Forever War

About ten years ago it began to be popular so say “thank you for your service” to veterans and active duty members of the armed services. It was a sign of the maturing of our social consciousness, and sorely needed after a generation of Vietnam veterans came home to both apathy and hostility from a conflicted public. Many of us were learning at last to separate the soldier from the war, to support the former without condoning the latter.

We’ve had many opportunities to cultivate this particular insight, though we seem to need regular refresher courses.  In the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Indian Wars, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish American War, WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War and the Global War on Terror, over 1.1 million American men and women lost their lives.

I was lucky to be in the Marine Corps during one of those rare periods in our recent history when the involvement of our armed forces in police actions and nation building was at a minimum. I was also fortunate never to send a child or a sibling off to war, or wait for a parent’s return, though there are many stories in my family about what it feels like to experience these things. Until recently, these were just stories, poignant, but long ago and far away.

Last week it became a lot more personal when I said goodbye to a friend on his way to one of those sandy places on the other side of the globe where we have sacrificed almost 7000 American lives and spent about a trillion dollars in the global war on terror.

My friend is a young man who had already chosen a path of service, just beginning his career as a police officer, just starting to settle into his new life and career,  but when his national guard unit was called up, with no hesitation and no regrets, he was prepared to go. At a recent holiday gathering I said goodbye to him with a lump in my throat.

It’s hard for me to imagine what his parents must be feeling, the worry and uncertainly that never completely goes away, the sleepless nights, the visceral anger, and the dull ache. Many of you know exactly what I’m talking about.

So yes, we support the troops, God bless them, and we sincerely thank them for their service. They are the best of us. But as our forever war drags on into its second decade, we remember also the sacrifices made by the families of those men and women who serve at the convenience of our government. The gratitude we extend to our soldiers should be shared generously with those who wait and worry and pray, and to those of you who do, thank you for your service as well.

Surely there is more that we can do beyond giving lip service to the gratitude we feel for someone else’s sacrifice.  Is it not also our duty as well as our right to require of our politicians who, on paper at least, work for us, that they end this forever war? That they cease making enemies for us to fight? That there be an accounting of the costs in blood and treasure for the sake of those young people who are about to join a war that began before they were born? Scarcely in the history of the world has one people existed as the natural enemy of another. Enemies are made on the Wall Streets of the world, not the Main Streets. Is it learned helplessness that keeps us silent, or are we content with sacrifice as long as it doesn’t affect us personally?

If you haven’t heard the term, “forever war,” it is perhaps a more honest description of what is otherwise known as the global war on terror. Eisenhower warned us about forever war in his farewell address to the nation. Yes, the seeds of forever war were planted a long time ago, but it was during the administrations of Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama that the business of conflict was elevated to an art form.

How soon we forgot the events leading up to the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein, which opened  Pandora’s Box and destabilized the middle east for generations! Does anyone in America remember Clinton’s wars, the destruction of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, cluster bombs in Serbian markets, the disruption of the Yugoslav economy and the destabilization of southeast Europe? Millions are alive in the Balkans who do remember. Tens of thousands are dead who don’t.

Does anyone remember the blatant lies about “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, or were we all soothed into forgetfulness by smiling photos of good friends, Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush,  globe-trotting together? Did we get a warm, fuzzy feeling when George W. passed Michelle O. a piece of candy during John McCain’s funeral? Remember President Obama, the all time champion drone striker and weapons dealer, selling American arms all over the globe?  What about President Trump, who is on track to exceed even Obama’s world record at arms dealing?

And speaking of President Trump, blunt, unpredictable, unpopular President Trump, who was eviscerated for trying to normalize relations with Russia, attacked for pulling troops out of Syria and criticized for planning to reduce our presence in Afghanistan, what do we make of his actions? What do we make of the instantaneous push back of politics and punditry headlined and dramatized by mass media?

Who can say? What can we infer from the unified chorus of peace loving liberals, hawkish neoconservatives (republicans and democrats) and corporate media mouthpieces shouting their panic and outrage over the possibility that we might choose to remove thousands of our sons and daughters from harm’s way?

Yes, I know. Fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them at home. We’ve heard that for almost 20 years now, long enough to expect that some kind of resolution be forthcoming.   Remember when Shelby Foote,  in that great Civil War Series,  told the story of a Confederate soldier talking to a Union soldier across the picket lines one night? The Yankee soldier asked the Rebel, “Hey Reb, why are you fighting?” The Rebel soldier answered, “Because you’re down here.”

Is it possible that maintaining military bases inside sovereign nations, supporting brutal dictators,  destroying economies, turning infrastructure into rubble and killing tens of thousands of civilians just might do more to cause terror than to prevent it?

But as the cards are shuffled and terrorists become allies and allies become adversaries,  and as decades of bombings, missile and drone strikes and sanctions finally begin to fragment and diminish those who “hate us because they hate freedom,” the forever war needs new enemies. Enter stage left, Russia and China.

The think tanks tell us that we need to fear Russian and Chinese hypersonic glide platforms capable of defeating most if not all of our countermeasures. Billions of dollars in research and development will be necessary to counter this threat, and if you invested in Lockheed Martin, you’ll be happy to know that they were just awarded a sizable contract to help us catch up.

Of course, fool-me-once citizens might have a few questions. Given that governments are capable of lying (remember WMD’s) we might reasonably ask if what they say is true. It might very well be true, but given that we spend more on defense than the next seven countries combined, is it not also reasonable to ask why we are playing catch up with someone we “defeated in the cold war?” I suppose money doesn’t buy what it used to, or maybe the ruble goes a lot farther in Russia than the dollar does here.  We might also ask why the recent Defense Department audit was off by trillions of dollars, but that’s another story.

One of the benefits of living in a nation which promotes free speech is that armchair diplomats and sofa-ops soldiers, and all kinds of people with no skin in the game, are free to express their opinions on any subject. Many of us are beginning to question how our opinions are formed. I want to respond to one opinion in particular.

Go ahead and tell me that we have to fight them over there, that it’s dangerous to consider disengaging from the nation destroying, widow making,  migrant producing enemy factory of forever war.  Tell me that we’re foolish to reduce tensions with well armed adversaries (and their relentless tweets and subversive Facebook posts). Tell me that you’re eager to send a son or daughter to fight. Tell me that you’re ready to volunteer yourself.

So, you’ve never served, never said goodbye to a son or a daughter, a husband or a wife or a parent as they left home to travel thousands of miles to a place where they will be almost universally despised, and where not even the nation they’re supposedly helping to “build” wants them to be there? You don’t even know anyone personally who served? Well. You must be a Congressman or a Senator (or a network commentator or a former president or presidential hopeful). If you are, there’s a better than 80% chance that you have no skin in the game of war. That’s right, for most of you whose responsibility it is to allow, or not to allow the sacrifice of American blood and treasure, it might as well be a game, because you suffer no consequences from your actions.

Go ahead and try to press your argument by enumerating all the returns that we (the tax paying public) have received from our multi-trillion dollar investment in destroying and rebuilding countries, and how the loss of 7000 American lives was worth the sacrifice. We’re not listening. We know who you are. We know you by the fruit of your labors. You came to Washington to do two things: To get reelected, and to work tirelessly to figure out ways to privatize profit while socializing risk.

Hopefully enough of us will see you for who you really are that we can send you back home.








Another Christmas Story

My mother loved her Christmas ornaments, and like many mothers she kept certain ones for many years. Carefully wrapped and stored away after the holidays, they would reappear just after Thanksgiving. Our Christmas tree hosted the most unlikely combinations of sparkling shapes; simple childhood gifts and class projects from the ghosts of Christmas Past. Some were cute, some gaudy, and to teenage eyes, embarrassing reminders of the youth we were so impatient to leave behind.

If we are lucky, we will collect memories of many embarrassing moments, and enjoy years of youth and innocence to remember and comfort us later in life; years when the wonders of life are many and the responsibilities few, years when Christmas vacation lasts the entire winter and Santa Claus is as real as the cookies and milk carefully placed next to the tree on Christmas Eve.

In the country, there are certain rites of passage that often accompany the holiday season, and as a young lad I was convinced that the Christmas day after my 12th birthday would bring that long hoped-for present so often desired by boys and girls lucky enough to grow up in the rural South. I was certain that  would be the year I received my first real firearm and be able to join the adults on a grownup deer hunt.

It must have taken someone a long time to wrap the long, beautifully decorated rectangular box I found under the tree that year, but I cannot for the life of me remember the color of the paper or the bow I so hastily tore away. I do remember every inch of the Harrington and Richardson single shot 20 gauge inside.

Soon to come was the excitement of waking up long before daylight on the morning of that first hunt and having a hunter’s breakfast, a cold bacon and egg sandwich, just me and my dad moving quietly in the kitchen trying not to wake up the house. I remember the way the stars sparkled in the crisp winter air; the ride in the old pickup from the farm to the hunting ground and the last minute advice on cover and concealment. I can still hear the crunch of dried twigs in the dark, and the whispered advice from Dad about how to balance my weight, placing my feet carefully to move silently.

I was well concealed before dawn, nested in pine straw and leaves with my back propped against a suitable tree with low hanging branches for cover. Time never passed more slowly or with greater anticipation as I listened, straining my ears for any telltale sounds that might signal the approach of my prey. When a deer finally did come near my location, well scouted by my dad in anticipation of this momentous event, the only sound I could hear was my heart pounding.

The flash was blinding and the blast deafening when I pulled the trigger. The gray shape of the deer disappeared into the mist and the pounding of my heart was replaced by a loud ringing in my ears as I struggled in vain to hear what direction my quarry might be headed. I had been warned that a spooked or wounded deer might run for quite a distance before settling down, and I was prepared to wait, quiet and watchful until I got my bearings again.

I waited with all the patience a 12-year old could muster, until I thought I heard a likely sound some distance from my vantage point.  I headed as quietly as I could in that direction. A thickening mist was rising from the ground and I could barely make out the shape of the trees. After half an hour of carefully picking my way through branch and bramble, I stepped into a small clearing just as I thought I saw the shape of my prey on the other side. I took one more step into the clearing for a better look, but I never got the chance.

Just as I stepped forward, the ground beneath my feet collapsed and I went straight down about four feet into a hole, landing hard on the flat of my feet with a thud. I saw stars for a moment, and as I blinked them away, looking up, I noticed with some trepidation that the end of my nose was about a foot away from an old moss covered tombstone.

I don’t know what congregation lived and died on that forgotten ground, abandoned long enough to grow a mature stand of timber. I don’t think I was ever able to equal the feat of acrobatics I performed when I shot straight up out of that sunken grave like a fish jumping out of water. I think I may have actually levitated when I came up out of that hole. I’m not sure that I have ever run away from a place so fast in my life. I have no memory of how I found my way back to the truck.

What I do remember is the sound of my dad’s joyful laughter as we drove back home that morning. He told me something then that I have always cherished, that though I may have missed my buck, I bagged a good story that would be worth a lot more to me as the years went by.

Memories are a lot like those favorite Christmas ornaments my mother kept so carefully. The number and variety we keep, the way we display them or keep them wrapped up and stored away, this is how we decorate the story of our lives. If we are fortunate, when we consider them all, the ones that sparkle, the unlikely shapes, the ones we are proud of and even the embarrassments, we will enjoy a bit of the same sense of celebration we feel when we look at a Christmas tree.

Not So Great

Last week we remembered the 77th  anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which triggered The United States’ entry into WWII.  Every December 7th we acknowledge the sacrifices made by that great generation, and rightly so.

Not too many years ago, that first paragraph could have been shorter. There was no need explain the significance of Pearl Harbor.  Over 16 million men and women served in the armed forces during WWII.  Since then, three generations have grown up with a parent or grandparent who remembered. Today, less than half a million of those  veterans are still alive.  We are rapidly losing the living memory of that devastating conflict.

There are few who remember Admiral J. O. (Joe) Richardson, the commander of the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor until 1940. Admiral Richardson repeatedly warned President Roosevelt about the dangers of a Japanese attack, and the Admiral closely monitored Japanese movements to give the fleet time to vacate the base should the need arise.  In 1940 he wrote Roosevelt to strongly recommend the immediate removal of the fleet to San Francisco.

By 1941, the US had been able to decipher encrypted Japanese communications and for months our government knew that the Japanese government had decided that war was their only option for survival. However, when Admiral Richardson pressed Roosevelt on the danger to the fleet, Roosevelt’s reply to the Admiral’s concerns  was, “Joe, you just don’t understand that this is an election year and there are certain things that can’t be done, no matter what, until the election is over and won.”

After the election, Roosevelt fired Admiral Richardson. Nevertheless, as late as 13 days before the Pearl Harbor attack, Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, wrote in his diary, “He [Roosevelt] brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked perhaps (as soon as) next Monday [December 1], for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what we should do. The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.”

The story of how the United States, in an effort to limit Japanese expansion,  effectively cut off Japan’s oil supply in the months leading up to WWII, is rarely mentioned in history books.  The Japanese knew that they would quickly run out of oil unless they were able to capture new supplies in the Dutch East Indies, but they also knew that the United Stated would oppose them unless their navy was able to cripple our Pacific fleet.

Then on 25 November, Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent Japan an ultimatum demanding that they withdraw from China. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor 12 days later, killing 2,403 people, sinking or damaging eight battleships, and destroying 188 airplanes.

History books  persist in absolving Roosevelt of any knowledge or responsibility for the attack on Pearl Harbor.  We continue to groom the image of the United States as an innocent victim of Japan and Roosevelt as a great president, but the truth is much more involved. It is almost Byzantine in its complexity.

There is no doubt that Roosevelt did extraordinary things  as president. He rose to the challenge presented by  very trying times.  But his elevation to “greatness” (and the same is true of any president) is motivated as much by politics as any desire to realistically appraise his time in office.

“Greatness” is cheapened by our habitual use of the word.  We take serious note of the “path to greatness” of people who chase balls or read lines for movies. “People worship” has plagued us since before humanity worked its fingers to the bone to build pyramids for their god-kings.  Thousands of years later we are still a culture obsessed with celebrity and “great” individuals, and as such we are vulnerable to the most egregious manipulation.

I’m all for respecting the dead, and choosing to emphasize the good that people did when we remember them. But I also believe that when you take on a leadership role you give up the right to that indulgence. In continuing our long tradition of whitewashing the records of dead presidents and other elected leaders we promote a shallow and cursory understanding of history. When we expunge our mistakes from the record, we make it harder to avoid repeating those mistakes.

Stirring the Pot

Every family has at least one. Every neighborhood and office and every classroom has them as well. We’re talking about gossips: people who spread rumors and stir the pot. Our brains are wired to emphasize the negative, but some of us are addicted to the onslaught of neuropeptides that wash through our brains when we’re indulging in drama.

Billions of dollars in revenue are dependent on that addiction. Gossip has become institutionalized to a degree never imagined by the architects of the age of information. Technology has allowed the gossip column to escape the relatively benign confines of the newspaper and merge with mainstream media, where little effort is made to separate fact from interpretation, and where the ideals of the Fourth Estate have been subsumed by political and corporate agendas. Unless you read technical journals, every page is an opinion page, and even scientific studies are not immune to financial motives.

We’ve had this discussion many times here over the years, but I was motivated to revisit it by some recent efforts to stir the pot.

At our house we indulge in holiday media this time of year, and any of the Peanuts classics, any appearance by Rudolph, and a growing list of holiday movies are likely to be enjoyed on a chilly night by the fire from now until January, and a time tested stack of holiday music emerges from the closet to stand ready by the sound system. Unfortunately, this year mainstream media couldn’t wait to tell us that some of our holiday traditions and childhood classics are now part of the battle ground in the culture wars.

Battle ground. Culture wars. Observe how important framing can be in stirring the pot or surreptitiously advancing a point of view independent of the facts. We grew up conditioned to believe that what was important enough to appear in print or on the screen was true and relevant. So when a headline appears simultaneously on diverse websites and in local television news reports, it must be important.

This year we were told that Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving is racist because of how the kids were seated around the table. We found out that Santa’s reindeer are misogynistic because Rudolph’s alpha-male father preferred to take on the risk of searching the arctic wastes for Rudolph himself, to the exclusion of Rudolph’s mother and girlfriend. We were dismayed to find out that Dean Martin’s classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” encourages rape culture.

Should we laugh or be offended? Surely there are other choices, including the choice to disregard this “news” entirely. The Thanksgiving story was compiled from a selection of tweets, and the story begins with “viewers have suggested.” The same was true for the headlines about Rudolph. As far as I can tell, the story about the song was recycled from “A Line By Line Takedown of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ which appeared in the Huffington Post in 2014.

There are billions of tweets and other forms of social media posts ever year. If you look for them, on any given day you can find people discussing the conspiracy behind the effort to convince people that the earth is round rather than flat, including the fake moon landings.  If I wrote a column for The Daily Mail on a slow news week, I could copy and paste a few of those tweets and say, quite truthfully, that “viewers have suggested…” The story might be picked up by Drudge and the Huff Post and if a major network needed filler between shootings and stabbings, it could then be repeated across a network of hundreds of local affiliates. Someone scanning the headlines over a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning might be dismayed to discover that the Flat Earth Society had attracted such a large following.

Stories like this are produced every day by keyboard “journalists” who do little more than cast their nets into social media for the tackiest and most prurient catch they can find. Sometimes it’s a simple (and lazy) effort to grab our attention. Sometimes the motive is more insidious. If I wanted to motivate, for example, conservative voters to go to the polls, what better way than to headline the “culture wars” and the ongoing “attack” on our values. If I wanted liberal voters to turn out, I would remind them of the desperate need for resisting that deplorable basket of “isms”

Several times now we have discussed here how that, though the world continues to improve across almost all of the metrics by which we judge success, the fear that the sky is about to fall at any moment is persistent. We can thank politics and media – and the internal wiring of our own brains – for this.

Nevertheless, people act on their beliefs no matter how skewed those beliefs may be, and if we can believe numerous studies and the science of sociology, our partisans on the left and right are more ideologically divided than at any time in recent memory, and the great exhausted middle is not motivated to forward any candidates who reflect the more balanced views of the majority.

And now my friends we have reached the point where, as my grandfather used to say, we are about to “quit preaching and go to meddling.” The view from the middle is this:  For many of the years when media was more conservative and when the nation itself was, in fact, more conservative, the ascendant right did not often speak kindly of those on the left. Today, however, the majority of mainstream media except for Fox News promotes a viewpoint well to the left of center. Younger and more technologically savvy citizens dominate social media. They are not any kinder to the “other side” than the other side was to them when they dominated the narrative. The pendulum swings both ways.

For the sake of the country, I hope that the center holds, but in order to do so we must overcome our exhaustion and continue to engage in the narrative. We must not be lead or discouraged by the toxic flow of information of unknown motive and provenance that passes for news today, and we can blissfully ignore any efforts to re-frame Charlie Brown and Rudolph in order to promote someone’s effort to stir the pot.




Fired Up

When the fires were raging around Paradise, California, many of us had an extra measure of compassion for the people who lost their lives or saw their homes destroyed. It was only two years ago, almost to the day, that Towns County was squeezed between two large fires, and parts of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, were destroyed.

President Trump made several comments about the California fires and claimed that the situation was made worse by poor forest management. He downplayed the role of climate change in the tragedy.

The President is prone to shoot from the hip sometimes, with comments that are blunt and confrontational. I can’t decide whether I believe that he simply doesn’t care what people think about his comments, or that he intentionally goads the media into predictable responses.

Predictably, the media erupted in outrage. How dare he attempt to barbecue the sacred cow of global warming, one of the ideological litmus tests of progressive thought!  Celebrities, politicians and pundits were soon generating the headlines we’ve come to expect: Trump “slammed,” “attacked,” “destroyed” and “called out.”

Such headlines are commonplace, now that politics and news have merged with professional wrestling. But there was one celebrity comment that, I’m sorry to say, got under my skin. A famous musician who lives in California, criticized the president for “defying science,”  and after “blasting” the president and anyone who would dare to question the popular narrative of anthropogenic climate change, the moralizing musician urged us to “come together as a people to take climate change on.”

We live in interesting times when a call to unity begins with an insult, but words do not mean what they used to mean.

Let me pause here to say that I reject outright the climate change litmus test for correct thinking, and it doesn’t matter whether that test is administered from the left or right side of the kindergarten. There is, in my view, sufficient data and consensus to demonstrate that the climate is indeed changing. The degree to which humans have precipitated this change and the contribution made by planetary movements, Lorenz energy cycles and solar cycles is still being discovered.

At this point in our history, when humans have populated so many of the areas of the planet that are the most sensitive to change, it’s far more important to decide how we’re going to prepare for change than it is to argue about who or what is responsible.

With fires still smoldering, hundreds of homes destroyed and people missing, a poor choice was made by those who used the tragedy to prosecute a political ideology. That, too, is becoming commonplace.

For the record, in this particular instance, the president, bluntness notwithstanding, was more correct than the musician. The tragedy in California would have been significantly mitigated by better forestry practices. Veteran foresters have warned for decades that  northern California forests needed thinning. Some burned areas were supporting 3-5 times more trees per acre than is considered optimum for a healthy forest in that region.

Controlled burns in California have been delayed or canceled because of lawsuits. Naturally occurring fires have been aggressively fought (sometimes at great sacrifice) before they could do what fire does to manage healthy forest lands. Landowners have been deterred from managing their own properties by restrictive regulations.

These were unintended consequences of laws and regulations that grew out of a sincere, even zealous desire to protect the environment, but that desire does not erase the consequences. Some of the good folks who champion the environment fail to understand that when you add humans to the mix, when you put people on top of mountains, along coastlines, into areas prone to drought or flooding, you change the management formula. Fire has managed forests for millions of years. When you try to prevent fire from doing that job, you are only delaying the inevitable and leveraging its effects.

Of course climate change has made the situation worse, but the musician’s explanation also “defies science,” specifically the science of forestry and long ignored recommendations on how to manage land that has been prone to drought for millennia. The 20th century was exceptionally wet for northern California. 1000 years ago that area suffered two extreme dry spells, one which lasted 240 years and another 140 years. So even though climate change is extraordinary for ephemeral humans, for California, fire has always and will always happen. Even Governor Brown recommended a change in California’s forestry practices – in August – before the fires started.

Longtime readers of this column will appreciate this irony:  On 23 November, The White House released a government sponsored report on climate change which agreed with the anthropocentric (human caused) view and predicted painful consequences for the future. Trump was immediately accused of trying to “bury” the report by releasing it on Black Friday….

We haven’t wasted a lot of energy in Towns County arguing about who is responsible for the weather. In the mountains, we have long known that weather always changes. When the smoke and fires of 2016 quickly erased the memory of the contrived drama of the elections, we were united in our efforts to support our neighbors and the brave people risking their lives on the fire lines. Since then, our Firewise communities have continued to help people learn to work with their neighbors to reduce the risk of wildfire.

It has long been said that everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it. That’s not exactly true. So instead of ruining our digestion with politics or worrying about what’s happening on the national stage, we have an opportunity to DO something about climate change, no matter what our beliefs may be. Contact Frank Riley here at the Towns County Herald, call the Commissioner’s office or talk with a volunteer firefighter. Find out about the Firewise community near you, or learn how to start one in your neighborhood.




This Is How The Sausage Is Made

It’s Monday morning and a good cup of coffee is a welcome treat in the cold rain. Congress says that this is Veteran’s Day, but we all know that the real observance is on the 11th. World War I ended one hundred years ago this eleventh month, on the eleventh day at the eleventh hour. Only 80 members of the incoming Congress, or about 16 percent, are veterans, so I’m not sure why the other 84 percent think that they should get an extra holiday.

But then Congress is good at looking after the concerns of Congress, voting itself pay raises, holidays and healthcare privileges, the reward, we presume, for providing us with so many, so very many laws and proclamations, and for the tireless effort to see who can redistribute the biggest share of our tax dollars to their own districts.

It’s tempting, sometimes, to join the largest segment of the US population which does not vote and appears to have little concern for political theater. We sympathize with their rejection of a forum which every year seems to more closely resemble professional wrestling, the main difference being that professional wrestlers are also professional athletes, while members of Congress need only money and popularity to qualify for their jobs.

In an effort to encourage more non-participants to vote, former First Lady, Michelle Obama, tells us that we don’t need any “special expertise” to vote, that we “don’t have to read every news article to be qualified to vote,” and that it’s OK to vote, even if we “know nothing about nothing.” I submit to you that this happens frequently enough without any further encouragement. It is precisely how, as Joseph de Maistre once said, a “nation gets the government it deserves.”

I’m pouring myself a second cup of coffee this morning to help disperse the grumpy reflections of a cold, rainy Monday morning. It’s never a good idea to start the day with a scan of corporate media headlines, which also seem to increasingly mimic professional wrestling jargon. It is of absolutely no benefit to me to know, especially first thing in the morning, who got “slammed,” “destroyed,” or “called out,” or who is “fighting” for what cause. I really didn’t need to know someone’s opinion, repeated over several tabloid websites, that Hillary is going to run again (this was an opinion, not yet a fact) and that we could have a repeat of 2016 with “Wrestlemania 2020.”

As the caffeine stimulates my memory, however, perspective begins to form. Politics has always been ugly. My own family history underlines this fact, and I can still hear my father telling the story of how he was voted in three different precincts in an election without ever setting foot in the county, and how he lost his student deferral during WWII because his father “voted wrong” in a local contest.

The “McCarthy years” are now forgotten to all but a small group of history students and people with good memories. Those who lived through the turmoil of the late sixties appear to have forgotten that as well, when we hear repeatedly that the country has “never been so divided.” Civil War historians are among the first to scoff at this statement.

Yet there is generally a strong sense that somehow, things are different this time. There is anger, suspicion and unrest, and at the root of it all there is fear, which makes people positional and cuts off any meaningful dialogue with opposing views. Granted, there is nothing new in our experience of fear or in its use as a tool of manipulation. But I submit to you that what is different “this time,” is technology.

Remember, we are wired to accentuate the negative. This is a survival mechanism and it takes conscious effort to overcome it, but we are so drawn to the negative that the survival of the businesses which dispense information is dependent on negativity to capture and hold our attention.

This is how politics has come to dominate the public discourse, even reaching into our private lives and personal relationships where all things are judged by this false dichotomy of left and right. Politics has always been ugly, but technology illuminates what was once hidden and makes immediate what was once gradually revealed. Politics is a sausage grinder, and technology is showing us all the gory details of how that sausage is made. We, who slow down to gawk at the scene of an accident, are mesmerized, horrified and addicted.

Perhaps in realizing that our fears are often magnified out of proportion by the processes we trust to inform our view of the world, we can begin to assuage those fears. If we’re going to have our sausage, it’s probably a good idea to know the list of ingredients in the mix, but watching a pig being slaughtered every morning at breakfast would certainly not improve our appetite or our digestion. Of course our vegetarian friends would tell us that we can endeavor to choose a healthier diet, and when it comes to politics, I can’t say that they are wrong.




A Tale Told by an Idiot

“[Politics is] but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

By the time you read this, the election will be over, and we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. Granted, we still have to endure the hindsight, the analysis and the spin. The winners will celebrate; the losers will recriminate. Football and the holidays will bring a welcome, if temporary, remission.

When it’s needed, a new drama, a scandal or a disaster will be presented for our consumption, and then comes the next election cycle and the long crescendo of sound and fury until 2020, when it all starts over again.

If you’ve studied marketing or been involved in sales, you understand that marketing is a form of conditioning. Technology has enabled non-stop saturation by marketing, and we are well-trained to respond in predictable ways. (Keep in mind that marketing, politics and propaganda are all first cousins.)

Media companies have always known that pouring gasoline on fires is profitable, and social media, well, that, my friends, is a magnifying glass on an ant hill on a sunny day. We are inspired, frightened, angered, but always confounded and often burned. We’ve been feeling the heat for a long time now.

Think about this while the memory of the most recent campaigns is still fresh in your mind. Try to hang on to this memory through the coming distractions. Remember all the promises from our politicians telling us we aren’t going to take it anymore, that it’s different this time, and they are going to create new solutions to our problems while they repeat the speeches we’ve heard all our lives. Yet we take their words, and words about their words, so personally.

Unless they are self-deluded (as some clearly seem to be), politicians know very well that we will forget their promises as soon as the next drama is presented for our consumption. We could stand on the deck of a ship, blowing on the sails, and have as much chance of altering its course as the speeches by our professional windbags have of affecting our future.

This is truth, but in the aftermath of a bitter and disgusting election cycle, it will be the losing team that first comes to recognize it. Let the winners celebrate while they can. Their elation will be short-lived. Ilana Mercer wrote, “The glue that allowed so lofty a debate throughout early America is gone (not to mention the necessary gray matter). The Tower of Babel that is 21st century America is home not to 6 million but 327 million alienated, antagonistic individuals, diverse to the point of distrust. Each year, elites pile atop this mass of seething antagonists another million newcomers.”

The United States today is less a nation than it is an economy. We are no longer united by common ideals and purposes.  It is our patterns of consumption that bind us,  that direct the action on the stage. It’s time we learn to understand what builds and maintains that stage.

History is moved by forces that are much less dramatic than our headlines, though quite extraordinary in their effects. It is energy, more than any other single factor, that decides economies. It is economies that decide history. This interaction draws the boundaries within which we strut and fret our hours on the stage. No matter how enlightened the ideal or passionate its devotees, there is no political philosophy, no social movement, that can bring peace and prosperity unless there is energy to fuel it and money to pay for it.

If we look at the history of world energy consumption and pay particular attention to the transitions from wood to coal to oil to natural gas, we begin to see the shape and the dimensions of our theater. Periods of peace and stability tend to occur when, and arguably only when, the energy supply is plentiful and affordable. When the energy supply is tight, the economy behaves in unexpected ways – unexpected because we insist on trying to understand history in social and political terms. The world supply of energy has been tight for some time, but a growing debt bubble has delayed the consequences.

People who follow markets often say that a rising tide lifts all boats. When the tide goes out, everything sinks. Some things sink faster than others.  Debt can temporarily keep peace and prosperity afloat (think of the remarkable story of American energy, which has been almost entirely fueled by debt). Debt is the star of the show on the world stage now, and the curtain is just about to go up.

Debt patches but does not repair, delays but does not resolve. It creates wealth disparity, and the greater the debt, the wider the distance between the haves and have-nots. Debt bubbles always burst, eventually, and when they do, there is always pain. Economic depression and war are common symptoms of debt bubbles collapsing – debt bubbles caused by tight energy supplies and transitions.

If you’re pleased by the results of the election, enjoy your moment, but it’s probably not a good idea to celebrate by borrowing money to make a major purchase. If you’re grieved by the election, you won’t have to endure the celebration of the other team for long.

I realize there is little comfort in the cold equations governing the forces that make history. But there may be some practical value in breaking the spell that has mesmerized and transformed almost half the nation into political devotees, stirred the pot of hatred and mistrust and weakened our civil society. No political party, and particularly the democrats and republicans, have any long term solutions to the problems that affect us the most.

If you are reluctant to believe that energy is the main driving force behind history, or if you seek more information, a good place to start is an article by Gail Tverberg, “Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.”

Remember, it’s all about energy, and the human energy we’ve wasted on politics and media can be better applied to a stage where we can be more effective. After the votes are all counted, it’s past time to get our personal houses in order. We would be well advised to reduce debt. Learn to live within our means. Disconnect from the echo chambers of politics and media. Concentrate on our families and our local communities. Do not neglect the faith and the spiritual growth that gives meaning to our lives and fills the void that we seek to fill with consumption and distraction. Doing this will not alter the course of world history or prevent energy transitions and collapsing debt bubbles, but it will make our personal journeys safer and more comfortable.