Saturday, March 29, 2008

I have this daydream. One day, when no one else is around, I stuff some clothes in a bag, grab CDs and toiletries and some empty notebooks, and just take off. Get in the car without a map and just drive south until I hit desert. Mexico maybe, someplace hot and dry and empty, where I can clear my head.

I feel like I'm swamped in stories that other people tell. My head is full of other people's words, other people's feelings, and I daydream about just leaving all this behind and setting off to try to find out what would be in my head if I didn't have my books and tv shows and blogs filling me up with the things other people think about.

Its not practical, I know that. I'm ill and broke, and living alone drives me completely around the bend. Living alone out of a car in a foreign country is a really bad idea. But I still find myself mentally assembling packing lists and contemplating brushing up on my Spanish. I'm starting some plants for a garden this summer, and when I was at the garden store a couple weekends ago, I contemplated getting some cacti for an indoor pot, but decided I couldn't. The more I contemplate being somewhere else, the more I feel trapped. I don't know what it is about the desert that makes me think its calling me, but something has to change or my heart is going to burst.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Pacifism and Genocide

My sister and I have both been reading War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges. I'm not done with it yet, and I'm not usually ready to write about a book before I've finished it, but I thought I would post this here, basically because I would put it on Facebook for my sister, but I talk way too much for that to be practical. Here's what my sister said that got me thinking about this:
S., Mom, and I actually had a little debate/discussion about war and pacifism the other night. S. is a straight up pacifist, because he doesn't think Jesus would ever have killed someone. Idealistically I would be a pacifist, but the world's not that perfect, you know? Sometimes you have to intervene, or choose a lesser evil, so to speak. In the book, and in some of my econ stuff this quarter, it talked about all the times peacekeeping troops could have intervened and didn't, and how they could have saved lives and all.

My view on the morality of war has changed a bit since I joined the Army. I used to think that fighting a war after another country attacks your country is fine; wars of aggression are generally immoral, but the one exception would be when you start a war in order to prevent a greater atrocity, for example if a country had intervened in early Nazi Germany, or Rwanda.

From a utilitarian moral viewpoint (which, while we might disagree on its applicability to ‘victimless’ crimes, I think is uncontroversial here), in a situation where war might break out, one ought to act in a way that will minimize human suffering. Generally this means doing what you can to see that a war isn’t begun, but if you know that the alternative to war will produce more suffering than the war would, then you ought to choose war as the most moral thing to do.

In theory I still agree with this view. War is a horrible thing, but it’s not the only horrible thing. However, one of the lessons I’ve learned from the fiasco in Iraq is that, as an outsider looking into a foreign situation, I know a great deal less about what’s going on than I think I do. A situation might look like the beginnings of a genocide, or like a mad dictator loose with nuclear weapons, or like the end of the world in fire, and then turn out to be something completely different. Even as an insider in a volatile situation, I don’t think it’s possible to have the kind of complete information that the utilitarian choice for war requires. No one can tell the future, or read the minds of the other people involved. Theoretically, I could see a situation where choosing to start a war, or intervene militarily in a conflict, would be the moral choice, but practically it’s wiser to just not start wars.

A good metaphor would be my view on capital punishment. I have no problem in theory with executing a murderer. I think there are crimes for which the only truly just punishment is death. However, I don’t have faith that our judicial system is able to determine guilt or innocence with perfect accuracy, so I think it’s wiser to only impose punishments that are more or less reversible. It’s a problem of information.

That doesn’t mean accepting no action at all in the face of genocide, though. If you take Rwanda as an example, one of the major factors that led to the genocide was the radio stations that broadcast racist programs urging people to kill their neighbors. The United States could have exerted political and economic pressure to shut down those radio stations, and replaced them with different programs. There are often political and economic steps that can be taken to improve a situation.

In Iraq, over the past couple of years, there has been a slow ethnic cleansing in some areas, so that neighborhoods that used to be mixed Sunni-Shi’a are now only Sunni or only Shi’a. The US military presence hasn’t been able to stop this. From what I know (although again, as an outsider looking in my knowledge is incomplete) it would probably be more effective if the US withdrew our military forces while at the same time offering refuge to anyone who would be the victim of ethnic cleansing or genocide. So if you’re wanting to prevent genocide, which is a good goal, military intervention may not even be the most effective way to do that.

I guess what I would advocate is practical pacifism, through the adoption of a different paradigm for international intervention. Here in the US, we tend to think of our options as either a) do nothing and pretend that everything is fine, or b) storm in with guns blazing. We see our role in the international community as that of a police officer. I think what we ought to do is acknowledge our inability to be effective police officers, and instead take on the role of the battered women's shelter: we can't arrest the abusers and put them in prison, we can't put them up against a wall and shoot them for their crimes, but we can shelter their victims and do our best to mitigate the damage that has been done. This is a lot more complicated, and time-consuming, and requires a greater commitment to long-term, practical action that isn't flashy and doesn't get the adrenaline pumping, but I think it's more moral.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Apology for Want

I am an exceptionally negative person: misanthropic, the quintessential pessimist, I always expect the world to prove right my view that shit happens for no good reason and with no cure. I don't think this view of the world is unrealistic; actually, I think karmic, teleological views of the world are the epitome of magical thinking, which I detest.

However, there are days when the world surprises me with how sweet life is. Yesterday, I went to the library and while browsing the shelves stumbled on a thin book of poetry by someone I had never heard of. Here's one:

Apology for Want

by Mary Jo Bang

I've worried far too much about the eye
of the other: the shopkeeper and his lackey clerks
who think I steal.
I know I stand far too long, gazing

with wistful face at the muted tints of objects
on shelves. How smart we are all getting.
Soon we will understand everything:
why our first breath, when our last.

Why a rat, even though shocked
every time it eats, never stops knowing hunger.
How hollow-boned birds and gilled fish
estimate the size of a bounty, remember

where they stored food. There are few ways
to free the body from desire, all end in anarchy.
Tomorrow, I'll go back to the shop- the story
where it left off-

focus on those items that have bits of lavender
hidden within: gimmaled broccoli tips,
overwrought asparagus. Survival lies in resistance,
in the undersides of the leafed and delicate.

Among animals, we're the aberration:
want appropriates us,
sends us out dressed in ragged tulle, but won't tell
where it last buried the acorn or bone.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What the Water Gave Me

Emotional pain is often the inspiration for great works of art, but physical pain doesn't act the same way on the mind. Physical pain does not inspire, it grinds. It pares the soul down to the barest essentials of survival, so that there is only a bright spark of self in a sea of agony. Pain is not in any way beautiful. It is shit and piss and vomit; it is mean and common, and most of all it is boring.

Frida Kahlo's art is not about pain, not directly. She painted the fear of pain, the love of death, political upset, tension between modern life and historical roots, the distress of being a woman. But she painted all this while in pain, and her work is subtly disturbing because of it. The amazing thing about her is that instead of allowing her pain to deaden what she felt and how she expressed herself, she somehow transmuted dust into gold.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

the ghosts in the radio are singing along

I was going through my old CDs today, and I realized something. I've been thinking lately that my tendency toward feminism is something newish; I don't remember thinking about feminism in much depth before I got ill and found myself with all this time to sit around and read. Logically I can deduce that I must have had opinions on the matter, what with me driving myself as hard as I used to, to be academically successful and hip and tough and all that, and then I did join the Army. But I don't remember what I thought. The past is a blur. I can reconstruct what must have happened from things I know about myself, but I have no real memory of a lot of it.

My old CDs, though, tell a different story. I never used to purchase music. When I lived in my parents' house, I wasn't allowed to listen to music that wasn't explicitly Christian, so in order to listen to the things I wanted to listen to, I had to obtain CDs either from friends or from the library, burn copies onto blank CDs and label them something misleading, and then never listen to them unless I was using headphones and no one else was around. Telling it like that makes it sound like I was horribly oppressed, but I ended up listening to exactly what I wanted anyway, so I guess it was alright. The point is that I never bought music.

Today I found three old CDs that I actually purchased: Le Tigre's self-titled album, and Pretty Girls Make Graves' "Good Health" and "The New Romance." Way back in the day, back when I had the energy to follow music and find things that were exciting and new, it was important to me to listen to feminist music, written and sung by women. I'm glad to know this about myself, and I'm glad to have this music again. I've been inspired, actually, and now I have six CDs on order at the library to expand my feminist playlist.

Not that I think it's important to inhabit a feminist ghetto, where all media I consume is appropriately female oriented; that would be too similar to the Christian bubble I was raised in, and I don't want to be the kind of person who shelters themselves from the world. But the music I listen to, which is mostly alternative/indie rock, is heavily male-dominated. Listening to an all male choir is valuable- many of these men are incredibly talented- but it feels incomplete.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Jericho's second season

The first season of Jericho was OK. I sat down and watched it at one point a few months ago when I was bored and ill and up all night and it was the only TV show I could find that had a whole season's worth of episodes available online for free. I really liked some aspects of it, particularly the post-apocalyptic themes and the secret agent storyline, and I could listen to the guy who plays Hawkins talk all day and not get bored; he has the most wonderful voice. Other aspects were kind of annoying, like how none of the women were good for anything, and how the town kept "running out" of gasoline and then the next episode people were driving all over the place, and the resemblance some of the plot points had to a 9/11 Truther conspiracy theory.

The first few episodes of the second season have been pretty stellar, though. Apparently the show isn't that popular, but I think it's great. Popularity isn't necessarily the defining factor when you're telling a good story, and like Kung Fu Monkey says, this show has become radically subversive. I just watched Episode Five, and it reminded me of nothing so much as a composite of certain incidents from the Iraq war. The incident in Fallujah, before we burned it to the ground, where those contractors went into the city and were killed, and their bodies were mutilated and strung up by a mob. Numerous incidents of corruption during the reconstruction. Arbitrary imprisonment of occupied citizens without trial, and "misunderstandings" that resulted in the death of innocent children in their homes. The major difference is that the victims of corporate-government oppression here aren't Iraqis, they're Americans. The pretty little girl who gets shot is blond, and the men who string up the contractor are American farm boys, doing what anyone would do in their situation.

The most dangerous threat to the impulse to war is sympathizing with the enemy. Empathy, I am convinced, is the root of morality. If you can imagine yourself as the person you oppose, if you can feel what they feel , if you can truly know them, war becomes impossible. When it comes to people who live halfway across the world, who speak a different language and pray to a different God, empathy isn't that easy. Stories like this help bridge the gap, and we need more like it.

You can watch all of season two of Jericho here, on CBS' page, free and completely legit.

Monday, March 10, 2008

we shall all someday part the veil

Some disconnected thoughts:


By Emily Dickinson:

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

Rodin's "The Fallen Caryatid"


I went for a walk today at the Catholic cemetery down the road. It's interesting to see the stories we tell, or fail to tell, about our dead. There's not a whole lot of room on a gravestone, even the extravagantly large ones, and most of the graves I saw today included name, dates, and one other piece of information, usually a family relationship: mother, daughter, wife. Some had military ranks, units and wars in which the deceased served, and a fair number had Masonic symbols. The most common, of course, was religious symbols: crosses, the gates of heaven, angels, references to passages in the Bible.

I don't really feel like I understand the attraction of most stories about death. Fear of death I get; every successful living creature must fear death, and humans are no exception. Intellectually, I understand that a way of coping with fear is inventing reasons to explain why the fear is unfounded, but emotionally it just doesn't connect with me. Once you admit that beliefs about an afterlife are impossible to verify in any way, that we have zero information about what death is like, it seems to me that the stories lose their comfort. I have this problem with religious faith as well, obviously: I am aware that choosing to believe would mean adopting an idea that I don't think is true in order to make myself feel better, and that very awareness means that adopting it wouldn't even make me feel better, because I know that I don't actually believe.

When I feel like flattering myself, I pretend that I think this way because I am unusually un-susceptible to doublethink, but perhaps that isn't true. Maybe it's just that I have an abnormally large amount of time to sit and examine the things I believe in, entire mornings that I can take to walk around a cemetery by myself.

Friday, March 07, 2008

An atheist's creed

Now, since I don't like to only whine about the things I see on the internet, I thought I would post a link to something PZ Meyers put up at Pharyngula today. He wrote this in response to a particularly ugly manifestation of the idea that atheism is synonymous with nihilism and despair, and I thought it was rather beautiful. I don't have the scientific background to give the correct explanations of the world that others can, but still this resonates with me. Something that I've begun to learn to accept as part of coping with chronic illness is this idea that my existence is contingent on a billion coincidences, that my life is not inevitable in any way, that things change whether I want them to or not. This is a scary idea, and I remember being taught as a child that believing it would leave you with nothing worth living for.

The truth is, acknowledging the vastness and complexity of the universe is no more nihilistic than contemplating the night sky. The refusal to believe in a universe that isn't centered around one's particular subsection of a tribe of a species on this little planet is a pathetic agoraphobia of the soul, and it is this state of mind that is to be pitied.

An atheist's creed

I believe in time,
matter, and energy,
which make up the whole of the world.

I believe in reason, evidence and the human mind,
the only tools we have;
they are the product of natural forces
in a majestic but impersonal universe,
grander and richer than we can imagine,
a source of endless opportunities for discovery.

I believe in the power of doubt;
I do not seek out reassurances,
but embrace the question,
and strive to challenge my own beliefs.

I accept human mortality.

We have but one life,
brief and full of struggle,
leavened with love and community,
learning and exploration,
beauty and the creation of
new life, new art, and new ideas.

I rejoice in this life that I have,
and in the grandeur of a world that preceded me,
and an earth that will abide without me.

When I am king

Sitting in my email inbox right now is a letter from a caseworker at the VA Regional Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment, St Louis (Voc Rehab). This is the office that works with veterans who are disabled by a condition caused by their military service in order to retrain them for the workplace and help them find employment by providing things like assistive devices: voice recognition software, specialized wheelchairs or whatever you need in order to get back to work. They also do things like paying for college if they think that's what you need to be a productive member of society, or small business planning advice and loans. Voc Rehab interviewed me in January to see if there was anything they could do for me, a disabled veteran.

The letter in my inbox confirms that a paper copy of my official rejection letter will be sent to me as soon as possible so I can add it to my medical and employment history. The VA office here has found that I am unemployable, not rehabable, not worth spending tax dollars on, so I am not eligible for their program at this time. Incidentally, they made this decision in January, told me they sent me the letter in January, and are only now getting around to resending it.

There is another VA office in town, Disability Compensation and Pension (Comp & Pen). This office is tasked with taking care of veterans who have been disabled by their service; and by 'taking care of' I mean 'giving money to.' This is the branch that gives out disability payments, which are scaled based on the severity of disability from almost negligible, something like $110/month, to completely disabling, over $2k/month. If your disability is so severe that you can't find any kind of employment, you are officially entitled to the full 100% disability payments, which gives you about $25k a year to live on. It's not money that anyone would call riches, but at least it's above the poverty line.

You would think, that since the branch of the VA responsible for helping veterans find employment has found that I am unemployable- and this particular office is the fourth in two states, on the state, federal, and nonprofit levels, to find this- the Comp & Pen branch of the VA would be obligated to also find me unemployable, and therefore give me disability payments that I can live on. Well, you would think that IF you don't know the way the VA works. So here I am, poking at my library account online, bored because someone else has all the Buffy DVDs checked out and I can't afford to buy them so I must wait, contemplating the day when I am no longer able to access the internet from my home because my savings will have run out and I will no longer be able to afford internet access. In my bleaker moments, I contemplate a day when I will no longer have a home from which to not access the internet; but I know that this will probably never happen, because I have family. But if I didn't have family... it already would have. The VA provides me with enough to have a nice car to live out of.

All of which leads me to comment on this article that's been floating around, from the Christian Science Monitor: "Homeless: Can you build a life from $25?" Basically some former athlete white boy with a college degree and rich parents went out to prove that it's possible to go from being homeless to renting a place, even if you're ... a young, healthy, rich white boy with a college degree. Some choice quotes:

To make his quest even more challenging, he decided not to use any of his previous contacts.

Ten months into the experiment, he decided to quit after learning of an illness in his family.

"I was getting by on chicken and Rice-A-Roni dinner and was happy."

"I had a credit card in my back pocket in case of an emergency. The rule was if I used the credit card then, "The project's over, I'm going home.""

[In response to a question about whether his game would have been more difficult if he had child support payments or was on probation] "The question isn't whether I would have been able to succeed. I think it's the attitude that I take in."

"This isn't a "rags-to-riches million-dollar" story. This is very realistic. I truly believe, based on what I saw at the shelter ...that anyone can do that."

Speaking as someone who doesn't have the luxury of "quitting" my life when someone gets sick, who doesn't have an emergency credit card or any "previous contacts" that would do me any good, I just have to say that eating chicken and Rice-a-Roni for dinner sounds like the lap of luxury to me (meat is expensive, even chicken), and I deeply resent the implication that the reason I'm in the situation I'm in is because my attitude isn't focused enough on tugging at my own bootstraps. Yeah, I made some stupid decisions. I joined the Army- that was, in hindsight, blindingly stupid. But I'm not sick and unemployed because I'm lazy, and this kid's condescension makes me want to punch him in the face. Knowing that in the future people are going to point to the book he wrote as "proof!" that poverty is a choice that the government shouldn't subsidize with things like food stamps makes me want to puke.

There's a more eloquent takedown of this at Resist Racism: Playing at poverty.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

If heaven is on the way

So I was talking with my mother-in-law the other day, and the conversation went like our conversations usually do, where she talks about 95% of the time, and I say "mmhmm" and "oh really?" and "yeah" a lot. She was telling stories about how she got into trouble in high school, but then got diverted onto the subject of how inconvenient it was for everyone she knew when the school district policy started to require forced integration of the school districts, which meant that the bus rides for some people took longer. She honestly couldn't see any need at all for integration of schools, because after all, the people she knew would never harass black students, and if the black students all sat at one table at lunch it was just because they wanted to. All integration was to her was a pointless hassle, and at that point I really didn't have anything to say.

My in-laws and the people I've met here in St Louis since moving here last summer are not bad people. They are intelligent, educated, middle class white folks who insist that St Louis is not, in fact, in the South, but is in the Midwest and so must be untainted with horrible horrible racism. It puzzles me, that they don't see it. St Louis is about half white and half black, I think, although I don't know the current statistics; we are currently living in my grandmother-in-law's house, which is in a neighborhood with exactly zero people who aren't lily white. I go to the grocery store around the corner and it's no more diverse than the stores in rural Washington state where I grew up. On the other hand, if you go up to the northern part of St Louis county, communities there are almost 100% nonwhite. My in-laws' social circle does not include a single person who isn't white.

The way money is spent by the local governments here reflects this segregation to a degree that makes my skin itch. The neighborhood here, which is white and upper middle class, is perfectly safe. You can leave your doors unlocked when you run to the store and you can walk alone at night. I get the impression that the nonwhite neighborhoods are rather dangerous; the principle advice I got when I moved here about how to get around the city was to not go north of downtown or across the river, because doing so means you're going to get shot. It's not just dangerous crime, either. The VA hospital downtown is in a part of town that is right on the edge between a university campus and, to the north of it, a patch of urban poverty recognizable by ancient, poorly maintained, or abandoned buildings: it's a 'black' part of town.

Some of the history of the area is outlined in these posts by The Infamous Brad, which I found via Orcinus. The shooting he talks about occurred in Kirkwood, which is a suburb of St Louis that is only about ten minutes from where I'm living now. Orcinus also gives a link to a previous discussion of sundown towns that mentions Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, which I thought was very interesting. It's easy for a white kid from a white town like me to grow up almost completely ignorant of the complexities of race in our society, but it seems to me like it ought to be more difficult to stay ignorant when your white town is right next to a black town and the difference is so stark. My in-laws do manage to be ignorant, though.

It makes me wonder if the difference between us really is just that I read so much science fiction at such an impressionable age, or if there actually is less racism in the Pacific Northwest like I used to assume. Or maybe the type of racism in Washington- the kind people don't talk about- just doesn't pass along to the next generation as reliably.

Monday, March 03, 2008

if you go straight long enough

I keep trying to write a post and every time it turns into a rant about how much I hate the VA. So instead of a real post, here's some links to things I've been reading.

driftglass writes about Orwell's 1984 and the modern Republican Party's doctrine of endless war.

John McCain apparently is an alternative medicine sucker: according to this article, "McCain said, per ABC News' Bret Hovell, that "It’s indisputable that (autism) is on the rise amongst children, the question is what’s causing it. And we go back and forth and there’s strong evidence that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines."" The 'mercury in vaccines' theory of autism origin has been pretty thoroughly debunked, but I guess being a Republican means you just have to be against scientific evidence no matter what.

Also, here's some awesome leopard cubs.