July 4, 2013
Independence Day Discord

As some prepare to don the stars and stripes in all tasteless manners of irony, and speak sarcastically and casually about concepts such as freedom; and as others, who opt for less cloying displays prep the grills and check provisions in advance of the day when they too will traffic, most sincerely, in fatuous tropes of American exceptionalism, a discord between the history of this day, and American’s current posture towards an expansive surveillance state proves too astoundingly tragic an irony to ignore.

To combat the increasing illicit smuggling enterprises of many British colonists in North America, the British government gave its colonial customs agents excessively broad latitude to search the stores and homes of its subjects. Writs of assistance were court orders, granting anyone in its possession the legal authority to search the premises and property of anyone deemed suspect.  James Otis, formerly the high ranking Advocate-General for Britain in the American colonies resigned his position in protest and soon, famously, challenged the legality of such general warrants on the premise that they were “universal” and “directed to every subject in the King’s dominions.” There was no oversight of the process, nor obligation on the part of the customs officials to demonstrate suspected wrongdoing. The writs were largely viewed by the colonists as gross violations of their rights, and soon joined a growing list of grievances ultimately culminating in the severance of political bands that is joyously commemorated this upcoming week.  

British colonists did not respond to the nameless, indefinite, and unspecified warrants with exhortations that “if one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to fear.” Yet, despite the deafening American chorus hailing the vaunted principals of July 4th and their executors who codified them on parchment, as recent polling amply demonstrates, this is precisely the reaction most Americans appear to be having to the recent disclosures of N.S.A. surveillance.

The Verizon dragnet data accumulation program - in a manner similar to the writs of assistance - effectively treats every American as a potential suspect, in clear violation of the spirit, if not the language of the 4th Amendment. Simply because it is less physically invasive than the writs makes it no less problematic. For at the heart of the collective shoulder shrug that is America’s response to the N.S.A revelations is a betrayal of a notion that would have been fundamental to most of the founding generation who fought beneath the banner of revolution: human beings are flawed, power hungry, and therefore mightily susceptible to abuses in pursuit of their aims. As any civics course worth its weight will teach, our institutional frameworks and safeguards reflect these ideas.

We have surely not evolved, or matured, to render these notions quaint or irrelevant. Yet the surveillance apologists in the media, and in the congressional “oversight” committees have responded as if our leaders are without these shortcomings, or frailties; that they are somehow immune to the corruptions and delusions of grandeur that often court abuses. It is precisely because human beings are vulnerableto the tantalizing seduction of an idea of total security that we must erect and respect the barriers to it! For, it is illusory, and we will sacrifice far too much in its pursuit. Only a naïf would believe this gold mine catalogue of daily human interactions will remain confined to the province of select intelligence analysts in one executive branch department. No. These programs, and their contents, naturally, inevitably, will be repurposed, by other agencies, for other “useful” aims. The temptation is too great to resist. Simply put: These are powers no democratic republic should possess.  

This year’s July 4th is then a most timely celebration, ripe for citizens to apply it’s obvious relevance to our own government’s manufacturing of warrants to obtain information so broad, and unspecified, that King George would have blushed. We have not survived this long as a nation on the hope of virtuous leaders, but instead on the laws that constrain them. Should complacence, deeper cynicism or apathy be our response, we affront the ideals and sacrifices of those early Americans in celebrating what has become yet another American holiday, stripped bare of its meaning, sacrificed to our indulgence, laziness and self-satisfaction. 

-Quite honored to have this piece published on The Front Porch Republic today.

July 4, 2013

Independence Day Discord Punk Rock Addendum 

May 1, 2013
Your Basic Ballgame Chatter, or a Prelude to Memorial Day

I didn’t think the reflexive and empty patriotism of stadium charades could get any more puerile. Then I realized that since Boston, the Yankees organization has been parading two new soldiers out to home plate every single night between the top and bottom of the 7th ( I think. I might have missed a game), demanding our fealty and praise. I’d like my 7th inning stretch back. I don’t think the United States Armed Forces would mind.

For, it is certainly the plastic patriotism that is the most perilous. Every day, every celebration, every sporting event ought not be a mini memorial day. It’s overabundance and casual infusion waters down what must be a deeply serious, somber - and necessarily occasional - reflection, and confuses it with an excess of cheap, utterly convenient, symbolic gestures, which have the effect of bestowing near demigod status upon the men and women of the U.S. military. Coupled with historically unprecedented, prolonged exposure to the extreme conditions of war, this transformation into the human embodiment of American virtue and selflessness effectively cordons them off from our society, creating a literal American military class, dangerously, and unfairly set apart from the country it ought feel most attached to.

I think the vacuity of American patriotism is more a sign that we have forgotten what actually distinguishes our nation, and makes her worth praise.
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May 27, 2012
It’s Memorial Day.

“Excuse me sir, this is extremely embarrassing…” His teeth were black. And small. And sharp. He barely opened his mouth to talk. “I’m a United States Veteran. I’m partially blind – I can hardly see you standing there– and I’m just trying to get something to eat.” He shakily held on to an empty blue, T.J Maxx shopping cart as he spoke to me beneath the newly constructed strip-mall concrete awning.

In routine fashion I displayed the empty contents of my wallet with a genuinely sorrowful look. “I’m sorry, but I have no money.” Technically true, though I had the plastic kind.

I had already begun to make distance between him and I as he replied, “Well, God bless, and have a happy holiday.”

 Happy holiday, I thought? Was it Easter or something?

I’ve gotten used to casually accepting the holiday blessings of Christians, so I chalked my confusion up to my own cultural centrism and continued towards my old diner, where Bridget, who knew my name, and that I hadn’t sat at her counter in a while, poured me a fresh cup of coffee, without me even having to ask. The counter stools were all vacant.

…I didn’t even know what the man was talking about. I’m sorry.

January 25, 2012
Dangerous Myths

His domestic vision aside, last night President Barack Obama offered an embarrassingly whitewashed history and strategic interpretation of the Iraq war.  The feel-good simplifications serve only to re-enforce an uncritical attitude towards our military, how it is employed, and moreover, helps obscure its obvious limitations in nation building endeavors.

“Last month, I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq. Together, we offered a final, proud salute to the colors under which more than a million of our fellow citizens fought - and several thousand gave their lives.  We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world.”

Reducing a complicated, nearly decade long war with this simple utterance is problematic to say the least. The first claim, that the United States has been “safer,” as a result of the war is simply laughable. It ignores the lack of any threat the nation posed prior to our invasion; and it sidesteps the geopolitical reality of a new, Shiite majority bent on consolidating its power, residing along the border of an increasingly menacing Iran.

The whole enterprise vaguely resembles a fireman deliberately setting a poorly constructed building ablaze, requiring massive expenditure to extinguish it, and upon viewing the partially charred remains, exuberantly declares a job well done. While the building most likely deserved attention, the manner in which it was dealt with, coupled with an irreverent and hasty decision making process, few would argue was impractical; and furthermore, only served to compound the problems already faced by that building’s occupants.

The second assertion, that as a result of the Iraq war, we have become “more respected” throughout the world, is also difficult to sustain. First off, the language is extremely vague. What exactly does the President mean? Are we more respected because we “ended” the war? More respected because our military might has proven adaptable and unquestionably dominant? Or is he talking in the grander sense, that our nation has regained the trust of the international community since reorienting U.S. foreign policy away from the pre-emptive doctrine of war ushered in by his predecessor?

It is perhaps purposefully vague. Casting these questions aside, I would insist, nonetheless, as George Kennan did, that the means used to achieve one’s goals, no matter how lofty, are the true test of one’s character. On this note, I believe our nation has been found wanting. Whether it is the flouting of international law to contravene the definition of torture, the abuse of detainees in our custody, the Kafka-esque system of justice we inaugurated on U.S. owned soil, the increasing surveillance of U.S. citizens by local and national agencies, or the reprehensible individual acts of our soldiers – we have not lived up to our best traditions. How any nation can gain respect in such a manner eludes me.

Lastly, there is a bigger picture item I’d like to touch upon. In terms of the framing of the speech, it is important to acknowledge that it was bookended by an appeal to the supposed self-less virtues of the U.S. Armed Forces. The President was imploring our nation to act more like the military: unified and goal driven. Firstly, I am uncomfortable with the framing of a State of the Union speech around an elevation of martial virtues and military service in a society that both are supposedly subordinate to. But more importantly, as with Iraq, the President again offers a characterization of military relations (both civil-military, and inter-service) that is at odds with reality. It was not so long ago, that the self-absorbed “rock star” general, Stanley McChrystal was sacked for, among other things, his inability (that’s being generous) to work with, or even respect at bare minimum, his civilian superiors. Obama’s desire for our nation’s political order to function like a well lubricated military machine also ignores the substantial military infighting that took place around the firing of McChrystal’s predecessor, the four-star general, David McKiernan, which in its swiftness and apparent inessential nature was described by one Pentagon official as, “a violent act.” If anything, there seems to be a comparable acrimony between civilians and the military, and within the military itself, as there is between Mitch McConnell and President Obama.

While perhaps overstated, the President’s rapturous endorsement of our military as the embodiment of perfection – a script every president since the inauguration of the All-Volunteer Force has read from – results only in their further estrangement from our society. It also increasingly makes them more insulated from the criticism of regular citizens, who have largely abandoned any control — or desire to engage in a dialogue — over our foreign or military policy.

These myths persist because we allow them, because we do not speak up forcibly enough against them. We are safer because of Iraq? We are a more respected world power because of Iraq? If you buy that, then there’s a new war coming in the region that you are just going to love!

January 20, 2012
Removing Our Hands From the Arc of History


Lately, I have been feeling bombarded by evidence pointing to the futility of Operation Enduring Freedom. The publication of two articles in today’s New York Times, horribly devastating on their own, but more so when published side by side, proved to be a tipping point for me.

The first, written by Matthew Rosenberg outlines the “growing systemic homicide threat” that is posed by our ally, the Afghan National Security Forces. Drawing on a leaked, classified report, Rosenberg relates that Afghan security forces “have attacked American and allied service members nearly three dozen times since 2007.”  Despite efforts by military public relations teams to downplay the implications of these events, to say that 36 separate incidents of violence against allied NATO forces in the last five years is indicative of a problem would be an understatement.

As some military analysts have augured – correctly, in my opinion – the impending 2014 transition ought necessitate policymakers to acknowledge that the U.S., ultimately, will not be the guarantors of stability in Afghanistan. The most valuable asset we can help Afghanistan to develop is a well-trained national army, capable of fighting off whatever asymmetrical challenges the government will surely continue to face. Yet, it seems near impossible for NATO forces to train an army that harbors “pervasive feelings of animosity and distrust” towards it. Perhaps the more NATO forces demonstrate its selflessness and moral superiority by urinating on dead Afghan insurgents the more responsive A.N.S.F recruits will be? Poor taste in jokes aside, this is a severe problem (tacked on to a long list) that jeopardizes our ability to even at best, leave a precariously situated Afghanistan. 

Second, is a short piece, sadly officially confirming what a representative from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said to me months ago after a screening of Heather Courtney’s documentary, Where Soldiers Come From: the suicide rate for active service men and women has reached an all time high. The burden our nation has foisted upon the shoulders of these men and women is simply unconscionable. This war would have been over years ago if we had a draft. That we are permitted to go about our daily lives, deluding ourselves that we support the troops because we are uncritical of them and — in all but the most meaningless and empty of ways — “pay tribute” to them, is immoral and tremendously misguided. 

And all for what?

As plainly pointed out in Michael Hasting’s new book, The Operators, and by many other informed observers (click), Afghanistan is still a mess; its transformation, probably a hopeless endeavor from the get go. Corruption remains rampant and unchecked through nearly all levels of its government, and the past presidential elections were marred by overwhelming evidences of fraud (conveniently ignored by our government because to do otherwise would be a tacit admittance of failure).*  No amount of bullets or bloodshed can help to alter the reality of the Afghan political landscape. This is all not to even mention Pakistan.

The shadow of Vietnam continues to loom large, but appears entirely ignored.

We entered this conflict bolstered by the confidence that we were a power unlike any the world had ever seen; tethered to none of the realities of power that other nations found themselves. We have sacrificed far too much during the past decade of conflict to maintain the conceit of our own exceptionalism.  The time is well overdue for us to remove our hands from “the arc of history” — as it will bend and curve in whatever direction it will.

*Surely one thing surge after surge, strategic review after strategic review instructs us, is that the U.S. military and political elites are obdurately incapable of such an admittance.

January 11, 2012
Gingrich Super-Pac Endorses Robust Social Safety Net

Well, sorta. I mean, it is difficult for freedom loving, American capitalists to view Winning Our Future’s cinema-dvertisement When Mitt Romney Came to Town, and conclude that what our nation definitely needs is a diminution of its safeguards. But while the hit-piece — err documentary — seems, incredibly, to intend for the Republican viewer solely to conclude that Mitt Romney is a dangerous, lone predatory capitalist, all but the dimmest of viewers will probably reach a slew of other suppositions, much more similar to those my father and I gathered after watching Michael Moore’s Roger and Me.

There’s no way that Gingrich or his coterie of behind the curtain supporters want the viewing public to come away doubting the righteousness of the modern American capitalist system, right? 

They couldn’t possibly desire Republicans to begin developing feelings of compassion towards the unemployed. However destitute those spit out in Bain Capital’s wake find themselves, it’s nothing that a little elbow grease and an up-from-yur-bootstraps-ethos can’t solve right?

Could this video possibly be a Trojan Horse, designed to win over liberals, intoxicated by the smell of food stamps, unemployment checks and home heating assistance oil, to Gingrich’s side?

Of course not. But in what can probably be considered one of the more ironic moments of this year’s Republican primary fight, Republicans themselves have offered the most stinging critique of modern capitalism outside of Occupy Wall Street and further bolstered the case for a strengthening of the social safety net. And unless you’ve been living in North Korea for the past 4 years, or are one of the cast members of the Jersey Shore, you would be hard pressed to separate Mitt Romney’s capitalism, from that highly speculative, short sighted and ultimately self-destructive form that sent us spiraling into a great recession. Winning our Future clearly hopes people viewing this piece will be wearing blinders the size of the screen in the middle of the now vacant and dark Dallas Cowboy stadium (go Giants).

Mitt Romney is not the problem. Anyone who can watch this Moore-esque (minus the hilarity, subtlety, and authentic compassion, among other things) hit-piece and conclude differently is kidding themselves. 

January 10, 2012
Lawrence Korb is One Levelheaded Dude.

While some frantically forecast a doomsday scenario resulting from the obligatory defense cuts, Lawrence Korb dispassionately lays out a convincing case to the contrary.

Today, even if Panetta announces cuts to core defense spending of $100 billion dollars per year for the next decade, the budget for 2013 will still be $472 billion — the same as it was in FY 2007. This amount is over the United States’ average yearly budget during the Cold War and will still be more than the following 17 nations combined…

December 31, 2011
The Shape of Elections to Come.

In the wake of the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Committee decision, it is increasingly difficult to feel that the voting populace is not being played like a troupe of marionettes. Those who flood the coffers of Super-PACs with hundreds of thousands of dollars like its loose change are as uninterested in politics and governing, per se, as Newt Gingrich is in family values (to save time, search the term “driveway”). As devastatingly pointed out by Chrytia Freeland of the Atlantic magazine months ago, to the extent that the monied elites of the U.S care anything about the welfare of the country or its public policies, it is narrowly confined to self-serving issues of deregulation and beneficial alterations in the tax code. When it comes to elections, they seek nothing but the rewards of the Crony, and will bombard our phones, newspapers, mailboxes, television and internet screens with a fuselage of incomplete, fictitious, but highly alluring advertisements designed to direct our collective index fingers towards the name of their carefully selected gamble that we will find on our ballot.

While I have little faith in the discernment powers of the Iowan voter, I will give them the benefit of the doubt (at least until the next paragraph): the unprecedented, multi-million dollar Super-PAC media blitzkrieg to which they have been subjected over the past weeks, I fear, when reproduced for the first time on a national scale will help to vacillate into paralysis even some of the more informed of us.

Or maybe I’m overreacting to this whole thing. Maybe the Iowa populace really is more susceptible to advertising than the rest of us. But, can we really feel comfortable about the shape of elections to come by assuaging ourselves that Iowans are dumber than the rest of us? I’d like to hedge that bet.

(Let’s take the first bus outta here)

November 18, 2011

AN APPEAL TO APATHY

Ever since I moved out years ago, my father (thankfully) has made a habit of stacking newspaper clippings on my bed till I come home to claim them. I usually get a taste of the local New Jersey op-ed writers, and when the diminishing financial coffers of the Star-Ledger permits, some local reporting thrown in for good measure. But, largely the assemblage is comprised of news and opinions clipped from either the NY-Times, or its Sunday magazine. I recently took a trip back and picked up the newest stack.

I turned initially to a piece by one of the Times’ newest editorialists, Frank Bruni, entitled “The Invention of Outrage.” The highly pompous and sardonic piece basically calls on Americans to dial back their outrage meters. And for at least the first paragraph, I agreed with Mr. Bruni.

Bruni starts, innocuously enough, with an understated series of attacks on the Kardashian wedding affair, and those simpletons who followed it in interest. Fine enough, nothing that hasn’t crossed my pretentious mind before.

But jejune as insulting reality stars and the amateur paparazzi they attract is, it is where Bruni immediately takes this line of thought in the rest of his op-ed that I find truly appalling. 

Slathered in sarcasm, Bruni proceeds to mock those who expected Super Committee Republicans and Democrats to actually perform their jobs, and reach a compromise, stating:

“Who’d have thought that the Republicans could be so opposed to taxes? Or that Democrats would cry foul? That’s a script utterly without precedent.”

In fact, that was a script largely without precedent prior to Barack Obama’s ascendency to the Oval Office. That it is one that just three years later seems rote and predictable to Mr. Bruni is all the more, yes, outrageous.

Bruni spends the majority of his remaining space appropriately skewering the American public for its fascination with the commonplace moral failings of celebrities and politicians (Herman Cain, Jon Corzine) alike. I get that. But when one marries a blasé attitude towards the trivialities of our culture, to our political system – as this piece seamlessly does – a great disservice is done.

 It is when people stop expressing outrage in response to the congressional impotence caused by Republican intransigience; when people turn their attention away from world economic catastrophe and amassing state failures, that we will know how horribly jaded we have become.

Our sense of outrage lets us know that we still have faith in the progression of our nation and our humanity, and that we demand someone take account when either are found wanting. Occupy Wall Street, thank god, is a clear expression that Mr. Bruni’s appeal to apathy has not found a receptive audience.

(For a healthier, and more righteous apathy, see D4 video above)

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