Monday, February 17, 2014

The Third War

From the American perspective, the war in Iraq is just about over and the war in Afghanistan seems to be coming to an end in the foreseeable future. It is not clear that we achieved our objectives in either one, if only because the objectives have always been very unclear and remain so.
But what about the third war, you may ask.
Everyone talks about the "War against Terrorism" but most people take that to be some kind of metaphor. But that is a mistake. The war against terrorism is as real and damaging a war as any others we have fought.
The war against terrorism differs from the other two wars in that occupying large areas of a country are not at issue. But the occupation of Iraq or of large areas of Afghanistan has never been an end in itself. It was merely a means towards undermining the enemies' ability to attack us and to reduce our ability to have our way. In the War on Terrorism, the other side has an army in the field, the by now significant number of suicide bombers who have done serious damage to us. We, being very rich, are able to lose fewer lives because we use unmanned airplanes to kill the enemy and we use overwhelming computer power for intelligence.
In this third war, as in the other two, it is very unclear whether we are reaching our objectives. The government tells us that more than 50 potential terrorist attacks have so far been prevented. But of course that information is secret and so we cannot know whether to trust this government claim. We certainly have good reasons for being skeptical.
But the losses to our side have been significant. They are not only the physical attacks such as, especially, 9/11. The war on terror has claimed our democracy and our Constitution.
Were it not for Edward Snowden and others equally brave, we would not know about government surveillance. There probably are still a number of different facets of this war which we have not heard about. Quite obviously citizens cannot deliberate about a government policy they don't know anything about. The entire war on terrorism is the product of specific branches of the government, such as the NSA and the CIA and others. The public has not been asked what it thinks about those projects. The public in fact has systematically been deceived and lied to about this war. There has been no democratic decision-making with respect to or democratic supervision of this third war.
The decision to go to war is one of the most serious that a people can take. We have been deprived of that decision. Our democratic participation has been denied.
I am well aware that there are lawyerly justifications of all of that, that rest on legislation passed in the hysteria after 9/11. But were our government officials interested in maintaining our democracy, they would have seen the need for a new discussion of the war on terrorism, now that, twelve years later, we are somewhat calmer in contemplating 9/11.
But the government clearly is very ambivalent about saving our democracy. It is equally ambivalent about honoring the Constitution.
The Constitution protects citizens against random surveillance. But this morning's newspaper reports that our government, in cooperation with the government of Australia, recently listened to the communications between the Indonesian government and an American law firm the Indonesians had retained to advise them in trade negotiations.
The Constitution also guarantees everyone accused of a crime a fair trial before a jury of his or her peers. So far, the US government has killed four US citizens by means of drone strikes. Only one of those, Anwar al-Awlaki, was accused of a crime. The other three were innocent, they were killed by "accident."
Last week, the government was reported considering killing another US citizen without a trial. The policy of killing American citizens without trial apparently still stands.
We can only hope that, in the future, democracy and the Constitution will regain their former importance and will be fully restored to their rightful place in the life of this nation. But at the moment it appears that the war on terror has done extremely serious damage to our country.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Drug Crisis in Vermont

    The governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin, in his state of the state address focused on the alarming increase in drug addicts in that state. Heroin addiction is becoming a serious problem in a land of green hills, small villages, roads winding through the woods for miles and miles.

Biologists, psychologists and sociologists have studied the phenomenon of drug addiction for a long time. By some accounts there are more than 40 distinct theories that offer to explain addiction to opiates. But we are no closer to finding ways of reducing the number of people whose lives, and that of their families, are dominated by opiate addiction.

The intense search for solutions to the addiction problems encourages a focus on the problems of addicts that sets them apart from the general population. It tends to lead us to ignore the problems that addicts share with people who do not get addicted. One reason for using opiates is because in some way or another a person is deeply unhappy or depressed for long periods of time. Life is not rewarding, they feel worthless, or feel that others think of them so.
Many people in this world suffer from depression. Some end up addicted; some not. But they are all unhappy. This epidemic of unhappiness needs to be confronted. We need to look fearlessly at the misery that is a large part of life in America.

We live in the richest country in the world. People all over the world are amazed at how even poor people live in the United States. But it is not clear that we, as a people, are less subject to profound discouragement, to depression, to low self-esteem, to feeling excluded or disrespected than people in poorer countries. In international surveys of citizens’ satisfactions with their lives, the US ranks 12th from the top, the countries where inhabitants are most satisfied.

Why is that?

One reason is obvious. For a significant percentage of Americans, life is s struggle every day. They are poor because their earnings are low and therefore they do not get much respect, or they do not get much respect, for one reason or another, and are therefore poor. As long as we do not make equality real in the US, significant numbers of people are going to find life extremely difficult.
Living well includes a lot more than doing a job and spending the money you earn. Since many jobs are not challenging the worker’s abilities and malls resemble each other a great deal, the life of the worker-shopper often lacks excitement.

Here is a second obvious reason for an epidemic of sadness, boredom and depression. We are very rich. But we do not spend any of our resources to make work life more interesting for anyone. Should we not devote significant wealth and our technical sophistication to making work more interesting and to burden machines with the dull, repetitive tasks? How long are we going to put corporate profits ahead of the dull work life for so many working people?

But there are other reasons why many people--drug users among them--are depressed, bored, aimless. Observers commenting on drug abuse in northern Vermont say that for young people in these really small villages, life is difficult because “there’s nothing to do.” People get into trouble because they are bored.
Where there are no bars, nightclubs, theaters, museums, major sporting events to entertain you, you need to entertain yourself. We have made entertainment, excitement with one's life, into one more commodity, something you buy. As a result we are not educating our youngsters to learn to entertain themselves.

They do not leave school  as avid readers. They do not leave school eager to participate as citizens. They have not learned to like learning; they will not take free on-line courses, or learn new skills. We have not taught them to think about their lives; conversations about the good life are not part of our social existence.
I am not blaming the people who are bored and aimless. The blame belongs to all of us who acquiesce in a society that values only what can be bought and sold. Such a society does not teach the skills that are important: making your life as good as circumstances allow. We say over and over that education must prepare people for  work. We are overlooking, that if no one helps us learn how to live well, we may well end up being pretty miserable.

The drug crisis in Vermont or elsewhere lifts a corner of the cover spread by official optimism over the widespread discontent in America. It brings us, as a society, face to face with our impoverished values. We care too much about earning money and spending it; we  care too little about equality, about the quality of work and give no thought to speak of to thinking about how to live well.

We are profoundly mistaken when we define success as being rich or being a celebrity. Our goal should be to live a life that gives us ample reasons for ending every day grateful for having been alive, for having been active, having done well, learned something new. After spending time in a job that provides some challenges, we might whittle,  make music, tell old stories, or invent new ones. We could knit and sew, put on plays, read together, read tarot cards, or make a family tree. We could play with our children instead of buying a tablet for them on which they can play games by themselves.