Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dead Idols and the American Quest for Immortality

Took a friend to Hollywood on Friday June 19th. We had intended to visit Grauman’s Chinese Theater however when we got there the place was being mobbed by crazed Michael Jackson fans, and we couldn’t get any where near the theater. So we pasted on to explore the rest of Hollywood. We visited the wax museum, which was delightfully creepy. From there we moved on through the rest of Hollywood, and the press of hot sweaty people which gravitated back along the boulevard toward the sanitized, make believe tragedy represented by a single two foot, pink star sunken in the pavement. On all sides the store fronts took advantage of the public hysteria pushing forward the neglected photos and memorabilia of the long forgotten pop star to the front of the store in a reverence, which can only be excited by such a capitalistic opportunity.

Following the boulevard away from the crowds I discovered the new site of the Betty Page Clothing company, and I pressed my nose to the glass excitedly like a small child at Christmas time. Hollywood boulevard is crowded with all the diversity and perversity of LA. The farther you venture from the carefully sanitized theaters a more interesting picture emerges, one which is far less glamorous. We stopped into a large costume shop, which by it’s very presence there on the boulevard in the middle of June, gave distinct impression that Halloween is an on going holiday in the State of California.

In the back of the store hidden beneath a pile of boxes I unearthed a 1.8 scale die-cast 1967 Chevy Impala. I clutched the model to my breast the entire way home in a displace of unabashed greekdom, which I am only delivered from only on account of it’s general popularity. The miniature muscle car now sits on my bookshelf next to the erotic photos I brought back from the art fair in Austin, the broad brimmed cowboy hat from Athens, the statue of Hermes from the Getty, five kinds of red nail polish, postcards from friends, and collection of books which has put over five hundred dollars on my credit card in just the last four months.

We visited the Hollywood Museum, which is filled with treasures from the Golden Age of the Silver Screen. Scarlett O’Hara’s dress from ‘Gone with the Wind’. Cary Grant’s Rolls Royce. Marilyn Monroe’s million dollar honeymoon dress. Costumes for Charlie Chaplin, May West, and so many more super stars. I am reminded in this place of that lost iconic grandeur as I gravitate toward the idols of the past that I am wholly out of touch with my own generation. This realization having disturbed me from my reverie and I looked about for my friend who looked utterly confused in the midsts such alien idolatry.

There is only a vague notion of the past within the minds of my peers a time before computers, video games, endless shopping malls, cars with automatic transmission, cable television, internet porn, genetically engineered food, and the corporately synthesized idols of today. These artifacts are nothing more then the Neolithic remains of a civilization as remote as Babylon. We -generation Y- are no more aware of our past then we are of our future. We imagine ourselves suspended in time. The first to live, to love, to laugh like this. We believe ourselves to be the vindication of all that came before. As though this frail frame mantled in human tissue where so grand as to justify all the inequalities, and atrocities of the past. We must believe that we are some how remarkable. It is this falsehood which sustains us. This perpetual assertion of our superiority, a like an unspoken prayer, which will protect us from the painful reality of temporal existence.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

3 Problems Facing the United States Today.

There are numerous problems facing the US today. Many of these problems effect the rest of the world. What makes our situation unique as a country is that our actions (good or bad) will set a precedent for the rest of the international comunity. I wanted to mention these three in particular because I feel they are often over looked.

Water shortage.
The water usage of this country is fundamentally unsustainable. Scientists predict that as the climate shifts large areas will experience sustained drought. Indicators substantiate the notion that water shortages could reach crisis points within the next century. There are a number of simple solutions. Encourage the proliferation of small scale food production surrounding urban areas to minimize dependence on large manufactures (which would help to reduce the cost of food by drastically reducing the expense of shipping, and the emissions produced in transport). Most households and businesses in the United States would benefit from the installation of grey water systems, which can cut water usage by 50% (which in turn reduces your water bill).

Over population.
The population of the world is reaching a critical mass. There are more people alive today then ever before. The issue that arises at this point in time is the lack of resources to support further expansion. If the population continues to grow -at its current rate- it will quickly reach a point at which natural resources can no longer sustain the vast majority of human life, which will cause wide spread famine, and international conflict between countries vying for limited resources. China’s ‘one child policy’ is an example of how some countries are attempting to curb population growth. Such a policy is impractical and its implementation is barbaric but it represents growing concern regarding overpopulation. In the United States - as well as other developed nations - the greater equality for women has directly resulted in reduced birth rates, when compared to less developed countries, but this is simply not enough. We must encourage greater consciousness here and abroad to prevent unsustainable expansion. Greater education to allow men and women to make informed decisions about their reproductive health, in order to help slow the the rate of population growth.

Uneducated citizenship.
The world we live into today is in many ways vastly more complicated then that of our parents and grandparents. There is a lot of public discussion of the failure of the our public school system but the debate falls short of providing any viable solutions. The deterioration of the debate over healthcare reform represents Americans fundamental failure to understand the legislation, and the ease with which the media manipulates the public. I believe firmly that we -as Americans- live in one of the greatest republics in the world today. Unfortunately many Americans remain ignorant of the basic functions of their own government. A large percentage of the population does not vote or participate in the political process. In order for this country to function as a democracy the entirety of its constituents must be able to participate in a meaningful way. The preliminary designs to improve our public school system have been laid out by other countries. Abolish standardized testing (because it forces the teacher to teach to the test rather then the subject). Reduce the time spent in school, the size of the text books, and the size of the class room (doing these things would also reduce the over all cost on the American tax payer for education). Provide children with more extracurricular activities, sports and art programs to help kids develop skills, pursue their own passions, and expand their understanding of the world.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Torture and the Laws that Enlightened Us.

On August 24th 1780 King Louis XVI abolishes torture as a means to get suspects to confess. It was one of a number of reforms the young king made during his historically fateful reign. The mandate was by nature a political move on the part of Louis XVI to alleviate the growing unrest among the populous but it also indicated a genuine desire on the part of the monarch to appear more enlightened then his predecessors. The amends the king attempted to make were ultimately implemented far too late to quell the outrage of the public; who had suffered excessive abuses of power under the crown for centuries.

France was not the first to abolish torture. Many other European nations abolished the practice before 1780, some followed after. The removal of torture as a government function reflected a growing consciousness on the part of the monarchy that the political and moral convictions of the people were shifting beneath them. The abolishment of torture in the 18th century did not have the overwhelmingly constructive effect that the mere statement might cause citizens of the 21st century to imagine. The abolishment of torture eradicated trial by ordeal under the law, and displaced the inquisitorial proceedings of the previous centuries in favor of courts lead by accusatorial process. It did not however change a number of other abuses. The Catholic church continued to impose the idea that prison should constitute hell on earth, foreshadowing the eternal damnation of the condemned in the next life. To spite increasingly humanitarian forms of thought, very little was done to alter this metaphorical hell scape. Many people died in prison awaiting trial without being convicted of committing any crime.

Leaders of the French Revolution “made frequent use of the guillotine, a recently invented machine that brought about supposedly humane executions... In 1793 King Louis and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, themselves went to the guillotine” (p. 790). Corporeal punishment in Europe was not always as influenced by humanitarian thought as in the French Revolution. England retained laws which imposed the harshest punishment on convicted traitors to the crown who were to be hang and quartered.

The Humanitarian thought which persuaded Louis XVI to alter French law, and which shortly thereafter inspired the the French people to over through the monarchy altogether, became an integral part of Western ideology. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a number of international treaties were created to protect human rights during armed conflict, which included the Geneva Convention, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (p.1154-1155). The United States participated in the creation of both treaties and ratified each of them.

Accusations of alleged prisoner abuse by American armed forces in 2004 enraged Americans as well as members of the international community. In response to these allegations CNN reported that then President Bush “defended his administration methods of interrogating terrorism suspects insisting, ‘This government does not torture people.’” Evidence which has surfaced in recent years documents the abuses of prisoners by their American captors as well as it’s government sanction and internal promotion. The LA Times reports that CIA memos releases earlier this year “provide the most detailed account to date not only of the interrogation tools the CIA employed against Al Qaeda suspects in secret prisons around the world but the legal arguments the Bush administration constructed to justify their use.” After denying for years that suspects were tortured in American controlled prisons members of the former Bush administration, most notably former vice president Dick Cheney, have sought to justify their actions citing the countries national security interest.

Many Americans and international critics have rejected this. Matthew Alexander, former Air Force counterintelligence agent who volunteered to go Iraq to work as a senior interrogator, wrote for the Washington Post: “We’re told that our only options are to persist in carrying out torture or face another terrorist attack. But there truly is a better way to carry out interrogations -- and a way to get out of this false choice between torture and terror.” The fact that prisoners of war were being mistreated over the last seven years flies in the face of American ideology and international law. The torture of prisoners represents regressive policies which were abolished by Europe’s last monarchs in the 1800s. The government sanction of such practices threatens the progressive humanitarian thought of the last two centuries.

The release of the CIA interrogation methods was by nature a political move on the part of the Obama administration to alleviate the growing resentment within the Islamic community but it also indicated a genuine desire on the part of the white house offices to appear more enlightened then their predecessors. In a statement issued with the documents the President said: In one of my first acts as President, "I prohibit the use of these interrogation techniques by the United States.... Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our values, move forward with confidence... The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals."

Obama promised Americans that ‘steps had been taken to ensure that abuse of detainees would never take place again.’ The removal of Bush administration interrogation procedure revealed a acute awareness on the part of the Obama administration that the American people would not support programs which encouraged torture once it was know to them. The rejection of such programs reflects the underlying strength of America’s humanitarian values and beliefs, inherited from eighteenth century Enlightenment movement.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

America: a brief history of exploitation.

"In Castile, Portugal, Aragon,...and the Canary Islands they need many slaves, and I do not think they get enough from Guinea.... Although they die now, they will not always die. The Negroes and Canary Islanders died at first." Columbus wrote King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1496 on establishing a slave trade from Haiti in lieu of finding gold.

The letter illustrates the economic motivation of the exploration of the New World as well as the ruthless exploitation of the its indigenous population. Columbus’s “discovery” of the Caribbean islands lead to the colonization of the larger American continent by other European countries including Portugal, France, Holland, and England (p.606). The example set by Columbus and his men would dictate the relationship between natives and European colonists in the Americas for the next five hundred years. The tone of the letter revels a fundamental disregard for both the native people as well as those brought from Africa to the Caribbean as slaves. These people where viewed by their Spanish conquerors not only as savages, and infidel but as less then human. Seen as disposable, people of both American and African descendants, were brutally worked, abused, mutilated, raped, and murdered by their Christian overlords.

Howard Zen wrote in his book A People’s History of the United States that Columbus desperate to “fill up the
ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend... went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died in route (p. 4).”

Many indigenous people, who did not die directly at the the hands of European, where eradicate by the diseases that the foreigners brought with them. In his Book Guns, Germs, and Steel, biologist Jared Diamond wrote:
The grimmest example of germs’ role in history come from the European conquest of the Americans that began with Columbus’s voyage (p.197)... the Indian population of Hisponiola declined from around 8 million, when Columbus arrived in A.D. 1492, to zero by 1535 (p.213)

As the population declined the Spanish where forced to important slaves from Africa to work. “In 1518 the first shipment of slaves went directly from west Africa to the Caribbean, where they worked on the recently established sugar plantations (p. 707).” In this way Columbus not only changed the nature of the islands by annihilating the local population but by involving the economic interest of the crown created an artificial demand for the rich and fertile islands to be repopulated by a second subjugated peoples. Thereby changing the demographic population of the world forever.

Long after Columbus’s death in 1506 American and African descendants would continue to be subjugated by descents of wealth Europeans. The institution of slavery continued throughout America until the nineteenth century. Native Americans where isolated to small portions of the land as European descendants streamed westward. After slavery was abolished in 1865 segregationist policies continued to suppress African Americans and rob them of the opportunities given to European Americans. Racial conflict plagued the South throughout the twentieth century, and racial discussion dominated the 2008 presidential campaign. The conflicts which proceeded the institution of slavery in the Americas and those that followed did more then displace or endanger entire populations. It determined the future of the continent and left irrevocable marks on the consciousness of it’s people.

Defining Violence: Part I

I have come to believe that our collective memory and statistical misrepresentation deceive us in this discussion. Recent history is so much more vivid in our minds then all that preceded it. We feel the impact of this century all the more acutely in it’s relationship to ourselves and our more personal history. The 20th century saw the dawn of a horrific new type of war and the first two World Wars. All wars are terrible and violent. The wars of last century were bloody and costly but war, and the widespread death, and destruction it creates are not the only measures of violence.

Statistics (prior to the the 20th century) provide a vague -but ultimately unverifiable- notion of the cost of political and social violence in early modern times. The wars of the last century claimed the lives of more people than those of any previous century. However those wars engaged a smaller percent of the overall population then prior conflicts. 

  The emergence of modern European states from feudal kingdoms caused widespread conflict, and death. In order to maintain control of their empires the aristocracy imposed increasingly totalitarian authority over its people. Kings -and even petty Overlords- brutally suppressed rebellions, and carried out corporal punishment for public disobedience and political insubordination, which amounted to little less then government sponsored terrorism. Prior to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the Constitution of the United States ordinary people had virtually no rights under the law. Although Magna Carta did exist in England, it was only loosely enforced on behalf of the common man. 

  Beyond the abuses of power on the part of the nobility and the church European peasants lived harsh and often short lives. The region was plagued by famine and disease both of which had the most devastating impact on the very young and the very old. “In some areas of Europe, for example, smallpox was responsible for 10 to 15 percent of deaths, but most of the victims were ages ten or younger” (p. 621). Maternal and prenatal deaths were extremely high due often to the barbarous medical practices of the period. Lack of proper sanitation killed countless individuals in rural and urban areas. War, misfortune and malnutrition crippled and maimed men and women who were left without means to subsist to starve. 

  Is violence defined entirely by that which is done with malice or does it not extend to the whole of human suffering? People throughout the new world were enslaved, some in foreign countries, some in their own homes, for cheap labor. The many nations of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East tortured and executed people for their religious and political beliefs. Some indigenous populations were eradicated entirely by foreign pathogens. Greed, ignorance, disease, famine, religious fanaticism, as well as the general apathy of the gentry caused the death and suffering of people, in every corner of the world, to such a great extent that their impact cannot be calculated today. 

  It is impossible to project an alternative history to that of colonialism from this vantage point. It is too intrinsically inter-connected with our cultural, political, and social homogeneity for us to even attempt view the subject objectively. We cannot dissociate, or disentangle ourselves from it. Many of us feel compelled to defend colonial expansion to substantiate our right to the present. ‘Had our forbears not colonized the North American Continent then the world would be vastly different then it is today.’ Such statements are incontestable because there is no alternative history. We can only speculate on the outcome had not innumerable events occurred. 

  The Enlightenment, and the revolutionary ideals it generated, gave raise to political revolutions in American and Europe. The social reforms as they were implemented lead to a less than perfect union, but they laid the foundation upon which all basic human rights now rest. In the United States great progress was made during the 20th century to realize greater equality for women and minority groups, with relatively little violence. Although the advancement of political, religious, and legal equality was achieved largely in industrial nations, the significance of such developments emphasized the necessity for global recognition of greater human liberates. Historically in the 20th century living conditions, due in large part to advancements in medicine and agricultural productivity, improved dramatically for many people around the world. These improvements lead to statistical increases in over all life expectancy for people in most of the developed world, and rapid population grow. While all this changes do not counter balance the atrocities which occurred throughout the 20th century all over the world they represent a continuing shift forward for human kind.