I woke up this morning feeling empty. I felt disappointed, even though I expected Obama to win. I’d be just as disappointed if Romney would have won.
It’s like this: Not enough people in this country care about the issues I care about. Those issues include the endless war on terror, civil liberties, wealth inequality, domestic spying, drones, mass incarceration, the drug war, the Afghan war, civilian casualties, and a few others. Those issues simply weren’t discussed [by the major candidates] during this campaign.
So as a result, I’m disappointed. I should have expected this.
It strikes me as odd that at this moment I’m living through my second class 1 hurricane since moving to Washington, DC in 2007. It might be that I didn’t know much, but I never thought Washington was much of a hurricane risk. Hurricane Sandy is blowing away outside as I type this.
But what I can tell you is that even a category 1 hurricane is scary. Shit is blowing here—trees are leaning, and we are almost expecting to lose power. What I can’t imagine is a category 5 hurricane like Katrina. Which got me thinking.
In my life the two biggest failures of democracy in my lifetime are the Iraq War and hurricane Katrina. Neither is excusable, but I thought they needed comment.
Last night, in reaction to the Vice Presidential candidate’s discussion of their religions, I tweeted out that I hoped that I’d live long enough to hear a candidate say that he or she has no religion. I got some push back on that from an old friend on twitter that brought to mind something I learned in grad school about Kierkegaard. (At least I think it was Kierkegaard, my apologies if I’m misremembering.)
Before I do that though, I want to expand on the thought behind the original tweet. It is almost an incantation for candidates to proclaim their faith in God. It’s more than that though, as candidates have to express their belief that God specially blessed the United States. It is almost a religious test–a serious candidate has to express a certain type of belief to be considered for high office.
But that really isn’t the point that came into question. My old friend was pushing back against the idea that there could be morality without a “transcendent anchor.” I disagree, obviously, but that’s what got me thinking about Kierkegaard.
The argument goes like this (again, apologies if I dick it up): Both sides of the debate, theists and atheists, offer up evidence in support of their position. Neither side has evidence that proves the point beyond certainty–in fact, the issue in question, for a multitude of reasons, is beyond certainty. Since there can’t be 100% certainty in answering the question, the answer to the question is a choice. Simply a choice.
In my opinion, the evidence in favor of athiesm is overwhelming, but 99.9% isn’t 100%. Theists see the issue exactly opposite. To theists, that last 0.1% is “faith,” to me it is “mystery.” I’m comfortable filling in that space with “I don’t know.”
Anyhow, thinking of things in this manner makes it a lot easier for me to get along with my theist friends (especially those of the evangelical variety). They’ve made a different choice than I have. So what? Some people prefer Jack Daniels, I prefer bourbon of course, but it’s their choice.
I finished Ben Anderson’s No Worse Enemy last night and I wanted to offer a couple of comments.
Anderson has spent a lot of time in Afghanistan–the book covers the period between 2007 and 2011. In 2007, Anderson was with the British in Helmand, and in 2009-2011, he was with the American Marines in the same area. What struck me about his experience is the comments that the two groups of soldiers were making. Actually, it was only one set of comments: As far back as 2007, the Brits were using the same COIN-speak that the Americans employed years later. If you’ve followed the Afghan war at all, you’ve heard this type of talk. “The Taliban’s momentum is being stopped.” “We will provide security so that the population will decide to support us.” “The people here only want security and peace.” “Afghan forces are in the lead.” And so on and on and on…you’ve likely heard it all by now.
I just want to emphasize the point. According to Anderson’s reporting, despite the lives, effort and money poured into Helmand between 2007 and 2011, nearly nothing was noticeably different. Like the British in 2007, the Marines in 2009 had to blast their way through the various villages and towns to establish fire bases. Support from the population was tepid. Vast numbers of civilians were killed or displaced, just so NATO forces could pursue the Taliban.
To close watchers of the Afghan war, this is hardly surprising. In fact, I had seen much of this reporting already in Anderson’s 2011 documentary “The Battle for Bomb Alley.” Claims of progress by US military and political leadership are legion. Just last month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the recent rash of “green on blue” attacks the last gasp of a desperate insurgency. If you grant the US military and political leadership a generous reading, they’ve deluded themselves into thinking that progress has been made over the past 3 years. If you take their claims with more skepticism, then you might be inclined to think the claims of progress are outright lies. Anderson’s book is a piece of evidence that will tilt you towards the latter category.
One additional point I did want to try to ruminate on is the way that some American soldiers are “true believers.” These guys really do believe that they are their to help the Afghan people and their efforts are worth the sacrifice. I feel qualified to comment because I used to be that guy. During my 2005 deployment in Southern Iraq, I recall saying the exact same things to an Iraqi contractor. I was saying things like, “We’re here for you. The faster we can help you build up Iraq, the faster we can leave…” and so on. The Iraqi contractor smiled and nodded politely; he probably knew that I was completely deluded.
That delusion, I think, is remarkable. I’m Becker-ian in outlook–I think our life’s project is to create meaning for our lives. The created meaning is an illusion, but to lose it is die. Really, Becker says to lose it is to die.
So, to make the connection–I think these guys are operating under the illusion of progress in Afghanistan because that illusion sustains them. While deployed, it is literally the meaning of your life. It is necessary for their own sustenance. I think what’s worthy of further study is how good the military is at creating these illusions.
I had myself quite a little twitter rant today and I wanted to flesh out my ideas a little in blog form. As I noted on twitter, I have a habit of trying to philosophize practical issues, even though I have no special expertise in philosophy. So with that warning, I wanted to write a little bit about what I think “identity” has to with “responsibility” and what both those things have to do with the Afghan War.
To me, identity is fluid. It changes with time. It’s also a summation of all I was, am, and will be. Lots of things influence my identity–in fact, I could say that my identity has changed since I got home this afternoon. Inside that summation of me, are my ideas. I’m not exactly sure what percentage of the self ideas are, but if you think about the greatest thinkers in history, say a Nietzsche or an Einstein, they are thought of almost completely as ideas and not as people.
(As an aside on this point, coming up with great ideas or using ideas in a new way is one way to establish a legacy, or in Becker-ian terms, deny death. In that way, Nietzsche and Einstein live.)
This is where identity begins to intersect with responsibility. If my ideas are part of my identity, and I am responsible for my ideas, then it stands to reason that I am responsible for my identity. I recognize that there is genetic determinism at play here–Part of our identity is our height, but I wouldn’t make the claim that I’m responsible for my height; as if I could get taller. As far as ideas go, however, I think it best to think that ideas are malleable and contigent; fluid and changable based on new experience and the discovery of new facts. That is to say that I can take responsibility for them in a way I cannot take responsibility for my height. If I’m right about that, then I’m responsible for a certain percentage of my identity. (And I tend to think that percentage is fairly high.)
I say all that to get to this point: If I fail to take responsibility for my ideas, then I’ve failed to take responsibility for my identity. It’s like dividing my identity by zero. It makes no sense. It says that I do not have responsibility for my identity.
And all of that possibly tortured argument brings me to counterinsurgency and the Afghan war. In 2009, generals, pundits, politicians, think tankers, and Versailles-on-the-Potomac royal courtiers were advocating the idea of counterinsurgency (COIN) as a solution to America’s Afghanistan problem. There are a variety of reasons why this cast of characters pushed COIN–some honestly thought it was the correct course and others, quite cynically, pushed it because they believed it to be politically expedient. But I don’t think it matters, responsibility-wise, why one holds an idea. Either way, if my formulation is correct, it is still part of your identity.
Since 2009, COIN has proved itself to be a failure. Arguably, (but not very) the United States is in a worse position in Afghanistan in 2012 than it was in 2009. Now those same generals, pundits, politicians, think tankers, and courtiers are doing their best to avoid taking any responsibility for the situation. It seems to be they are engaged in a massive effort resulting in dividing their identities by zero.
You may have noticed, well at least I hope you did, that I made a slight rhetorical switch there. The crux of the switch is this–Does one have to take responsibility for the consequences of the ideas that make up their identity?
I’m inclined to say yes. Ideas have consequences. Ideas that are advocated publicly have consequences. Ideas advocated by those with the ability to influence policy have consequences.
Further, the identities of those who advocate ideas publicly with the ability to influence policy are even more influenced by those ideas.
In my post yesterday, I wondered what America can be tethered to if there’s no foundation to tether to. I think maybe the answer is that we can be tethered together. I guess I’d say this is similar to a version of Locke’s social contract. It gives us support, stability and strength. I think of it mentally as the tether going laterally rather than vertically.
Compared to something that connects to a solid foundation, this formulation seems a lot less stable. Americans are moving in a lot of different directions at once, with competing goals and politics. That makes me think this formulation is as untenable as universals are.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve trended strongly towards antifoundationalism, which is a rejection of fundamental truths or beliefs as a basis for analysis or inquiry. It sort of started with Nietzsche’s God is dead formulation and proceeded from there. Basically, I’ve come to doubt that there are any moral truths or any grounds for believing that their might be. This line of thinking can lead to what appears to be some ridiculous claims–there are no genders?–but I want to deal with it on a more superficial level.
One of the problems of antifoundationalism, for me, is trying to define the United States of America. If there are no absolute, no essences, what can America possibly mean? I think most people, me included, when pressed, quote the Declaration when pressed on this point: America is about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s what we think ties us together as Americans.
So what does America mean to an antifoundationalist who rejects life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as universals? I don’t know–how can I share in an America that I reject?
It’s a tough question for me–I don’t really know how to answer it. And none of this is to say I don’t share in America, but I am pretty skeptical of the bullshit we tell ourselves about universal values.