April 29, 2013

Rand Paul and the illusion of the righteous drone

In a recent interview on Fox News, Senator Rand Paul said:

“I never argued against any technology being used when you have an imminent threat, an active crime going on. If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and $50 in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him, but it is different if they want to come fly over your hot tub or your yard just because they want to do surveillance on everyone, and they want to watch your activity.”

Yes, it is different… it’s just not very different. In his statement, Senator Paul is making two mistakes. The first is an old one: The ends justify the means. The second is a modern one: Technology is neutral.

While he has attempted the usual political backpedaling since, what Senator Paul clearly intended to say was, to put it crudely, how you kill the bad guy doesn’t matter. In fact, it does. A policeman with a badge and a nametag is a legitimate, accountable agent of the state. He is subject to the law himself, and acts in full view of the public. He is not there to kill, but to arrest if possible, and ultimately to protect the innocent. He gives the honest citizen a sense of security. A weaponized drone does just the opposite. It protects no one, and it arrests no one. It is an anonymous killer. Its operator sits in a room at an undisclosed location. No one will ever know exactly who that operator is, or even what governmental entity the drone belongs to. It can be used with near impunity. It is, therefore, a weapon of state terror by its very nature. If it is just fine to fly weaponized drones over public areas – so long as they pretend not to spy on private property – then it will also soon be fine to fly a weaponized drone over a troublesome crowd of protesters to intimidate and scatter them. Twenty years ago this would have sounded paranoid and far-fetched, but now the only thing that keeps such a scenario from happening is the will to carry it out.

Our government now makes a regular habit of assassinating foreigners from the sky. They find this a convenient process, because it kills or terrifies a few of America’s enemies without risking the embarrassment of having American pilots shown captured and blindfolded on TV. I am no longer confident that the people who now order such things will not, in some eventual emergency, turn those weapons loose on honest citizens who merely disagree with them. I am no longer confident that a farmer in Alabama means any more to our rulers than a villager in Pakistan or Yemen. To the people who hold the reins of power, the Pakistani villager and the Alabama farmer are about equally alien, and about equally unimportant. And, to the media that is supposed to hold the government in check by exposing it to our scrutiny, the villager and the farmer are about equally un-newsworthy too.

We have already gotten accustomed to nameless law enforcement agents wearing masks, dressed from head to toe in black military-style uniforms, equipped with military rifles and concussion grenades. A weaponized drone is merely an extension of this trend. I believe the cop on the beat, with his badge, his pistol, and his duty to serve and protect – keeps us free. I believe an anonymous stormtrooper or a drone does just the opposite. I have no idea, anymore, what Senator Paul believes.

April 24, 2013

The fantasy society of western liberalism

A couple of decades ago there was a popular TV series entitled Star Trek: The Next Generation. Superficially, it was a spin-off of the original Star Trek series of the mid-1960’s. I found it moderately entertaining at the time. There were good episodes and bad episodes. What I did not notice, perhaps because I was more left-leaning then, was that it was not merely a TV show, but rather a long set of parables about how western liberalism imagines society not only will be – but should be.

I will skip the silly exercise of quoting characters and episodes. If your life is so empty of content that you care, you can, I’m sure, watch the whole seven seasons on demand. Since I’m merely using Star Trek: The Next Generation as an illustration of an ideology, I’ll just highlight the salient points from memory.

The series centered on the adventures of a nominally military vessel, whose modus operandi was to seek out hostile aliens and avoid fighting them at all costs. The ship was a kind of “community” vessel, with children and teenagers in evidence, and probably a Montessori school on board somewhere. A few specific passages have stuck in memory. In one, I recall the captain noting, with obvious astonished contempt, how in earlier times the people of Earth had been willing to go to war with one another “even over economic systems.” In other words – Communism is just a different way of doing things! Get over it!

In various episodes it was revealed that, in the brave new world of the 23rd century, work had become an entirely optional thing. You could have a job if you wanted one, but those who didn’t were free to just aspire to whatever higher calling they happened to be interested in. Somehow, in this society, although there were bad apples here and there to advance the storyline, no one simply degenerated into an idle, whiney, de-socialized couch potato. Given the opportunity to aspire to liberal avocations, almost everybody did.

The Federation – the centralized, federal government depicted in Star Trek: The Next Generation, could only be characterized as a humane, consensual, collectivist state. Not only weren’t there any couch potatoes, there weren’t really many misfits or dissenters either. Everybody agreed that the faux-multicultural monoculture of the Federation was the best thing for everybody, and that freedom meant that everybody could wear their own unique ethnic clothing, have their own tastes in food, and sleep with whoever or whatever they wanted to. Here and there an alien race might depart this perfect way of thinking, but that was OK too. To be a citizen of the Federation was to exercise practically unlimited tolerance toward outsiders – one is tempted to say, to bumpy-headed aliens of color. In later seasons, this extended to accepting a parasitic race that sucked the consciousness out of a succession of human hosts and used their bodies merely as vehicles. Well, one mustn’t be judgmental about other, uh… people and their cultures.

There was at least one episode dedicated to advancing the gay and lesbian cause (by thinly disguised alien proxies). There were other episodes, generally less disguised, dedicated to portraying the conservative faction of some planet’s population as paranoid, dishonest, or dangerous. In all respects, the western liberal worldview – complete with its self-righteous monologues, its dewy emotionalism, and its impossible contradictions.

It was only a TV show. Still, let’s not pretend that the messages that people absorb from the popular media don’t mold them in part, particularly during their youth, and more particularly in a culture in which parenting is often a sort of afterthought, and in which established authority has largely discredited itself. I have to wonder if we don’t have mid-level diplomats right now who were Star Trek NG fans as kids. “Kim Jong Un just doesn’t seem to understand our patient, infinitely tolerant response. Maybe we should apologize again, or lay down our weapons or something. WTF!?” Maybe the love that the rest of the world has long had for American TV hasn’t been about their love for us, but about every human’s prurient curiosity regarding the behavior of idiots. Perhaps we aren’t the role model we like to think we are – but just another of history’s traveling freak shows.

The larger liberal narrative, the one of which outdated science fiction programs are only the smallest and most petty examples, is indeed quite like a freak show – and not completely unlike the fantasy regime of Kim Jong Un’s North Korea. We don’t have all the totalitarian trappings yet, but our internal surveillance technology is already far better than his. We – or they, as I can no longer even recognize, let alone identify with, my own government – are certainly obsessed, like North Korea, with defining and redefining reality to meet political need. Our government is now a tiny circle of ideologues in a shrinking ideological bubble. Or perhaps even to call it a bubble is overly optimistic. Bubbles, at least, are transparent. It is, I think, more like a citadel. A fortress that sees the outside world only through the lens of what its occupants already know – and know a priori. A truth which is ultimately measured against the liberal narrative itself – in which every opponent is a racist; every non-Caucasian is a liberal; every corporation is deliberately evil; every expansion of government is good; and everyone one outside the citadel is ultimately too stupid to be allowed any decisions beyond the color of his or her cell phone case. It is a movement desperately re-enacting its own history – the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement – in the absence of any real opposition to those causes. What could be more freakish? What could be more tragically entertaining?

April 19, 2013

The saddest possible form of dignity

Watching the coverage of the Boston marathon bombing a few days ago, I began to think about the question of who was responsible. There are people who would obviously love the bombers to have been rightwing extremists -- there are even leftwing journalists who have said so. Most Americans believe the perpetrators were the usual Islamic suspects, perhaps foreign-born or perhaps domestic. The Federal authorities will eventually arrest somebody, probably the guilty parties, and it will all get incorporated into everybody’s respective narratives, with the usual finger-pointing, hand wringing, TV commentary, and a book or two in a couple of months. This is the way we digest tragedy at this point in our history, for better or for worse. Everybody in the media will tell us how we should feel about the incident – as though we were mere inanimate objects, waiting for the godlike voices of others to fill our empty minds with feelings. As though we were not qualified to fill in even those for ourselves.

Of one thing, I am fairly certain. Anyone who plants a bomb in a crowd, or shoots up a school, or even flies an airplane into a building, shares in a very common, very unhappy byproduct of progress. They all know, in their hearts if not in their minds, that the world has no need for them. People who believe that they are needed, that they have some meaningful connections to their societies, are not generally willing to engage in random murder to get attention. To do that, you have to know beyond a doubt that you are nothing.

I don’t think the ideologies that crop up in these things are really very important. To be sure, radical Islam is a nasty set of ideas, but it does not make people want to kill so much as it promises relevance to people who have little reason to live. People who love their lives have better things to do than throw them away. A person who would lay a bomb in a crowd is someone with nothing better to do.

A kid shoots up a theater or a school, and we say that he is mentally ill – as though that diagnosis somehow meant something. For the most part, it is nonsense. All that this sort of labeling really accomplishes is to draw a psychological line between us and the people that we fear. It is really not much better than saying that the killer was “bewitched,” or “possessed by the devil.” It makes us feel better about ourselves. It gives us comfort in whatever sociological niche we happen to identify as our sanity.

Let me be clear – I am not defending the killers as yet another class of victim. We already have far too many victims. Most of contemporary life seems to be one long competition for the attainment of the most attractive form of victim status. Setting out to butcher people for whom the world is working a little better than it is for you can never become an acceptable defense for murder. If it does (and it has sometimes come perilously close to doing so) the glue that binds society together will dissolve. When everyone’s sins are forgiven in advance there is no incentive not to commit them.

What I am saying is that perhaps we have so many mass murderers because we have so many people whose lives are essentially irrelevant. This is not a matter of mere income inequality. Even in an extremely stratified society, the lowest classes can do vitally important things and take some pride in their mundane contributions to the public as a whole. The problem of our times is that one could erase enormous numbers of people from most societies without any economic consequences whatsoever. Technology has made us so productive that most people are unnecessary. Large populations are not a strength now, but a burden. In America, at least, this is something rather new.

People die if they do not have food. If they do not have purpose, they rot. Most rot quietly in front of a TV screen or some equivalent venue, but a handful, especially among the young, rot actively in the pursuit of the saddest possible form of dignity. They feel, even if they can seldom quite articulate the fact, that it is better to be the world’s enemy than the world’s discarded trash.

This is where we are right now, as the population rises and the market value of human life declines.