Is the Military-Industrial Complex Functioning as Designed?

military general drinking whiskey and holding a gunThe Operators, by Michael Hastings

I went to a poetry reading in North Beach last week and then out drinking with the poets and their friends afterwards. This fulfilled an old Beatnik fantasy of mine. As I teenager, I venerated the Beat generation writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg. Their jazz-fueled, drug-laden epiphanies, wandering barefoot through the city at dawn, seemed a far cry from my suburban ennui, where the shopping mall was the hottest spot for us teens to gather. But there I was, last week, sitting in an old North Beach bar, arguing about Hemingway with a bunch of old hippie communist poets in the very place that Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Cassady might have had the same disagreement. It was like a dream come true.

Communists that they are, these poets blamed all of modernism’s ills on capitalism exclusively, it’s all about the money for them. Marx himself was a modernist in my own view, and the systems inspired by his visions have fared no better than those driven by capital in terms of real human flourishing, but I’m grinding a different axe today. See, the commies are convinced that it’s all about the money. Why has the US been venturing into the Middle East for so many years, wasting money and lives, as we clumsily sow chaos throughout the region? It must be for the money. “No Blood For Oil” read the protest signs. And it’s not an exclusively leftist position to take. Eisenhower himself coined the phrase “military-industrial complex” to warn of these powerful vested interests, and he was technically a Republican, though no Republican today would tolerate his views, I’m sure.

I hate to say this, postmodernist that I am, but there’s a part of me that thinks, if the US needs oil, it will grab oil. Our country is a system, competing with other systems for resources. I’d rather live under our system than under the Chinese or Russians, so I grit my teeth and bear it. But if you look at the details of the Iraq war, for example, huge Iraqi oil fields were ruined with water when they were disrupted by the war. Maybe some US oil companies benefitted temporarily from transient spikes in oil prices, but it’s not like the US is literally pumping the oil and taking it away. The US isn’t really benefitting from Iraqi oil. We spent way, way more on that war than we got back in free oil. One might say, well, it’s these multinational oil corporations that benefited. But it’s not at all clear why multinationals would care which regime they got their oil from. Saddam Hussein couldn’t pump the stuff himself.

And then there’s this whole line of reasoning that Hussein was threatening the US petrodollar by accepting euros for oil. And that seems like a decent argument, and would actually be aligned with US interests. Sure, we want the dollar to be propped up by the fact that it’s a global reserve currency. That’s fine, in a sense. Like it or hate it, if the purpose of the military-industrial complex is to preserve western dominance, as Chomsky might say, then this is just the sort of thing we should EXPECT it to do, and crying about it isn’t going to change the realpolitik of the situation. Powerful systems crush weak systems, end of story.

But then I ask myself, what if these systems AREN’T functioning to preserve US dominance? It may well be that US interests have actually been harmed by our Middle East adventures. We’ve certainly spilled plenty of blood and cash in Afghanistan for no apparent benefit. No oil there. Some pipeline theories float around, or maybe there’s a huge cache of rare earth metals we can grab, but, based on our track record, the US will probably fail to profit from either rare earth metals or pipelines.

It doesn’t seem like our military-industrial complex is being guided by the principle of advancing US interests. And that’s actually a bigger problem than if it were. If we were just bullies stomping on weak nations to make ourselves stronger, that wouldn’t be so bad, really. . . But if the military-industrial complex ISN’T guided by principles . . . if it fails to advance US interests, then it could destroy the US.

It doesn’t seem like our military-industrial complex is being guided by the principle of advancing US interests. And that’s actually a bigger problem than if it were. If we were just bullies stomping on weak nations to make ourselves stronger, that wouldn’t be so bad, really. As Pinker asserts in Better Angels, we have a long history in the West of becoming more and more civilized. If we’re bullies, we can learn to be gentle. But if the military-industrial complex ISN’T guided by principles, then it runs the risk of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. If it fails to advance US interests, then it could destroy the US, and there could be no more US to suck money out of at some point.

We saw a similar thing play out with the bank bailouts. A proper capitalism with accountability for making bad bets removes stupid strategies from the marketplace and should sustainably generate wealth for many. A crony capitalism that offloads risk onto the taxpayers threatens to break the very system from which its wealth is built.

What if these systems that we depend upon are broken? What if we didn’t go to war with Iraq to get the oil, we just went to fulfill the contracts of the military contractors? That just seems so crazy. Surely there should be someone at the wheel, guiding this whole thing, who would see a problem with that? But maybe not.

I read The Operators, by Michael Hastings. . . The big takeaway for me was that the military seems to be driven by a cult of bloodlust. . . The people fighting on the ground aren’t fighting for their country, they’re fighting to spill blood and to risk their own blood, in and of itself. . . Hastings describes war as a drug, the ultimate adrenaline high. And that paints an ugly picture. The Pentagon starts a war simply to deploy assets and make sure that the defense industry gets paid, and the people on the ground execute it because spilling blood is such a fucking RUSH, man! Holy shit, we’re fucked. . . This is a terrible system.

I had sort of accepted that defense contract spending was driving US military intervention, but then I read The Operators, by Michael Hastings. There’s a lot to say about this excellent book and its unfortunate author, but the big takeaway for me was that the military seems to be driven by a cult of bloodlust. On some level, the officers aren’t fighting for their country, they’re fighting to spill blood and to risk their own troops blood, in and of itself. It’s not even clear if they see these war theaters as proving grounds for their character, which would have some virtue, I guess. Hastings describes war as a drug, the ultimate adrenaline high. And that paints an ugly picture. The actual foot soldiers think they’re fighting for their country, but they’re actually fighting out of loyalty to their fellow soldiers. The Pentagon starts a war simply to deploy assets and make sure that the defense industry gets paid, and the officers execute it because spilling blood is such a fucking RUSH, man! Holy shit, we’re fucked. The wheels cannot help but come off of this system. Maybe we don’t have to outrun the bear, maybe we just need to outrun the other guys running from the bear, but come on. This is a terrible system.

To my conservative friends, my pals who defend modernism and think that it’s us postmodernists who have dismantled the system: Take a closer look at our systems. We postmodernists are doing you a favor by pointing out the flaws. We haven’t come up with any sustainable solutions, granted, but we didn’t CREATE these flaws. And now it seems to be up to ALL of us, modernists, traditionalists, postmodernists, whatever, to figure out a post-postmodernism that builds sustainable systems guided by principles and not just lust for cash and blood. God help us.

How I Discovered What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation

cultural-appropriation

I was on Facebook when my friend, Razib, posted a video of a black woman at SF State calling out a white guy with dreadlocks and accusing him of cultural appropriation. Maybe this video is fake, maybe it’s real, it’s hard to say. It seems sort of staged. Of course Razib and his fellow academics got all worked up about it. They are all sort of shell shocked by these social justice warriors turning academia into a politically correct police state. Nevermind that conservatives are the ones to blame for letting the far left gain the upper hand there.

Don’t get me wrong, I came into this thread ready to stick up for cultural appropriation. After all, what would America be if we didn’t appropriate the cultures of other nations? … But then I noticed another friend of mine trying to explain why cultural appropriation was actually bad. … But people were deriding him and it made me sort of annoyed. So I made an attempt to come up with a model that explains why cultural appropriation is harmful.

Don’t get me wrong, I came into this thread ready to stick up for cultural appropriation. After all, what would America be if we didn’t appropriate the cultures of other nations? I’m a mutt myself, I don’t even have my own culture. What the hell music would I be allowed to listen to? Polka and beer hall, oom-pah-pah music? (Shudder.) So I was rolling up my sleeves, ready to join in the self congratulatory derision of the latest social justice fad, but then I noticed another friend of mine in the thread trying to explain why cultural appropriation was actually bad. He’s no social justice warrior (SJW) himself, and he was not making a great case, but people were deriding him and making ad hominem attacks against him, and it made me sort of annoyed.

I go by virtue ethics, and I don’t stand by and let a pal get beaten up. So I had to stop myself and think about cultural appropriation in a new light. Why is it that SJWs brandish this idea of cultural appropriation? So I made an attempt to steelman the position that I had previously derided, and to come up with a model that explains why cultural appropriation is harmful. In doing so, I convinced myself that SJWs are partially correct, and that cultural appropriation is sometimes a bad thing.

So let’s start with some sort of definition of what cultural appropriation is.

Here’s a respectable snippet from Wikipedia:

“Cultural elements, which may have deep meaning to the original culture, can be reduced to ‘exotic’ fashion by those from the dominant culture. When this is done, the imitator, who does not experience that oppression, is able to ‘play,’ temporarily, an ‘exotic’ other, without experiencing any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures.”

One small solace of black people in America might be that they get to be “cool” in some way and can be afforded status in their unique subculture. … And now this hipster dreadlocked boy gets to parade around in the modern equivalent of blackface, usurping the cool factor of being an outsider. But at any moment, he might cut his hair, put on a suit, and blend seamlessly into the dominant culture, while this black woman is left with her crappy internship, forever barred from many powerful inner circles due to her race and gender. What a bitter pill that must be to swallow.

Seems legit. One small solace of black people in America might be that they get to be “cool” in some way and can be afforded status in their unique subculture. How annoyed black rockers must have been when Elvis skyrocketed in popularity above them. How humiliating was blackface vaudeville to the contemporary black artists it was imitating? And now this hipster dreadlocked boy gets to parade around in the modern equivalent of blackface, usurping the cool factor of being an outsider. But at any moment, he might cut his hair, put on a suit, and blend seamlessly into the dominant culture, while this black woman is left with her crappy internship, forever barred from many powerful inner circles due to her race and gender. What a bitter pill that must be to swallow.

There was a time when (white though I am), I was treated as relatively low status for being a nerd with emotional problems. So I went and became a punk rocker and a goth, and I got some local subculture status and that felt good. I was pretty disgusted by all of the jock-core bands that came out and kind of ruined hardcore. I was annoyed by the suave popular kids who posed as new wavers. So I can understand where these SJWs are coming from.

It actually might help to think of this in terms of status hierarchies. This is a trick I learned from the rationalist community. Some rationalists have trouble understanding social interactions and have decided to model them all as status competitions. This is disturbingly accurate when you think about it. So let’s model cultural appropriation in terms of a status competition, shall we?

Conservatives don’t like to allow that minorities are “oppressed,” but we can probably all still agree that black Americans are generally treated as lower status than whites. So, of course, blacks built their own independent status hierarchies, and, back in the day, the minstrels achieved a certain status, putting on folksy comedic shows. Then whites came along, slapped on blackface, and stole the show, partially by virtue of their high status whiteness, without necessarily capturing the authentic down home humor. Boom. Status hierarchy hijacked.

So then jazz hierarchies emerged, oops, here came whites again to hijack the top of the hierarchy (Miles Davis got beaten out by some white guy named Chet Baker for trumpeter of the year?), then Elvis stole rock and roll, etc. Even dreadlocks probably afford blacks certain local status, and this is diminished by whites interjecting themselves into these hierarchies.

So yeah, that sucks. Now the conservatives and neo-reactionaries will howl about how bad social justice is and how it represses free speech and the true diversity of ideas and how it’s out of touch with reality and The Gods of the Copybook Headings and whatnot. And some may even cry that black Americans aren’t treated as low status and are ascendant right now. Mike J. pointed out to me that status is actually revealed in each discrete social interaction. And maybe when some blacks get into college via affirmative action, they push out some whites. This all seems preposterous and annoying to me. I hate it when strong people think of themselves as weak. Not to mention the fact that adopting victim narratives robs people of agency, so no one should really do it if they can avoid it.

Look at Kamau Bell’s incident at the Elmwood Cafe. Here we have a high status black man, a successful comedian who had a national show on FX and attended an ivy league school. But he dressed down one day and he was mistaken for a homeless person by a barista who tried to shoo him away from talking to HIS OWN WIFE on the patio of the Elmwood Cafe (in liberal Berkeley, no less). But instead of just making a joke about it, he angrily posted about it on social media, and the girl ended up getting fired.

When I first heard of this, I toyed with the idea that Bell was falling prey to his own victim narrative. He should have just laughed off this low wage counter prole and told her to relax herself and bring him a coffee while she was at it, no tip to be expected.

But the fact is that, in this world, even a rich, educated, fairly famous black comedian gets treated like a homeless person by a minimum wage earning white cafe lackey. The conservatives can deny it all they want, but blacks are treated as low status. So I am going to hold my tongue and not just tell this guy to buck up and adopt a narrative in which he has power and can afford to act generously towards those below him.

Out here in the real world, social justice doesn’t really have any power, and minorities and queers are getting crapped on. And it’s not cool for the relatively powerful to swoop in and steal the crumbs of subcultural status that outsiders have tried to amass for themselves. I understand why they get pissed off about it. … I know we need conservative impulses to keep society from flying off the rails, but we also need social justice and the progressives in order to progress as a civilization. Otherwise, we might still be burning cats or chaining children to factory floors.

I don’t approve of SJW tribunals sentencing dreadlocked whites to social ostracization. But I also don’t think that’s going to be a problem outside of academia. Out here in the real world, social justice doesn’t really have any power, and minorities and queers are getting crapped on. And it’s not cool for the relatively powerful to swoop in and steal the crumbs of subcultural status that outsiders have tried to amass for themselves. I understand why they get pissed off about it. It’s just not classy. I know we need conservative impulses to keep society from flying off the rails, but we also need social justice and the progressives in order to progress as a civilization. Otherwise, we might still be burning cats or chaining children to factory floors.

Social justice remains the pointy end of the spear driving western cultural progress. We shall not remain worms, but will evolve to something greater.

EDITS: 4/4/2016

First point: It was brought up to me privately, that cultural appropriation can muddle the waters and make authentic cultural exchange more difficult.  I need to think about this more, but the native american headdress makes a good example.  When this headdress is used as a costume, it is stripped of it’s deeper religious and social meaning.  We’ve missed the point of what each feather and token might actually represent.  It’s become just a pretty hat.  Or what if we had adopted arabic numerals strictly as decoration without regard to their use in mathematics?  Would the thinkers of Europe have scoffed at the idea that these scribbles worn as ornaments by the fashionable could have a deeper meaning?  I’m not entirely sure and of course this dreadlocks example doesn’t fall into this category, but it’s something worth considering.

Second point: I actually spent a huge segment of my day arguing about this on Facebook and I got sort of exhausted by it and by the absolutely uniform rejection of my defence of this SJW. And I wonder to myself, to what end have I done this to myself? What difference does it make in my life or what contribution am I offering to the greater good?

Personally, I felt very similar to most of the people on this thread just last week. But after taking the time to try to steelman this SJW idea of cultural appropriation, I actually found a way to understand it. For me, this was an excellent exercise in updating beliefs.

What disappoints me is that so many of my intelligent and sensitive friends don’t seem to be trying to steelman this position AT ALL. I see little effort to understand the motives of the SJWs who prattle on about cultural appropriation. I don’t see anyone trying to give this black woman the benefit of the doubt. My god, if anyone doubts that blacks have a hard time in America, they would need to look no further than that very thread or even the other comment threads discussing this topic. Who has made the slightest effort to understand this woman’s pain? Who has looked past her boorish but basically harmless behavior to the underlying causes?

I really wish more people would make an attempt to steelman the positions of their opponents in more cases. It’s hard to do but it would yield much better arguments.

Liberals Should Defend Marriage

two-birds

Nope, I’m not talking about gay marriage, but I will come back to that.  I am actually talking about contraceptives.  Let me explain.  See, I have been mulling over the implications of Haidt’s moral foundations, which suggest that some of the cultural impasse we face in America is due to liberals and conservatives valuing some moral foundations differently.  For instance, conservatives value loyalty much more than liberals.  But Haidt’s overall point is that both sides should stop demonizing each other and recognize that the other side does have a moral compass, just one that is calibrated differently.

I have an old friend from my Buffalo days, let’s call him Al for the sake of this argument, who frequently beats up on conservatives.  Al is a good liberal and solid atheist and I have always tended to agree with his injunctions against the right.  Responding to the recent Supreme Court decision in which companies are allowed to exercise religious views, Al pointed out that conservatives seem to hate the idea of consequence-free sex, and this gave me pause.  It sounds plausible, if damning, on the surface of it.  But then I considered how Haidt would respond, and I tried to find a way to justify this position.  After all, I know smart, rational conservatives here in the Bay Area, and they often make the case that liberal values tear apart our traditional social fabric.  Normally, I would say, “Eh, no great loss if they do,” but I decided to seriously entertain this idea.

So I thought, “Ok, in what way is ‘consequence-free sex’ bad?”  And it occurred to me that contraceptives actually help undermine the institution of marriage.  Consider this: In the absence of contraceptives, women will inevitably end up with children.  Marriage has value for women in this scenario since it offers a committed partner who is contractually obligated to help care for the child.  Now that we have contraceptives, marriage arguably has lost this particular advantage.  A woman doesn’t need to have children if she doesn’t want to, and thus won’t need marriage for that benefit.  And I thought, “Huh!  That was unexpected.” 

The most universal and compelling benefit of marriage is that married people are healthier and live longer.  So this is a desirable, but perhaps non-obvious, outcome of marriage that helps everyone.

Yes, we need contraceptives because they grant us freedom and prevent unwanted pregnancies, which are devastating for both mothers and children.  It’s ridiculously unrealistic to expect humans to simply refrain from sex.  But who cares?  What is the actual value of marriage?  Well, it turns out that marriage as an institution provides surprising benefits.  The most universal and compelling benefit of marriage is that married people are healthier and live longer.  Married men do benefit more than married women, but women enjoy some longevity benefits from marriage too.  So this is a desirable, but perhaps non-obvious, outcome of marriage that helps everyone.

Of course there are other benefits.  Single women are poorer that married women, so women seem to get some economic benefit from marriage.  Ensuring women equal pay might nullify this. Interestingly, men and women who have a partner that does the housework actually make more money.  Again the effect is more pronounced in men, probably due to wage inequality.  In addition, children born out of wedlock have much worse social outcomes, such as cognitive problems and aggressive behavior.  Of course the causal arrow might be backward here since it’s been shown that higher IQ* people are more likely to have long-term relationships.

I am not married myself and my feminist girlfriend cites patriarchy as the reason.  We have lived together since 1997, and we would be married by common law in other states.  I certainly don’t want to try to shove marriage down the throats of women, let alone feminists.  But since marriage has all these social and health benefits for everyone involved, it seems that we should try to find non-coercive ways to reward marriage using positive reinforcement.  (Negative reinforcement simply doesn’t work.)  So perhaps we could offer real tax breaks to married couples or something.

Also, my girlfriend believes that monogamy can be a stifling thing after many years together.  (In fact her conviction makes me a bit suspicious.)  But seriously, I am sympathetic to this point of view, and it seems that the old French tradition of older married couples having discrete, outside liaisons might be promoted to counteract this problem.  I find it silly when I see older couples breaking up over a sexual indiscretion, casting aside relationships that took decades to forge. 

It seems that conservatives often use crude, outdated tools to try to fix social problems, and the liberal response is to attack the tool and ignore the problem that still needs solving.

Correct me if I am wrong, but liberals don’t seem to be very interested in programs to promote or bolster marriage as an institution.  And this brings me to the larger problem: It seems that conservatives often use crude, outdated tools to try to fix social problems, and the liberal response is to attack the tool and ignore the problem that still needs solving.

Sure, one could argue that fixing pay inequality and offering child care could solve a lot of these problems.  But those solutions don’t address the health or even the emotional benefits of marriage.  The state can’t really step in and serve as your personal life companion.  Economic policy cannot replace a committed partner who sticks with you to share your ups and downs, both offering you care and someone for you to care for.  A reason to keep going, some deeper meaning in life.  Somebody slap me now, please.

Imagine what would happen if liberals came out strongly in favor of this position.  I would predict that this would undermine the objections of conservatives to a lot of liberal ideas like free contraceptives or legalizing gay marriage.

So yes, I will now assert that marriage is a Good Thing in its own right.  But imagine what would happen if liberals came out strongly in favor of this position.  I would predict that this would undermine the objections of conservatives to a lot of liberal ideas like free contraceptives or legalizing gay marriage.  Of course the frothing fringe will still stamp their feet in protest, but I would bet that the moderate middle and center right would be more disposed toward these liberal ideas if liberals could offer some ways to mend the social fabric.

My friend Al berates me for suggesting compromise with these irrational people that believe in the imaginary man in the sky.  But I assert that my approach actually disarms religious solutions, such as making it harder to get contraceptives, by offering an alternative.  I actually do agree that liberal values undermine tradition and the old social order.  That’s generally a good thing.  But conservatives rightly point out that this disruption causes some problems that were previously solved by institutions like marriage.  It would be in everyone’s best interest to heed these concerns and work together to find solutions, instead of just ignoring the problems.

* For people who oppose the idea of an IQ (intelligence quotient), I am perfectly happy to replace that term with “obedience quotient.”