God, Country, Guns

mass shooting

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I saw a sticker on a pickup truck that read “God, Country, Guns.”  To me, that sticker made as much sense as “God, Country, Hammers” or “God, Country, Bicycles.”  A gun is just that: a tool, an object, like a hammer or a bicycle, only much more dangerous in the wrong hands.

But many Americans don’t look at guns as tools, as objects, as a deadly technology that requires great care and also strict regulations.  They identify it with God and Country.  They see it as representing certain values, such as freedom and liberty and individuality.  For some men, guns are synonymous with masculinity.  They are symbols of potency.  Of agency.  They are worthy of protection, indeed of a lifelong vow, ’til death do us part.  Hence the catchphrase, “you can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

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This sacralization of the gun, its elevation as a totem of strength and virility, its hugely symbolic presence in American life, is an important reason why gun control efforts largely fail, even in the aftermath of horrendous mass shootings.  Reasoned and reasonable efforts to limit mass shootings, e.g. by banning military-style assault weapons, high-capacity clips, and bump stocks, are no match for people’s emotional — I daresay religious or spiritual — attachment to guns.

I’ve owned guns myself and have enjoyed firing everything from a pellet rifle to a .45-70 and from a .22 pistol to a .44 magnum.  As a historian of technology, I appreciate the history of guns as well as their aesthetic beauty.  (If you go to a gun show or hang around gun owners, you’ll often hear guns described as “beautiful.”)  But my appreciation for guns doesn’t translate to an affection for them.  And in the cause of greater public safety and a reduction in mass shootings, I’d like to see stricter regulations for certain guns and related accessories.

Again, here are three reasonable changes I’d like to see:

  1. No military-style assault or high-caliber sniper rifles.
  2. No high-capacity clips.
  3. No bump stocks or other devices to increase rate of fire.

Yet, no matter how reasonable these changes seem to most, organizations like the National Rifle Association will oppose them,* as will those who associate guns with God and Country and freedom and similar values.

Growing up in the 1970s, I remember reading “Field and Stream” and “Outdoor Life” (and an occasional “American Rifleman” too).  In the early ’80s, I wrote a paper on the history of hunting in America prior to the U.S. Civil War.  Until fairly recently, gun owners focused mainly on hunting and personal protection, using weapons like bolt-action or lever-action rifles, shotguns, and revolvers.  Rifles that I recall friends talking about or owning were .30-06 or .30-30.  Nobody talked about owning an AR-15 or AK-47 or similar military-style assault rifles with “banana” (high-capacity) clips and bump stocks.

America, of course, is a land of extremes, and one example is today’s gun-rights crowd, which attacks all regulations or restrictions as an assault on their “rights” or “way of life” as articulated in the Second Amendment.  But it didn’t use to be this way.  Indeed, it wasn’t this way when I was a teenager.  How did guns become so venerated, so cherished, so worshiped, in American culture?  So much so that people ride around today with stickers equating gun ownership with God and Country?

As long as our society continues to worship the gun, the more likely it is that we’ll suffer more mass shootings — and indeed shootings in general.

*Yes, in the aftermath of the Vegas Massacre, it’s true the NRA said it wouldn’t oppose “additional regulations” on bump stocks.  Note, however, that no ban is forthcoming from Congress.  The NRA are a savvy bunch…

The Definition of American Insanity

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There’s always money for more nukes

W.J. Astore

Here are two items this morning from FP: Foreign Policy (foreignpolicy.com), which provides a daily summary (Situation Report, or SITREP) of news items related to the U.S. military and foreign policy.  Together, they represent the very definition of insanity.

Item 1The Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday said U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for about $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize the country’s nuclear arsenal. That huge number takes into account the replacement of nuclear-capable submarines, ICBMs, and new aircraft for the Air Force.

The budget office warned that the projected costs would muscle out some conventional weapons programs in the coming years unless the Pentagon’s budget is increased substantially. The CBO identified some cost savings however, saying the Pentagon could save as much as $139 billion if it delayed production of a new ICBM, stalled a secretive new nuclear-capable bomber called the B-21, and reduced the number of ICBMs and missile-carrying nuclear submarines than planned. 

All of those plans are carry-overs from the Obama administration, as the Trump team has yet to articulate a nuclear weapons strategy. 

Item 2War in Afghanistan, redacted. The Afghan government is losing control of more and more territory to the Taliban, according a grim new report from the congressionally-mandated Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. On the humanitarian side, civilian casualties from coalition and Afghan air strikes spiked by 52 percent in the first nine months of this year over last year, the report notes. 

In response to those unfriendly stats, the U.S. military has started to withhold information from the American public, refusing to report figures related to the size and success of Afghan security forces — which the U.S. taxpayer has spent tens of billions to build and sustain.

“The Afghans know what’s going on; the Taliban knows what’s going on; the U.S. military knows what’s going on,” John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan, told the New York Times. “The only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people paying for it.”

In sum, the American people will possibly pay more than a trillion dollars in the next three decades for more nuclear weapons (when the stated goal of leaders like Obama had been to eliminate them), even as information about the never-ending war in Afghanistan is withheld from the American people (especially the jaw-dropping waste of billions of dollars on Afghan security forces that can’t or won’t fight).

Meanwhile, U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico languish in the dark, the victims of a U.S. government that seeks to punish the island for its debt to various financial institutes and power brokers.

What madness!

That Google Diversity Memo

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W.J. Astore

What does “diversity” mean in the workplace as well as American society?  Are women at a disadvantage in technical fields and, if so, is this due primarily to biology or gender or sociological/cultural factors?  These questions have grabbed headlines lately due to a memo written by James Damore, a young software specialist at Google.  Damore’s memo, which you can read here, accused Google of creating and sustaining an ideological echo chamber that favored liberal/left-leaning ideas to the detriment of conservative viewpoints.  He further suggested that biological differences are a key reason for the under-representation of women in technical career fields, and that diversity efforts are too focused on surface differences like sex and skin color.  The memo led to his firing, after which Damore became a martyr of sorts within conservative circles.

In his memo, Damore is careful to say he respects diversity, that he recognizes gender and racial discrimination, and that he’s committed to fostering discussion.  Rather than summarize his memo, I’d like to make a few comments on it and the general subject, drawn from my experience as an engineer in the U.S. Air Force and my time as a professor teaching lessons on gender and technology.

But first I’d like to recall my time in engineering school in the early 1980s. It was a mostly male environment. “Woman” was a term thrown about as a tepid form of insult. (I recall one male student telling another who lagged, “Hurry up, woman.”) Female students, I sensed, had to “prove” themselves more, or at least to explain why they wanted to be engineers (male students had nothing to explain, since engineering was supposedly “natural” to them).  To be a female engineering student was to be in the minority, and since almost all of the professors were male, role models for younger women were scarce.

In my experience in the military, I worked with female coders, engineers, and managers. All were well qualified, and indeed as an officer managing a project, I couldn’t have cared less about gender. I recall an effort at the MITRE Corporation to recruit and mentor female engineers by female managers, which made perfect sense to me.

Based on my experience, it was easier for men to be promoted in technical jobs simply because there were more male mentors around. I also think women in tech had and have it tougher (in part) because their roles were and are more constrained/restricted by society’s expectations. Put simply, in American society it’s easier for a man to be almost anything than for a woman to be almost anything. Society “tells” women what is appropriate for their gender far more than it dictates to men.

That said, let’s tackle “diversity,” a term that in American discourse is overloaded with baggage.  For some on the right, it’s equated with “reverse discrimination” against (mainly White) men.  For some on the left, it’s equated with gender, skin color, and similar biological as well as ethnic/physical differences.  For me, diversity ideally should focus on abilities, points of view, talent, creativity, and the like.  As an engineer or manager, I’d like a diverse team, with a range of talents and skills and viewpoints, able to work creatively to solve problems.  That should be the goal.

James Damore, in writing his memo, didn’t help himself by suggesting women are more neurotic and anxious than men (which echoes the old “hysteria” argument that women are biologically less stable and flightier than men).  If you start citing studies on neuroses and anxiety that are allegedly prevalent more in women than men, you must be aware of prior uses of hysteria and similar ideas to mark women as unstable and unreliable when compared to allegedly unhysterical men.

(An aside: I suppose I could construct an argument suggesting that men are too violent to be hired because statistics show they’re much more likely than women to commit a mass shooting in the workplace. Sorry, guys. It’s not discrimination — it’s “biology.” You have too much testosterone-driven anger to be reliable.)

Damore’s memo, I think, suffers from his own sense of outrage: the writer is fed up with Google diversity policies, which perhaps make him (and many others) feel like he needs to apologize for being male. This has led him to focus on alleged biological differences as the driver for his memo.

I do agree, however, with his point that too often diversity efforts are simplistic.  So many differences interact and combine to make us who we are as humans.  What about class differences, for example?  If a tech team consists entirely of college-educated members of the upper-middle class, and all American, and all in their twenties and thirties, is it diverse even if it’s 50-50 male/female?  Which qualities do we privilege in a push for diversity?  Gender?  Race?  Class?  Nationality?  Age?  (As an aside, it’s not easy for older engineers to get jobs; they’re often assumed to be both overqualified and out-of-touch.)

Damore could also pay more attention to history.  He suggests, for example, that women as women seek promotions and higher pay less often than men.  They don’t “lean in” as much as they should.  But it’s hardly that simple.  It used to be (and still is?) that men were promoted and paid more not necessarily because they “leaned in,” i.e. were more macho and demanding, but because it was assumed a man was the breadwinner for a family. Whereas if a woman worked at the same job, it was often assumed she wasn’t the primary breadwinner.

That is, it wasn’t that women were simply too “weak” (biology/psychology) to demand a raise; they didn’t ask because they knew they wouldn’t get it. Or, if they did ask, they weren’t too surprised when a man got it instead. It wasn’t always due to a conspiratorial old boys’ club (though those existed), but rather the societal/cultural bias that a man, as head of a family, needed the extra money more. Also, bosses tend to promote underlings like themselves. Men in charge tend to promote younger men who are mirror images, especially if the latter play their cards right (are properly deferential, let their boss win at golf, and so on).

When we look at why women are under-represented in technical fields, biology is arguably the least important factor to consider.  Historical, cultural, sociological, and gender factors all weigh heavily on efforts to increase women’s participation.  In short, Damore’s memo is perhaps most valuable not at pointing a way forward, but in revealing the persistence of certain attitudes and biases that still need to be addressed in the drive for a fair and equitable society.

Trump: Much “Fire and Fury,” Signifying Something Vital

 

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Fat Man, the atomic bomb that devastated Nagasaki on August 9, 1945

W.J. Astore

The big story today is Trump’s threat to North Korea about “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in response to any aggression against the U.S. and its allies.  The world witnessed American “fire and fury” in August of 1945 when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by atomic bombs (indeed, today is the 72nd anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing).  Roughly 250,000 people were killed in those two bombings, and Trump is apparently promising a worst form of fury against North Korea (“like the world has never seen”).

Back in October 2016, I wrote a piece at this site with the title: “On nuclear weapons, Trump is nightmarishly scary,” and that nightmare is beginning to take shape.  As I wrote back then, Trump’s worst attribute is his “sweeping ignorance to the point of recklessness when it comes to matters of national defense, and specifically America’s nuclear arsenal.”  I further wrote that:

Back in March … Trump boasted at a debate that the U.S. military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality.  In this latest debate, he yet again revealed that he has no real knowledge of America’s nuclear capability and how modern and powerful (and scary) it truly is.

Sure, Trump is crude, lewd, and sexist, but those qualities won’t destroy the world as we know it.  Ignorance about nuclear weapons, combined with impetuosity and an avowed affection for he-man wild-card generals like George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, is a recipe for utter disaster.

A man of Trump’s vanity and impetuosity — a man of raging grievances who lives in his own reality of alternative facts — is hardly a reassuring figure to have at the top of America’s “fire and fury” nuclear arsenal.  Is it all just bluster?  It’s impossible to know, and that’s truly the scary part.

All this fire and fury, even if it remains only bluster, should teach the world a critical lesson: the necessity of nuclear disarmament. Holding millions of people hostage to nuclear terror (as we’ve been doing since the Cold War) has long been immoral, inhumane, and unconscionable.

Instead of making nightmarish threats, a sober and mature U.S. president might actually lead the world in serious efforts to reduce and ultimately to eliminate nuclear weapons. That would be real moral leadership,  That would be real guts.

Trump’s easy boasts of “fire and fury” do signify something vital — the need for global nuclear disarmament, no matter how long it takes.

Update (8/10/17): There’s been a lot of talk, more or less sensible, that Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric is just that: rhetoric.  That it will not become reality because North Korean leaders are sensible and rational actors, and that U.S. leaders like Tillerson and Mattis provide a counterbalance to Trump.  Well, maybe.  But escalatory rhetoric can become reality, i.e. it serves to exacerbate tensions that can lead to miscalculation and war.

Think of North Korea’s latest threat to shoot missiles in the direction of Guam.  If that threat is carried out, a U.S. attack on North Korean missile sites is quite likely, and where that would lead is impossible to say.

Reckless rhetoric is not harmless; words can and do box nations as well as people in, often leading to unexpected actions.  Just think of hateful words flung by people in domestic disputes that escalate into something far worse.  Rationality does not always win out.

Update 2 (8/10/17): Trump recently boasted that, during his short presidency, his actions have led to a U.S. nuclear arsenal that is “now far stronger and more powerful” than it was under President Obama.  The truth is that this arsenal hasn’t measurably changed at all.  The Washington Post gives Trump “four Pinocchios” for his latest lie, but surely big lies about nuclear weapons deserve a different rating system.  Should we call it a four megaton lie?  Lie-mageddon?

Preventing Doomsday

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I well recall walking in and out of this tunnel.  (You could take a bus too.)

W.J. Astore

It’s hard to think of a higher priority than the prevention of doomsday. Global catastrophe could strike in quick-time via nuclear war, or in slow-motion via global warming. Yet our leaders persist in rattling and sharpening the nuclear saber while denying the very reality of global warming (even as state-size chunks of ice break off from the polar ice caps).

Global catastrophe: What, me worry? It’s a MAD world indeed.

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Today at TomDispatch.com, I return to my days working in Cheyenne Mountain, America’s nuclear command and control center, tunneled out of a massive granite mountain in Colorado. I argue that it’s time to overcome our lockdown, shelter-in-place, mentality, before that fear-filled mindset leads us all to catastrophe. You can read the entire article here. What follows is an excerpt:

Duck and Cover, America!

Remember those old American Express card commercials with the tag line “Don’t leave home without it”?  If America’s Department of Homeland Security had its own card, its tag would be: “Don’t leave home.”

Consider the words of retired General John Kelly, the head of that department, who recently suggested that if Americans knew what he knew about the nasty terror threats facing this country, they’d “never leave the house.”  General Kelly, a big bad Marine, is a man who — one would think — does not frighten easily.  It’s unclear, however, whether he considers it best for us to “shelter in place” just for now (until he sends the all-clear signal) or for all eternity.

One thing is clear, however: Islamic terrorism, an exceedingly modest danger to Americans, has in these years become the excuse for the endless construction and funding of an increasingly powerful national security state (the Department of Homeland Security included), complete with a global surveillance system for the ages.  And with that, of course, goes the urge to demobilize the American people and put them in an eternal lockdown mode, while the warrior pros go about the business of keeping them “safe” and “secure.”

I have a few questions for General Kelly: Is closing our personal blast doors the answer to keeping our enemies and especially our fears at bay?  What does security really mean?  With respect to nuclear Armageddon, should the rich among us indeed start building personal bomb shelters again, while our government continues to perfect our nuclear arsenal by endlessly updating and “modernizing” it?  (Think: smart nukes and next generation delivery systems.)  Or should we work toward locking down and in the end eliminating our doomsday weaponry?  With respect to both terrorism and immigration, should we really hunker down in Homeland U.S.A., slamming shut our Trumpian blast door with Mexico (actually long under construction) and our immigration system, or should we be working to reduce the tensions of poverty and violence that generate both desperate immigrants and terrorist acts?

President Trump and “his” generals are plainly in favor of you and yours just hunkering down, even as they continue to lash out militarily around the globe.  The result so far: the worst of both worlds — a fortress America mentality of fear and passivity domestically and a kinetic, manic urge to surge, weapons in hand, across significant parts of the planet.

Call it a passive-aggressive policy.  We the people are told to remain passive, huddling in our respective home bunkers, sheltering in place, even as America’s finest aggressively strike out at those we fear most.  The common denominator of such a project is fear — a fear that breeds compliance at home and passivity before uniformed, if often uninformed, experts, even as it generates repetitive, seemingly endless, violence abroad.  In short, it’s the doomsday mentality applied every day in every way.

Returning to Cheyenne Mountain

Thirty years ago, as a young Air Force officer, Cheyenne Mountain played a memorable role in my life.  In 1988 I left that mountain redoubt behind, though I carried with me a small slab of granite from it with a souvenir pen attached.  Today, with greying hair and my very own time machine (my memories), I find myself returning regularly to Cheyenne Mountain, thinking over where we went wrong as a country in allowing a doomsday-lockdown mentality to get such a hold on us.

Amazingly, Barack Obama, the president who made high-minded pleas to put an end to nuclear weapons (and won a Nobel Prize for them), pleas supported by hard-headed realists like former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, gave his approval to a trillion-dollar renovation of America’s nuclear triad before leaving office.  That military-industrial boondoggle will now be carried forward by the Trump administration.  Though revealing complete ignorance about America’s nuclear triad during the 2016 election campaign, President Trump has nevertheless boasted that the U.S. will always be “at the top of the pack” when it comes to doomsday weaponry.  And whether with Iran or North Korea, he foolishly favors policies that rattle the nuclear saber.

In addition, recent reports indicate that America’s nuclear arsenal may be less than secure.  In fact, as of this March, inspection results for nuclear weapons safety and security, which had been shared freely with the American public, are now classified in what the Associated Press calls a “lockdown of information.”  Naturally, the Pentagon claims greater secrecy is needed to protect us against terrorism, but it serves another purpose: shielding incompetence and failing grades.  Given the U.S. military’s nightmarish history of major accidents with nuclear weapons, more secrecy and less accountability doesn’t exactly inspire greater confidence.

Today, the Cheyenne complex sits deactivated, buried inside its mountain, awaiting fresh purpose.  And I have one.  Let’s bring our collective fears there, America.  Let’s bury them under all that granite.  Let’s close the blast doors behind us as we walk out of that dark tunnel toward the light.  For sheltering in place shouldn’t be the American way.  Nor should we lock ourselves down for life.  It would be so much better to lockdown instead what should be truly unthinkable: doomsday itself, the mass murder of ourselves and the destruction of our planet.

Technology as Diversion from Social Inequality

tech fears

W.J. Astore

Today, access to technology and its services is often associated with equality of opportunity in society.  In education, for example, getting computers and Internet service to low-income students is considered a vitally important step to students’ maturation and their skill sets in a competitive global marketplace.  The “digital divide” must be bridged, else disadvantaged students will be stuck in the dark ages and left behind.  Focusing on technology as both “bridging” mechanism and source of enlightenment has the added benefit of being easily measurable and “correctable,” e.g. by increasing the number of computers per class, the number of connected classrooms, and so on.

Spending (or, as they say, “investing”) money on classroom technology, moreover, is obviously favored by tech companies both for present and future profits (raise a child on Apple devices and perhaps as adults they’ll always favor Apple).  Parents like it too: perhaps Johnny and Susie mainly play games on their school-provided iPads, but at least they’re occupied while “learning” computer skills.

Of course, the digital divide does exist, and computer skills are valuable.  But hyping access to technology is often a distraction from much bigger issues of inequality, as George Orwell noted back in the early 1930s in “The Road to Wigan Pier.”

Back then, Orwell was concerned with electricity rather than computers and connectivity.  But what he says about electrification could be said about any technology presented as a panacea for social ills.

Here’s what Orwell wrote at the end of chapter 5 of his book:

And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.

Orwell was rightly skeptical of technological “miracles” like electricity that were sold as mitigating fundamental inequalities such as access to healthy food and warm and adequate housing.  Empty bellies and empty prospects are not filled by instant news, whether via the telegraph and wireless radio or via the Smart phone and wireless LANs.

The point is not to blame technology.  The point is to highlight technology as a choice, one that often doesn’t address fundamental inequities in society.

America’s “Beautiful” Weapons

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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

W.J. Astore

President Trump is hawking weapons in the Middle East.  After concluding a deal with the Saudis for $110 billion in weaponry, he sought out the Emir of Qatar and said their discussions would focus on “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.”

Trump’s reference to American weapons as “beautiful” echoed the recent words of Brian Williams at MSNBC, who characterized images from the Tomahawk missile attack on Syria as “beautiful,” not once but three times.

We can vilify Trump and Williams for seeing beauty in weapons that kill, but we must also recognize Americans love their technology of death.  It’s one big reason why we have more than 300 million guns in America, enough to arm virtually every American, from cradle to grave.

Why do we place so much faith in weapons?  Why do we love them so?

In military affairs, America is especially prone to putting its faith in weapons.  The problem is that often weaponry is either less important than one thinks, or seductive in its promise.  Think of U.S. aerial drones, for example.  They’ve killed a lot of people without showing any decisiveness.

Technology is a rational and orderly endeavor, but war is irrational and chaotic.  Countries develop technology for war, thinking they are adding order and predictability, when they are usually adding just another element of unpredictability while expanding death.

U.S. air power is a great example — death everywhere, but no decisiveness.  Look at Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia).  The U.S. obliterated vast areas with high explosive and napalm and Agent Orange, killing millions without winning the war.  The technological image of America today is not stunning cars or clever consumer inventions but rather Predator and Reaper drones and giant bombs like MOAB.

Profligate expenditures on weapons and their export obviously feed America’s military-industrial complex.  Such weapons are sold by our politicians as job-creators, but they’re really widow-makers and life-takers.   Americans used to describe armament makers as “merchants of death,” until, that is, we became the number one producer and exporter of these armaments.  Now they’re “beautiful” to our president and to our media mouthpieces.

We have a strange love affair with weapons that borders on a fetish.  I’ve been to a few military re-enactments, in which well-intended re-enactors play at war.  The guys I’ve talked to are often experts on the nuts and bolts of the military weaponry they carry, but of course the guns aren’t loaded.  It’s all bloodless fun, a “war game,” if you will.

Nowadays real war is often much like a video game, at least to U.S. “pilots” sitting in trailers in Nevada.  It’s not a game to an Afghan or Yemeni getting blown to bits by a Hellfire missile fired by a drone.  For some reason, foreigners on the receiving end of U.S. weaponry don’t think of it as “beautiful.”  Nor do we, when our weapons are turned against us.

Enough with the “beautiful” weapons, America.  Let’s stick to the beauty of spacious skies and amber waves of grain.