The Day the Congress Stood Still

Klaatu: Please unleash Gort
Klaatu: Please unleash Gort

W.J. Astore

With the odds increasing that Congress will shut down the government this coming Tuesday, I couldn’t help but think of the classic Sci-Fi film, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (the original version, of course).

Remember Klaatu?  He comes to earth in peace, only to be hassled, harassed, and ultimately shot by the authorities in Washington, D.C.

What angered Klaatu were the “childish jealousies” and “petty squabbles” he witnessed among earth’s leaders.  “I’m impatient with stupidity,” he declared.  And when it comes to this Congress, so should we all.

So-called Obamacare is an expansion of medical care based on free-market models supported previously by Republicans like Mitt Romney.  But the usual childish jealousies and petty squabbles are intruding as the Republicans in the House do their best to torpedo a plan that mostly favors the status quo.

The stupid — it burns.  Where is Gort when you need him? 

Martial Virtue: Promise and Peril

It's unwise to worship without question the god of war (Worcester Art Museum, image of Ares)
It’s unwise to worship without question the god of war (Worcester Art Museum, image of Ares)

W.J. Astore

Ever since the attacks of 9/11/2001, the United States has actively celebrated martial virtue.  We’ve portrayed our troops as heroes.  Presidents have celebrated them as the best led and best trained and most effective military in all of human history.  To question the wisdom of such hagiographic portrayals is to be dismissed as ungenerous and un-American.  Just ask the journalist Chris Hayes.

But the hard truth is that martial virtue is consistent both with republican freedoms and with imperial or despotic agendas, to include the suppression of freedom.

History teaches us that martial virtues (such as they are) are readily enlisted or perverted to serve imperial or even fascist regimes.  Sparta celebrated military virtues even as they lived off of slavery and exposed the “weak” to death.  The Romans, in ruthlessly pursuing an empire, created deserts and called them “peace,” to quote Tacitus, one of the great historians of Rome.  Both under the Kaiser and under Hitler, Germany elevated martial virtues and waged two utterly devastating wars.

This is not to say that martial service can’t be ennobling.  Organizing and fighting for what’s right is commendable.  To cite just one example, think of the Jews who organized to resist the Nazis during World War II.  Jewish partisans fought for a cause, for freedom from murderous oppression, a fight in which they found their “treasure,” the treasure of pure acts of will.  In Hannah Arendt’s words (which she applied to the French resistance), “they had become ‘challengers,’ had taken the initiative upon themselves and therefore, without knowing or even noticing it, had begun to create that public space between themselves where freedom could appear.”

During World War II, Jewish (and other) resisters tapped the nobility of martial service, carving out public spaces where decisions were made freely for the purpose of defeating a regime dedicated to their destruction.  Under these conditions, martial virtue upheld freedom.

Martial virtue, in other words, is not an oxymoron.

Did martial virtue help to make “the greatest generation” in America?  No.  It was the events that came before World War II, not the war itself, that “made” this generation.  My dad, born in 1917, had to endure the Great Depression, had to serve in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s, had to work long hours in the factory prior to the war, to support the family.  From this he learned the value of hard work and the reality that life often isn’t fair.  His service in the Army during the war was a duty he performed to the best of his ability, but it was largely what he and his generation endured before the war, and the nation they built after the war, that made them “great.”

American troops during World War II were citizen-soldiers.  Unseduced by Mars, the god of war, most of them endured the degradations of war without becoming degraded themselves.  You can’t say the same of the German Wehrmacht or the Soviet Army. 

And there’s the rub.  Martial service is also consistent with totalitarian states.  Indeed, such states take pains to celebrate the military in order to co-opt its honorable qualities for disreputable ends.  Military service loses its nobility as it is monopolized by the state in the name of furthering anti-democratic agendas.

All of this is to say that the celebration of martial virtue is powerful — and powerfully dangerous.  It may be consistent with protecting freedom, but so too may it be consistent with denying freedom.

Our nation’s founders knew this when they created a small “standing” military, placing it firmly under the control of Congress and a civilian commander-in-chief, augmented by state militias under the control of governors.  Founders like James Madison warned us of the dangers of perpetual war and its corrosive impact on democratic principles.  They were wise to do so.

And we would be wise to heed their counsel.  We would be wise not to celebrate a military setting as being uniquely suited to creating “heroes.”  And we would also be wise not to embrace martial qualities as being uniquely virtuous.

America is not exceptional when we commit to martial virtues; America is exceptional when we commit ourselves to liberty.

Creationism and Global Warming Denial in the USA — Updated

Creationism is bunk, though the idea of riding a dinosaur is cool
Creationism is bunk, though the idea of riding a dinosaur is cool

W.J. Astore

I grew up learning biology the old-fashioned way, i.e. by learning all about evolution and Charles Darwin.  I was also raised Catholic, where my priests explained to me that there was no conflict between evolutionary theories and Christianity.  The story of creation in Genesis, they explained to me, was meant to be read allegorically.  It wasn’t necessary to believe that God literally created the earth in six days, or that He created Adam from the dust of the earth or Eve from Adam’s rib.  What mattered as a Catholic was Christ’s two great commandments about loving God and thy neighbor.

The growing popularity of creationism and literal readings of the Genesis story sadden me.  Galileo taught us four centuries ago that the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.  Yet people want to invest the Bible with literal authority in all realms of life.  Should we start stoning adulterers again?

The growing popularity of creationism (and an aversion to challenging it) is an American version of Lysenkoism.  OK, creationism is not damaging crop yields, as Lysenkoism did in the Soviet Union.  And those who oppose creationism are not being exiled or imprisoned, as opponents of Lysenkoism were in Stalin’s time.

It’s true that creationism may not influence how real science is conducted in the U.S.  Yet at the same time, it does influence how science is taught in American schools, which is serious enough.  It also serves to discourage scientists from speaking out.  Aware of the highly politicized nature of debates about evolution, many scientists decide it is best to stay out of the public sphere.

But this reluctance to engage extends to issues that are far more pressing to our survival, most especially the issue of global warming/climate change.  Too many scientists, I believe, decide to remain above the fray.  They exempt themselves from public debate, which they see as too messy, too politicized, too time-consuming, and too demeaning.

By staying out of the public debate, scientists are making a political decision: they are ceding much of the public sphere to the evolution deniers (creationists) or global warming deniers.  Such deniers, whether they know it or not, are most definitely facilitating the interests of powerful corporate/state entities with trillions of dollars yet to make in the continued burning of fossil fuels.

Creationism is not real science, but it plays well with Biblical literalists and those who resent or who are afraid of intellectuals.  Global warming is real, but denying it plays well with those who have much to gain from our gas-guzzling lives of unbridled consumption.

Whether it’s creationism or global warming denial, the risk of politicized science in America is more serious to the earth’s ability to sustain life than Lysenkoism ever was.

Update (9/29/2013): The New York Times reports that more than 20 percent of the selection committee for biology textbooks in Texas consists of Creationists.  Texas, like California, is a huge market that drives textbook content for the remaining 48 states.  Those who are Creationists (and global warming deniers as well) say they simply want more “critical thinking.”  But the community of science is neither an encounter group nor a Bible study class.  There is overwhelming scientific evidence that life evolved on earth over billions of years, and also that human beings are contributing to global warming.  To question this on religious terms is to mix faith with fact.

I’d also point out that many evangelicals and Catholics in the past have had no trouble reconciling evolution with Christianity.  They are thoroughly reconcilable.  Today’s Creationist movement is about politics and power; it is not about evidence, and it is certainly not about science.  Nor is it really about faith, since evolution doesn’t threaten Christianity.

To paraphrase Spock, there is nothing logical about Creationism or global warming denial.  For an explanation, you must look to human emotions (distrust of elites), prideful ignorance (don’t you tell me what to believe), and the interests of those who have much to gain from acts of denial.

Of MOOCs and Technology: Why True Education Is Not Content Delivery

Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society"
Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society”

W.J. Astore

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are one of those “pedagogical practices that are current and relevant to the new generation of learners,” to use a description featured prominently in promotional literature. Sure sounds trendy, doesn’t it? But education is not simply about content delivery. Education is about inspiration. It’s about lighting a fire in the mind (and maybe the belly too). Call me skeptical, but I don’t think a MOOC can do that.

OK, I haven’t tried a MOOC, but I have experienced distance learning. As a military officer, I took ACSC (Air Command and Staff College) by “correspondence.” The Air Force sent me the books and study materials, I did the reading and studying — and learned absolutely nothing. Why? First you memorized content, then you took multiple-choice tests to measure your “mastery” of that content. I passed with flying colors — and retained nothing.

As a professor I’ve also advised a graduate student via distance learning. It was an adequate experience for the both of us, but we never met. The mentoring experience was impoverished. I felt little connection to the student, and I’d wager he felt little connection to me.

Distance learning and MOOCs reduce education to content delivery. And it requires an exceptional student to get the most out of them. When I query my students in class about on-line courses, most of them are ambivalent or opposed to them. When they favor them, they say things like: “It was easy to skate by” or “I took it only because it fit my work schedule.”

To be blunt, administrators are looking for ways to reduce costs, and on-line learning is being pushed for that very reason. No classrooms needed. Little or no cost for electricity, facilities, classroom materials and the like. Combine cost-cutting imperatives with growing privatization of education and you have a recipe for education delivered as a commodity driven by the profit motive.

What’s wrong with that, you say? Nothing. Just say “goodbye” to any radical or even fresh ideas being pushed by profit-driven vendors.

Even as we’re overvaluing MOOCs and distance learning, we’re overhyping glitzy technology in the classroom. When it’s appropriate, I use technology in the classroom, but not because I’m trying to be trendy, i.e. not because I think Twitter or Tablets or other gimmicks and gizmos are how you “connect” with today’s students.

Indeed, exactly because my students are perpetually staring at screens, I often use an old-school approach of engaging them in class with vivid stories and amusing anecdotes and open-ended discussion.

Today’s students don’t need more technology; they don’t need more PowerPoint and computer-based learning platforms. What they need are enthusiastic and talented and creative teachers and professors who see education not as a job but as a calling.

I bet every person reading this remembers a teacher or professor who truly inspired you. And I bet he or she did so without glitzy technology and without genuflecting before “current pedagogical practices.”

My father was fond of saying, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Give me passion in the classroom. Give me a teacher who throws off sparks, and students with combustible minds. Give me that, and I’ll show you true education.

An Addendum: After writing this, I came across a Northeastern University survey featured at the Chronicle for Higher Education that addressed MOOCs, among other issues.  This is what the survey found:

“Slightly more than half of the respondents believe that MOOCs will fundamentally transform how students are taught, but just 27 percent think the online classes are of the same quality as traditional, in-person education. And yet more than half of the respondents predicted that in five to seven years an online education would be seen as of equal quality to a traditional one.”

So whatever I think about MOOCs, I think it’s fair to say that they are here to stay, and that their influence and reach will continue to grow.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and The Contrary Perspective and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

Three Lessons for the U.S. Military from the Falklands War

map_of_falkland-islands

W.J. Astore

In 1992 I had the pleasure of meeting Major General Julian Thompson at a colloquium at Oxford.  It was ten years after the Falklands War in 1982, and Thompson shared some of the lessons he had gleaned from fighting that war.  The inherent unpredictability of war was one such lesson.  Four months before Argentina seized the Falklands, Britain’s First Sea Lord remarked to then Brigadier General Julian Thompson that the capability to launch amphibious assaults against hostile shores was no longer needed.  Half a year later, Thompson, Commander of the 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines, found himself leading just such an amphibious assault halfway around the world from Great Britain.

Thompson’s job was to get the landing right the first time.  There would be no second chance; no Normandy triumph to follow the Dieppe disaster.  There were two reasons for this.  The first was halfhearted support in Britain for the war.  Most Britons thought little and cared even less about a few hundred sheep herders on the far side of the world.  The second was Britain’s lack of military resources.  As an exercise in power projection, the Falklands were at the extreme edge of British military capabilities.  It had to go right the first time because Britain had nothing left in the locker with which to recover from a major setback.

Getting it right put an enormous strain on everyone.  Despite tension and worries, Thompson knew he had to project calmness and confidence, a hearty sangfroid captured in a remark made to him by a Welsh staff officer that “You are meant to enjoy this [war], brigadier.”

“Enjoying” this splendid little war called for a particular approach to leadership, in this case agonistic.  The lack of an overriding cause put a premium on the Royal Marines’ culture of competence.  Queen and Country were not in immediate danger at the Falklands.  This was not another Battle of Britain but a war of choice, a fact that elevated the critical importance of bonding within the unit, of unit camaraderie and morale.  And morale drew sustenance from the unit’s faith in its leaders, training, and equipment.

Agonistic leaders and spirited troops gave Britain the edge in the decidedly low-tech, gutter fighting on the islands.  Leaders sought to tap Britain’s imperial heritage, summoning memories of thin red lines that had prevailed against long odds a century ago along the periphery of the empire.

The Argentines, in contrast, lacked the élan and spirit of the British.  Argentine privates were mostly poorly trained conscripts.  Strict class barriers between officers and enlisted served to degrade morale.  Experienced non-commissioned officers (NCOs), the backbone of any military unit, were rare birds in the Argentine forces compared to their hardened counterparts in Britain’s Royal Marines.

But the fatal weakness of the Argentine military was the lack of synergy among the Argentine combat branches.  It was as if the Argentine army, navy, and air force each fought its own war against the British.  Cohesive and coherent leadership was missing-in-action at the highest levels of the Argentine government.  Contrast this with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s unwavering determination to win the Falklands back for Britain, backed up by an integrated vision shared among Britain’s armed services.

Good leaders know their enemy and the terrain, but both were at first largely unknown to the British.  Thompson improvised.  He sent his G-3 (operations officer) to the local library in Plymouth to gather information on Argentine forces (Jane’s defense publications proved useful in a crunch).  Knowledge of island topography was sketchy; the last complete survey of the Falkland Islands dated from 1836.

In this uncertain environment, what proved decisive was small-group cohesion forged within the British Regimental System, a system that produced troops who were both keen to fight and adaptable to uncertain conditions.  Even so, modern troops within democratic settings need to know – at some essential level – both what is going on as well as their part in the plan.  Agonistic warriors are self-actualizing individuals, not unthinking cogs in a machine.  They fight best when they know what their bit is.

The British leaders succeeded in motivating their troops – in explaining what the war was all about.  That said, it is rarely easy contemplating going to war.  Written into a soldier’s contract is a calculated willingness to die.  Commanders, Thompson noted, have a limited license to expend human life to get a tough job done.  Aim for too low a price and failure and wasted men could be the result.  Too high a price may lead to failure and disaster.  The power over life-and-death is an enormous burden on commanders, one made heavier by the intense stresses and hazards of combat.

Many of Thompson’s observations about combat in the Falklands will be familiar to commanders in all wars.  Friction was one: Everything took longer than expected.  Rain, cold, and fatigue were aggravated by incomplete or faulty intelligence.

Luck played its part as well.  Prior to the war, Britain’s 3 Commando Brigade had just completed arctic training in Norway, hence they were well prepared for the atrocious weather and cold temperatures of the Falklands.  Bad weather kept a dangerous Argentine Air Force from attacking the amphibious landing.  And bad luck could turn to good: A security leak in Whitehall alerted the Argentines to the timing of the British landing, but the leak was so gratuitous that the Argentines judged it to be a ruse and dismissed it.

Overall, the Falklands operation might be described as an Iraq-lite.  It was a power projection operation, limited in scope, and limited as well in public and political support.  And the British got it right the first time.  They pulled off a win at long odds.

Are there lessons to be learned here for the U.S. military?  At least three.  The first is that humility is more becoming than hubris, especially in war.  The British military didn’t boast much after the Falklands.  Yet after two long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both stalemates, America’s leaders continue to boast that the U.S. has, in the words of President Obama in August 2013, “the best-led, best-trained, best-equipped military in human history.”

A second lesson is the importance of inculcating a culture of competence and agonistic leadership at senior levels.  U.S. military and civilian leaders need to do a better job of explaining why we fight to American troops.  And if that is too tall of an order, these same leaders ought to recognize that a war that cannot be explained is one that should not be fought.

Finally, the entire Falklands campaign illustrates the inherent unpredictability of war.  But clarity was provided by a clear and achievable goal: evicting Argentine forces from the islands.  Clear national objectives are everything in war; that, and sound leadership of skilled troops.  America’s recent extended wars, by way of contrast, have largely lacked clear or achievable objectives.

Clearly “no picnic,” as Thompson’s book on the campaign is titled, the Falklands still have much to teach us about military accountability and war.

America’s Ascetic Warrior-Generals

Irony of ironies: The "ascetic" Petraeus bonded with Broadwell as they ran six-minute miles
Irony of ironies: The “ascetic” Petraeus bonded with Broadwell as they ran six-minute miles

W.J. Astore

A recent article in the New York Times about how General (Ret.) David Petraeus is being honored by the New York Historical Society featured a word often used to describe Petraeus as well as another retired U.S. general fallen on hard times, Stanley McChrystal.  The word is “ascetic.”  The American media loved to hype the ascetic nature of both these men: their leanness, the number of miles they ran or push-ups they did, how hard they worked, how few hours of sleep they required, and so on.  Somehow “ascetic” became associated with superlative leadership and sweeping strategic vision, as if eating sparse meals or running ten miles in an hour is the stuff of a winning general.

Of prospective generals Napoleon used to ask, “Is he lucky?”  In other words, does he find ways to win in spite of the odds?  It seems our media identifies a winning general by how many chin-ups and sit-ups he can perform, or how few calories he needs in a day.

The whole ascetic ideal is not a citizen-soldier concept.  It’s a Spartan or Prussian conceit.  And it’s fascinating to me how generals like Petraeus and McChrystal were essentially anointed as ascetic warrior-priests by the U.S. media.  So much so that in 2007 the Bush Administration took to hiding behind the beribboned and apparently besmirchless chest of Petraeus.

Of course, both Petraeus and McChrystal bought their own media hype, each imploding in his own way, but both manifesting a lack of discipline that gave the lie to the highly disciplined “ascetic” image of the warrior-priest.

And of course both are now being rehabilitated by the powers-that-be, a process that says much about our imperial moment.

Something tells me we’d be better off with a few plain-speaking, un-hyped, citizen-soldier types like Ulysses S. Grant rather than the over-hyped “ascetic warriors” of today.  Or as a friend of mine put it, “I’d prefer a little fat at the gut to lots of fat above the ears.”

“American Fascism”: Accurate or Misleading?

Has an Iron Heel already come to the USA?
Is it already here in the USA?

recent article by John Pilger in the British Guardian speaks of a silent military coup that has effectively gained control of American policymaking. It features the following alarmist passage:

In 2008, while his liberal devotees dried their eyes, Obama accepted the entire Pentagon of his predecessor, George Bush: its wars and war crimes. As the constitution is replaced by an emerging police state, those who destroyed Iraq with shock and awe, piled up the rubble in Afghanistan and reduced Libya to a Hobbesian nightmare, are ascendant across the US administration … The historian Norman Pollack calls this “liberal fascism”: “For goose-steppers substitute the seemingly more innocuous militarisation of the total culture. And for the bombastic leader, we have the reformer manqué, blithely at work, planning and executing assassination, smiling all the while.” Every Tuesday the “humanitarian” Obama personally oversees a worldwide terror network of drones that “bugsplat” people, their rescuers and mourners. In the west’s comfort zones, the first black leader of the land of slavery still feels good, as if his very existence represents a social advance, regardless of his trail of blood. This obeisance to a symbol has all but destroyed the US anti-war movement — Obama’s singular achievement.

Strong words. Is America the land of “liberal fascism”?

Certainly, since the attacks of 9/11 the U.S. has become more authoritarian, more militarized, and less free (witness the Patriot Act, NSA spying, and the assassination of American citizens overseas by drones). The U.S. Supreme Court has empowered corporations and the government at the expense of individual citizens. Powerful banks and corporations reap the benefits of American productivity and of special tax breaks and incentives available only to them, even as average American citizens struggle desperately to keep their heads above water.

But to describe this as “fascism” is misleading. It’s also debilitating and demoralizing.

It’s misleading because fascism has a specific historical meaning. The best definition I’ve seen is from the historian Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism

For Paxton, fascism is:

A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

In formulating this definition, Paxton had Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy in mind, but his definition is an excellent starting point in thinking about fascism.

What about it? Is the U.S. fascistic? Plainly, no. We don’t have a messiah-like dictator. Our justice system still works, however imperfectly. Our votes still count, even if our political speech often gets drowned out by moneyed interests.

It’s true that, in the name of “support our troops,” we grant the Pentagon brass and defense contractors too much leeway, and allow our Department of Defense to seek “global power” without reflecting that such ambitions are the stuff of totalitarian states. But let’s also recall that our troops (as well as our representatives) still swear an oath to the Constitution, not to a dictator or party.

It’s also true that, as a society, we are too violent, too attracted to violence (think of our TV/Cable shows, our video games, and our sports), and too willing to relinquish individual liberties in the name of protecting us from that violence and the fear generated by it. Yet Americans are also increasingly weary and skeptical of the use of military force, as recent events involving Syria have shown.

The point is not to despair, not to surrender to the demoralizing idea that American politics is an exercise in liberal fascism. No — the point is to exercise our rights, because that is the best way to retain them.

Authority always wants more authority. But as political actors, we deny by our actions the very idea of fascism. For in fascist societies, people are merely subjects, merely tools, in the service of the state.

Don’t be a tool. Be an actor. Speak up. Get involved. Work to make your imperfect republic a little more representative of the better angels of our nature. Because it’ll be your deeds that keep our country from falling prey to fear and violence and the authoritarian mindset they breed.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.  This article is also at Huffington Post.