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As my friend Lion pointed out to me recently, a lot of movies these days are pushing a very bleak view of the future, essentially advising audiences to prepare for inevitable doom. My mother’s reaction to this observation is that I should avoid that kind of movie, particularly in my present state, and she may be right. But Joe McHugh argues otherwise in his presentation, “Slaying the Gorgon,” which I attended at the Seattle Bioneers satellite conference in 2009. He says that when faced with realities too terrible to face directly, we should seek to understand them using the “mirrored shield of myth” (analogous to the strategy Perseus uses to kill Medusa, hence the name of the talk). So lately I’ve been looking at movies through that lens, and what follows are the results of my recent research into the modern mythology of the apocalypse. (Note: all four reviews have spoilers.)


The Croods )


Oblivion )


Iron Man 3 )


Star Trek Into Darkness )

Okay, so those last two didn't fit the theme very well, but luckily this year’s upcoming releases will provide plenty more fodder for this investigation. After Earth comes out next week, Man of Steel (which starts out with the destruction of the planet Krypton) is less than a month away, and Elysium (which is more of a dystopia, but still raises the question of how it got that way) comes out in early August. I might skip After Earth if the reviews are terrible (which seems likely given M. Night Shyamalan’s recent track record), and I’m very likely to skip Pacific Rim, the invasion-of-the-giant-lizards movie that comes out in July. But that still leaves plenty of apocalyptic sci-fi madness to experience and study, even though my mom says I shouldn’t.

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"I want you to assemble teams of engineers and Marines and have them board each of those ships.  We're gonna take everything we need . . ."

-Admiral Helena Cain of the Colonial Fleet, on encountering a fleet of civilian spaceships fleeing from the Twelve Colonies shortly after their destruction by the Cylons, in Battlestar Galactica: Razor

In the harsh universe of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica television show, maintaining humanity's few remaining military vessels could be worth almost any cost.  Without them, there would be nothing to stop the Cylons from completing the destruction of humanity.  Does this horrible scenario tell us anything about the real militaries of Earth?

Here's my theory.  In Freud's basic model of the mind, there are three stacked elements: the id, repressed seat of animal desires and instincts (the survival instinct, of course, being the most important); the ego, center of rational thought, holding the id in check most of the time; and the superego, the overlay of internalized pressure to live up to society's expectations for moral behavior.  But war turns this structure on its head.  In a military society, the soldier's ego is put in service of a sort of collective id: an entity that will do anything to protect itself and get the resources it needs to survive.  The superego, at least as ordinarily constituted in polite society, must be repressed, because it would never stand for the brutal actions deemed necessary to meet the needs of this "super-id."

For instance, modern industrialized nations, if considered as organisms, appear to be obligate petrovores--needing to consume fossil fuels in order to survive as politiconomic entities.  This appearance grows increasingly deceptive as new means of powering our industrial base and transporting people and goods become more scalable and competitive--but for the past century and a half, oil and coal have been the lifeblood of our civilization.  So if you believe that a) they must remain so for decades to come, and b) the war in Iraq was the only way to ensure the maintenance of our massive annual oil consumption, then that war becomes explicable as a form of self-preservation--one that has nothing to do with the specter of nuclear terrorism or global jihad, and everything to do with a nightmare vision of the nation's roads, its metaphorical blood vessels, permanently empty and still.
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This is how bad it's gotten: 166 House Republicans cast the only votes in favor of taking serious action by opening a debate of the full House of Representatives on the thirty-five Articles of Impeachment against George W. Bush introduced by Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) on Monday. The idea was "to highlight the ability of the 'loony left,' in the words of a Republican aide, to force a debate and distract the House from pressing issues like gas prices and funding for the Iraq war." (The Hill) And while "Kucinich himself made the motion to send it to the [Judiciary] committee, saying his detailed allegations should be weighed in a hearing" (ibid), the prevailing view seems to be that the resolution is effectively dead.

It's worth noting, in response to that aide's snarky comment, that pushing through more billions for an illegal and unwinnable* war, which doubtless has played a major role in pushing gas prices through the roof, isn't a particularly productive use of the House's time either. The above article from The Hill also claims that "Republicans suffered politically from the impeachment of President Clinton," providing another easily refuted rationale for leading Democrats' aversion to impeachment. But that's not the point. The point is this:

"As required by Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, Members of Congress shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support the Constitution. Representatives, delegates, and the resident commissioner all take the oath of office on the first day of the new Congress, immediately after the House has elected its Speaker. The Speaker of the House administers the oath of office as follows:

"'I, (name of Member), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.'" (Question 3 on a FAQ page)

Given that all 35 of Kucinich's Articles make reference to violations of the Constitution, it doesn't matter how distracting or politically inconvenient impeachment would be; it is quite simply the duty of Congress to investigate these charges. But of course they never will. Kucinich plans to reintroduce his resolution in 30 days if and when the Judiciary Committee fails to hold any hearing on it, but of course there is every reason to suspect that it will just suffer the same fate again.  Which begs the question: is there a way to impeach Congress?

If you're inclined to dismiss all this as a justifiable attempt on the House's part to ignore a set of patently ludicrous claims, please at least read the list of Article headings below, noting that if even one of them has merit, it serves as sufficient grounds for impeachment: 

*What I mean by this is that we can't win the goal of a stable Iraq by continuing to treat the problem as a war.  There is another way to achieve this goal.   By starting troop withdrawals and scratching plans for permanent bases, we can gain the cooperation we need from groups who currently view us as an imperialist occupation.  That's the only way I can see to make political progress, short of committing to bankrupt our nation over the next decade or more by trying to defeat every insurgent group in Iraq by force of arms.
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Two days ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill expanding the federal definition of a hate crime from "acts of violence against individuals on the basis of race, religion, color, or national origin" to include gender and sexual orientation. This triggered a veto threat from a president who has only vetoed two bills in his six years in office, one of them only four days ago.*

Why? Well, the most likely reason is that "social conservatives . . . say the bill threatens the right to express moral opposition to homosexuality," despite the fact that it only applies to violent crimes. Stab a gay man, and you might get a longer sentence under this law. Tell him that he's a sinner and will burn in Hell, and you will still be breaking no federal law at all, though of course you could always be sued for "causing emotional trauma."

Also, consider this: "Republicans, in a parliamentary move that would have effectively killed the bill, tried to add seniors and the military to those qualifying for hate crimes protection." It can't be the seniors part that would have killed the bill, since seniors vote in large numbers and politicians are always falling over each other trying to please them. So one must admit that Democrats don't like the idea of offering our society's "sheepdogs" protection from the anger of the people they are supposedly trying to protect. Intellectually, we may want to support our troops, but emotionally, it's awfully difficult for antiwar liberals to do so right now: we harbor unreasonable nightmares of trained killers returning to our communities and going on crazed rampages.

Finally, what if the conservatives are right and the punishment of hate speech against a growing number of groups is threatening our First-Amendment rights? I wouldn't be too worried, except I just realized that there could be a major issue when stupid people start demanding hate-speech protection as a group. Personally I have nothing against the IQ-challenged, as long as they understand that their disability makes them regrettably unqualified for key leadership positions. (What I worry about more are the systems in our society that seem to actively encourage the development of said disability.) But if people start getting sued for "unflattering portrayals of people with low intelligence," then humor as we know it in America may cease to exist.

* Key text from the linked article: "[T]he nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has concluded that the Pentagon could wage war through July without additional funding."
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Look, it's true: an American withdrawal from Iraq will be seen as "retreat and defeat" by anti-American fundamentalists and will embolden them. But you know what else emboldens the terrorists? How about the fact that much of our military, including half of the National Guard, is holed up in Iraq, embroiled in a civil war and being gradually picked off by insurgents, and the amount that's been spent on this war would probably buy enough solar panels to equal the energy value of Iraq's entire oil output?

Personally, I'd say that if there was ever a time to attack us on our own soil, it would be now. It seems that we have so few standing troops left here that the military has been forced to send soldiers with major injuries and illnesses to support the so-called surge! So it seems to me that our government has four options.
  1. Institute a draft, thus dooming whichever party proposes it to at least a few decades out of public favor.

  2. Improve the disinformation campaign aimed at fooling the world into believing that both our homeland security and the Iraq war are going swimmingly.

  3. Ignore reality and proceed to invade Iran without consulting Congress, while still involved in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  4. "Give up" on Iraq and refocus on Islamic fundamentalists whose main target is actually us, rather than each other.

As a 22-year-old male with no ailments other than low muscle mass, slight scoliosis, and oddly bent knees, I know which option I'd pick.
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On a Facebook page containing numerous discussion threads tangentially related to Barack Obama’s campaign for president, I came across this meme, which I’m sure I’ve seen elsewhere:

"There are three kinds of people in the world: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. Wolves are bad people who want to kill sheep. All civilians who don’t carry weapons are sheep. Sheepdogs (soldiers, police, and civilians with guns) are needed to protect the sheep. There’s nothing wrong with being a sheep, except that being unable to defend themselves, sheep are in denial about the existence of wolves. Consequently, they tend to hate the sheepdogs because the sheepdogs remind them that wolves are out there and could strike at any time."
Before going into what this simplified picture of the world gets wrong, let’s cover the two big problems it leaves out. One is the question of who’s in charge of the sheepdogs and what he/she tells them to do. The other is the issue of how to tell which of the people are wolves, and which of those wolves actually pose a threat that we, as a country, need to deal with.

Examples )

Is there discrimination against soldiers, police, and gun-toting civilians? Certainly, and sometimes it’s just as mindless as the meme describes. Sometimes, too, it’s merely a reaction to some soldiers’ attitude of superiority toward those who didn’t volunteer to put their lives on the line for their country. But what the meme gets wrong is that many so-called “sheep,” myself included, are perfectly willing to tolerate gun nuts who don’t shoot innocent people, and to support the police and the military when they are doing their job, defending us from the wolves, as long as they do their level best not to kill a suspected wolf who turns out to be innocent. More generally, we demand that the sheepdogs don’t violate our rights in any but the most extreme circumstances. If that isn’t a reasonable expectation, then we may as well give up our belief in the viability of freedom and democracy, and allow our leaders to turn our sheepdogs into another kind of wolf, the enforcers of a fascist regime.
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Francis W. Porretto is a "classical liberal" who apparently believes that all of the scientists who promote action on global warming are people with a juvenile mentality who are perpetuating a complete myth. Yet in his very next post, Porretto wrote down these quite moderate "Commandments Of Beneficial Conservatism":
  1. No one is as smart or knowledgeable as he needs to be.

  2. That goes for you too, hero, so show a little respect.

  3. Other people are not mere means to your ends.

  4. Other people's opinions and tastes do not require your approval.

  5. No one owes you one damned thing just because you're alive; the converse is also true.

  6. Things are the way they are for a reason. You're expected to learn the reason before you open your yap to complain about them.

  7. If the reason is still sound, don't monkey with the works.

  8. If the reason has become unsound, or has been superseded by developments, it's still wise to make changes slowly, and with full attention to the consequences.

  9. Many things, once done, cannot be undone. About these, be supremely cautious.

  10. Admit your mistakes and make good on them; to do less is to be less than a man.
Only number 5 shows a clear streak of rugged-individualist ideology; the rest are principles many progressives could embrace (as long as we could change the word "man" to "wo/man" or "adult" or something...)

Just think: if we could have somehow instilled these principles in corporate leaders, they might not have been so quick to saturate the global market with potentially dangerous products such as genetically modified foods, chemicals with no known antidote, or even cell phones. (Call me paranoid if you want, but the fact is that it's still too early to tell for certain.)

And if politicians in Washington took rules 6-10 to heart, for instance, they might not have been so quick to radically weaken the rights of terrorism suspects for the sake of an election-year political ploy. They might never have made the irreversible decision to legitimize preventive warfare by invading Iraq (or failing that, at least they might have planned better for the likely outcomes). In this alternate timeline we might even be halfway through the shift to sustainable energy sources by now. Yes, change needs to be cautious, but whatever your views on global warming, it's been quite clear for several years that our oil dependence was a mistake that contributed to terrorism. Let's not perpetuate that mistake any longer than necessary.

March 2015

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