The capital improvements to anchor organizations like St. Louis University and Barnes Hospital created tremendous development opportunities but effectively severed any connection between historically black north and historically white south city neighborhoods. As a result, gentrification is occurring through downtown, midtown, and uptown, while the rest of the city continues to deteriorate. Certainly there are neighborhoods thriving (mostly on the south side) but the ability to connect these into a cohesive network is missing. Instead, city fortunes vary on a block-by-block basis. The shocking distinction is wonderfully captured in this BBC report examining the profound differences found along Delmar Boulevard, a street that divides north and south St. Louis.

The county is also no stranger to bizarre planning. One of the most visible projects was the Page Avenue extension, subsidized by St. Louis county to provide easier access to St. Charles county, west of the Missouri river. Once a rural county peppered with small townships, St. Charles is now an unbroken exurb filled with subdivisions and big box-anchored shopping plazas. New schools, cheap property taxes, and subsidized roads make it attractive to former inner ring suburb residents who want to flee the higher social costs of living in St. Louis county. Not surprisingly, employers are beginning to follow the demographic shift and relocate west of the Missouri river as well. Although signs of growth pains are already evident, the momentum remains strong and will certainly carry more of the population away from St. Louis county (similar forces are acting on the Illinois side of the Mississippi river, where an exurban explosion is also taking place.) In affluent areas, such as Kirkwood, Missouri, the city invoked eminent domain to condemn the entire neighboring village of Meacham Park, which was almost all black. The land now contains a Lowe’s and Sam’s Club. Although the region’s population is stagnant, geographical realignment is a method employed to retain power and maintain the “integrity” of communities.

When I look at the situation unfolding in Ferguson, I [sadly] see the result of an evolutionary process. I see people outraged at the actions of a disengaged law enforcement apparatus, disenfranchised by generations of segregation, and dehumanized by a culture of paternalism. But also important is the flip side: agreement with the actions taken, belief that the presence of a militarized police force demonstrates a problem with crime, and confirmation of long-held beliefs that minorities are not ready to be a part of civil society. These are late-nineteenth century attitudes of race perpetuated through twenty-first century systems and institutions.

St. Louis has many great characteristics. There are great people there. I know many of them, and often miss not being in their company. But this is not about the good. This is about facing our failings and becoming stronger. This is about penance.

We certainly need justice for Mike Brown. We need justice for Ferguson, too. But what is not being communicated by the national media is that we also need justice for the people of Kinloch, Black Jack, St. Ann, Jennings, and many others. Until the region stops gazing nostalgically at its past and recognizes the shape (and color) of its future, there will be more Fergusons.

Summer Reading

Finally, I’m back to reading what I want. It should be a good summer.

Adams, Brooks. The law of civilization and decay; an essay on history. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1897.

Adams wrote one of the first and certainly one of the most influential essays justifying American imperialism (TR cited him.) He and Turner set the tone for American expansionist thought.

Banks, Iain M. Consider Phlebas. New York: Orbit Books, 2008.

I have already started this one, picking it up after hearing about Banks’ cancer. Sadly, he died this week.

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1996.

I need to nurture my creative side a bit.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. Edited by Michel Senellart. Translated by Graham Burchell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

For my Great Famine paper. This may require copious amounts of vodka.

Martin, George R. R. Game of Thrones: A Song of Fire and Ice: Book One. New York: Random House Digital, 2003.

I’m hooked on the series. It’s time to try the books.

Nally, David P. Human Encumberances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011.

Nally is a geographer and Reader at Cambridge. He wrote a compelling, if sometimes problematic, article on biopolitics and the Great Famine. I’m excited to see what he does with this monograph.

Vance, Jack. Tales of the Dying Earth. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 1998.

Jack Vance was described as the greatest science fiction author you never knew. This is a volume of four novels. You can find me at the lake wall…

Williams, William Appleman. The Contours of American History. New York: Verso, 2011.

Williams was a brilliant and outspoken diplomatic historian. Contours and The Tragedy of American Diplomacy have both been reissued for their 50th anniversaries, with new introductions by Greg Grandin and Andrew Bacevich, respectively (both writing for The American Empire Project.)

Today’s Interlude

I just installed a new audio plug-in, so I thought I would post an interlude for the day.

How about a little diversion from the cold weather in Chicago? This is Bebel Gilberto, singing So Nice (Summer Samba). Of course, to my friends down south, this is quite timely. Enjoy.

So Nice (Summer Samba)

Stay tuned — I will have some thoughts on public education and national identity before Monday.

Petraeus, COIN, and the Ghilzai

The past few years have witnessed a resurgence in the popularity of counterinsurgency. Since the Iraq War Surge of 2006, every field commander, armchair general, and think tank analyst has managed to employ the term if not openly embrace the tactic. Although the Iraq results were ambiguous, Barack Obama committed to a counterinsurgency program in Afghanistan upon becoming the U.S. Commander-in-Chief, which included the promotion of David Petraeus to command of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces – Afghanistan. Given the record of counterinsurgency over the past fifty years, this commitment and related enthusiasm seemed misplaced. During recent research conducted over the political frameworks extant in Afghanistan, I uncovered considerable scholarship casting serious doubt on the utility of counterinsurgency there.

Ghilzai Pashtun ElderFor the sake of brevity, I will confine my post to a single article, Jon Anderson’s ethnographic survey of the Ghilzai Pashtun, published in the journal Anthropos in 1975. Anderson identifies three points of interest to the idea of nation-building and governance in Afghanistan. First, he notes that the ethnographic distribution of the Ghilzai Pashtun has remained stable since at least the early 19th century, making our use of his 35-year old article relevant. Second, he describes the Ghilzai Pashtun as “acephalous” and culturally incompatible with centralized government. Tribal rule rests upon ancestral descent, which insures continuity and protects against foreign contamination. Third, the Ghilzai tribe are organizationally incompatible even with other Pashtun tribes throughout the region. Organizational — if not physical — hostility exists between the Ghilzai of the southeast and other Pashtun tribes in the southwest and east into Pakistan. Kabul has rarely been able to exert control over the territory identified as Afghanistan. Anderson’a survey presents a grim prospect for securing an enduring central government.

…committing U.S. units to counterinsurgencies appears to be a very problematic proposition, difficult to conclude before domestic support erodes and costly enough to threaten the well-being of all America’s military forces (and hence the country’s national security), not just those involved in the actual counterinsurgency.

As the quote from David Petraeus’ 1987 Ph.D. dissertation indicates, he once harbored serious misgivings about the effectiveness of counterinsurgency. The failure in Vietnam prompted considerable introspection and a reevaluation of counterinsurgency’s value. After all, the very cornerstone of a successful counterinsurgency campaign assumes that the organic, ascendant power structure can coalesce given a short period of security. Yet the ability of an insurgency to disrupt that power structure demonstrates that it is not inherently organic, nor potentially stable without the means of oppression. This was the lesson of Vietnam, and nothing occurring in Afghanistan contradicts that assertion.

So why the change of heart? In the Forewards to The U.S. Army – Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, Petraeus and Lt. Colonel John Nagl find a new purpose for the tactic. After calling the abandonment of counterinsurgency tactics “a bad idea,” Nagl argues that “[e]conomic development, good governance, and the provision of essential services, all occurring within a matrix of effective information operations, must all improve simultaneously and steadily over a long period of time if America’s determined insurgent enemies are to be defeated.”

As Anderson suggested in 1975, the foundations of counterinsurgency — central governance, foreign involvement, and provision of essential services — are in direct conflict with the culture of the Ghilzai. Providing good governance and creating a matrix of effective information operations have almost no chance of succeeding for reasons long-recognized. What we are left with is the process of providing security for an oppressive power structure that is not organic and will probably not coalesce with internal support.

The Ghilzai Pashtun are just a single example of the complexity of political frameworks in central Asia. What is clear from even a superficial examination of scholarship on the subject is that many obstacles exist that negate the effectiveness of counterinsurgency. If the United States wants to manage a global order that doesn’t require the constant application of force, then it must give greater consideration to organic power structures and rely less on its imperial army to support oppressive regimes. The real legacy of David Petraeus may indeed include his advocacy of counterinsurgency, but without the positive cachet associated with it today.

The World I Want

Since tomorrow is the New Year (in the West), people are making resolutions to change their behavior in 2013. I thought I might try something a little different and visualize the world I want to live in. Maybe 2013 will be a starting point.

  • Because future prosperity will hinge upon a qualified knowledge worker, I want every denizen of the United States to have access to a [nearly] free, quality college education. The social contract with our youth should include a basic education that does not leave them mired in debt. Our state schools need to be financially accessible to everyone.
  • It is wrong to make a profit by providing someone else with healthcare. Good wages yes, but Capital should not be increased because it provides life and happiness to others.
  • The American empire needs to be dismantled. It no longer serves to enrich our economy, it is creating enemies throughout the world, it distracts us from achieving strategic objectives for the upcoming century, and it is killing our youth. Let us begin to fashion a more stable geopolitical structure that serves our future interests before we collapse and become irrelevant.
  • People need to be able to thrive by working 2100 hours per year. Living wages are important, even if we have to pay more money for our shoes and boxer shorts. How about an ISO classification that companies can earn when they provide good working conditions? Then they could label their products in the same way companies tout their ISO 9001 quality standard. Customers could then decide if the extra cost of the product was worth it.
  • Inequality in the United States goes far beyond income. I want to see Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon et al. spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Not because I’m bitter, but because I’m sure that they have committed enough fraud to deserve it. It’s just the right thing to do.
  • Finally, let’s all be better people by leaving the demagogues behind. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones and others of their ilk poison our civic society for their own enrichment. Why should we encourage that? Be a better person and walk away from this filth.

I certainly did not cover everything, but we need to start somewhere. If we set our expectations higher, we can change the dialog. Visualize your goal and move toward it. I’ll see you on the other side.

Have a happy and successful 2013.

The Price of Empire

Last week’s tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School has prompted a passionate discussion about how to respond to gun violence in the United States. The horrific imagery of twenty six- and seven-year olds being gunned down alongside their teachers and school administrators is enough to make even the coldest heart skip a beat. However, the United States’ history of small arms and American exceptionalism complicate any attempt at straightforward policy discussion. Blaming the gun — an American symbol of liberty and virtue — is so disconcerting to the average American that genuine introspection is impossible. Instead, this past week has seen the finger pointed at “evil” people, mental disorders, video games, and an absence of God in the classroom. If we are going to achieve the provision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, our society will have to get sober and make the commitment to address a problem not found elsewhere in the industrialized world.

In the wake of much criticism leveled at the National Rifle Association, Executive Vice-President Wayne LaPierre made a televised statement outlining his organization’s vision for the future. Much like previous statements following other massacres, LaPierre avoided introspection. To hear him tell it, everyone from the entertainment industry to the media is responsible for creating monsters that threaten our safety at every turn. By the end of the session (I can’t call it a press conference because he refused to take questions from those in attendance) it was apparent that one of the most well-financed and vocal lobbying organizations in the country would not participate in meaningful reform.

To be fair, prohibition will probably not solve the problem, but our Constitution protects us from that response, so dire warnings from gun advocates are little more than a straw man. Equally as unproductive are calls for a great proliferation of unregulated firearms throughout society. I have even listened as seemingly rational people advocate that we arm students in schools. But if prohibition and proliferation are not the answer, then how do we address a gun death rate several orders of magnitude higher than other industrialized nations?

It is my assertion that gun technology plays a lesser role in the death rate than gun culture. Although many people are pointing to violent movies and video games as a cause, I am referring to the social more that using a gun can solve a problem. This tenet is deeply ingrained in all levels of our society, from the household to the federal government. From minor property disputes to arguments over shipping lanes and contested archipelagos, we favor armed conflict as the principle solution. Long before we consider the technology — indeed, in almost all cases the response will be asymmetrical to the provocation — the social acceptance of force as an arbiter escalates the conflict.

If we accept that gun culture distinguishes the United States from the rest of the industrialized world, then we need to identify institutions that contribute to that culture. Certainly the NRA qualifies, as does the entertainment industry (although other industrialized cultures ingest similar entertainment without engaging in comparable behavior.) Closer to the heart of the problem is the United States military, who are responsible for maintaining our American Empire and recruiting young men and women to project power across the globe.

The military has created a number of programs to validate the projection of power and glamorize service in the empire. One of the most controversial was The Army Experience Center, a “next-generation” recruiting center in a Philadelphia shopping mall. For two years in 2008-2010, it provided free game consoles and computer simulators for youth thirteen years and older. Recruiters were present and actively engaged those seventeen years and older. Less conspicuous is military consulting with game producers like Entertainment Arts (EA.) Although their game Medal of Honor: Warfighter recently caused problems for some members of Seal Team 6, consulting provides a way for the Pentagon to control its message and inculcate youth into the gun culture.

The PBS show Frontline produced this video clip in 2009. There are a couple of supportive statements in the interview. A young boy remarks, “it really shows you what war’s about” at 2:29. The Army makes its intentions clear at the end of the clip (3:52), when a recruiter claims “I think they’re terrified that it will work.”

The American Empire provides a variety of wealth to the United States’ denizens. Because of United States hegemony, we are the safest haven for foreign investment, allowing the country to borrow at extraordinarily low interest rates. Petroleum is cheap and plentiful. Trade agreements with developing countries insure a steady stream of inexpensive commodities. As members of the empire, we enjoy a profligate lifestyle well beyond that of our contemporaries around the world.

But this profligacy has always come with costs. One of the costs we never speak of is stoking the hubris of our exceptionalism, until we believe that mutual respect is unnecessary. On our streets and across the globe, U.S. Americans expect to triumph. This expectation has led to a very unhealthy reliance on the gun. What begins with the myth of individualism and protection of private property actually ends with an intolerance of others and acceptance of violence as a practical solution.

The next time someone suggests arming teachers with weapons, consider the history that fosters such a prescription. Are we really responding to an evil world that seeks to destroy us from all directions, or have we merely lost the respect, humility, and patience necessary to abhor the use of violence.