Today, I was reading some stats about guns in America in The Nation. Did you know gun sales went up 40% in 2020 when compared to 2019? Did you know 3.9 million guns were sold in America in a single month (June 2020), at the height of the BLM protests? Did you know that, according to the trade association for the U.S. firearms industry, Americans own roughly 434 million guns, including 20 million AR-15s and its variants? Did you know that roughly 43% of U.S. households have one or more guns, and that the U.S. has “the most heavily armed civilian population in the world”?
An old joke says that lots of guns make for a polite society, but I haven’t seen much politeness lately. I’ve seen plenty of guns, though.
Even as America dominates the world in gun ownership, we continue to have the world’s largest and potentially cataclysmic array of nuclear weapons. Nuclear deterrence allegedly requires more than five thousand (5000!) nuclear warheads in the U.S. military’s inventory. (It’s quite possible that a mere fifty nuclear explosions could be enough to trigger a global nuclear winter.)
America is indeed exceptional: exceptional in its pursuit of overkill.
I know some might ask: What do guns have to do with nuclear warheads? I’d say that the gun has become the nuclear option in the home. Dead men tell no tales, whether shot or nuked.
Why do Americans feel so safe with so many guns? Why do they feel so safe with so many nuclear warheads? Why do we continue to buy more and more?
It’s a uniquely American form of madness. Or MADness, as in mutually assured destruction.
Look, before the 2nd Amendment crowd comes, packing heat, I’ve owned guns myself and have no objection to anyone who’s a hunter, or anyone who truly needs a gun and gets properly trained in its use. But what we’ve witnessed with the proliferation of guns in America over the last two decades is inexplicable in terms of sport hunting or any real need.
It’s been said we can’t allow the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud. What if there is, in essence, no difference? Dead is dead, whether shot or nuked, and 434 million guns have a “throw weight” and a “fallout” of their own.
Isn’t it time that Americans found a way to destroy their own weapons of mass destruction? At least we won’t have far to look for them.
News that President Trump has COVID-19 and must be hospitalized highlights Richard Feynman’s famous observation that, whether you’re dealing with technology or science or medicine, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. Many Republicans have been proud to act carelessly, refusing to wear masks or even claiming the virus is a hoax. Trump, for example, enjoyed making fun of Joe Biden and his propensity for mask-wearing; he further claimed the virus would simply disappear.
Trump’s illness is a sobering reminder — and we shouldn’t have needed one — to take medical warnings seriously.
Here’s what I wrote back in March:
The Coronavirus Is Immune to Lies
Investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, physicist Richard Feynman reached a famous conclusion: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”
The COVID-19 virus is not going to be fooled with lies. It’s not going to be fooled by a denial of medical science. You can’t “spin” the virus away with false information and happy talk. And this is precisely why President Trump (and indeed many other politicians) is uniquely unqualified to handle this crisis.
Trump is the man who sold us a fake university. Trump is the man who’s lied roughly 13 times a day since becoming president. Trump is a fantasist, a fabulist, a con man, a used car salesman, a huckster, an entertainer, take your pick. And he’s good at it. It’s a skill that got him to the White House. But it’s not a skill that works against the coronavirus.
The other day, I was listening to an interview with Noam Chomsky, and he made the point that Trump is a master propagandist. His skill is his shamelessness and sheer extent of his lying. Trump floods the market with lies, so much so that many people, and especially those sympathetic to him, lose the ability to tell truth from lies, fact from fiction. Politically, this helps Trump; but in meeting this medical crisis, it’s a skill that may cost America tens of thousands of lives, and, in worst-case scenarios, perhaps a million or more.
Living by the light of lies is a surefire way to get burned. Last night, I was reading Norman Mailer and came across this invaluable insight:
“Fascism is not a way of life but a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.”
The more lies we tell, the more we open ourselves to fascism. Mailer uses the word meretricious, which combines vulgarity with falseness and insincerity, and he proceeds to denounce our culture, our art, as sickening us because of its ugly dishonesty. (And Mailer was saying this in the early 1960s!)
Again, lies will not defeat COVID-19; they will only speed its spread through America. Lies will only kill us while smothering democracy.
Feynman was right: “Nature cannot be fooled.” So too was Mailer: As a leader, if you think you can deaden the reality of a pandemic with lies, you’re not thinking at all. You’re acting murderously instead.
Update (3/25): Our Dear Leader has decreed America will be open for business again by Easter. Don’t worry: the final decision will be based “on facts.”
They really felt they needed to add that coda: based on facts. And they did, because most of the Trump presidency has been based on lies.
Maybe my title should have been “The Coronavirus Feeds on Lies.” And we are giving it plenty to feed on.
Supersonic just isn’t fast enough anymore. Now we need hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic generally refers to something that travels at Mach 5 or above, or five times the speed of sound. (Most supersonic jets max out at Mach 2 or thereabouts.) Missiles that are hypersonic would be very difficult to intercept and could be deadly against large, slow-moving targets, e.g. aircraft carriers. So occasionally you hear about China or Russia or both developing hypersonic weapons, followed by a Chicken Little, sky-is-falling, warning about how the U.S. is failing to keep up.
This is all on my mind because I got an email invitation to a hypersonic weapons conference. As a retired Air Force officer and former engineer, this could have been my life: working for a defense contractor, hyping hypersonic weaponry. Where did I go wrong?
“In light of the Department of Defense’s recent & successful hypersonic glide body test marking a major milestone for the DOD’s fielding of hypersonic capabilities, IDGA is bringing back the Hypersonic Weapons Summit this October 28-30, in order to comprehensively analyze and enable the fielding of hypersonic warfighting capabilities.”
“This summit will highlight critical areas to include:
• Enabling Hypersonic Capabilities Utilization for Warfighters across Multiple Domains • S&T Roadmaps & Investment Areas to Achieve Hypersonic Utilization • Guiding Hypersonic Testing to Understand Technological Needs • Workforce Initiatives • US Academia/University Collaboration”
This invitation makes me nostalgic for my military days: all those acronyms, all that jargon, all those references to “warfighting” and “warfighters,” all those vague references, e.g. multiple domains, workforce, investment, and so on.
Again, this is just a random invite, the kind that industry people see daily, but it does reveal the military-industrial-university complex in all its hyperventilating glory.
Advertised speakers at this conference include civilians from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the commanding general of Air Force Global Strike Command, the Army Hypersonic Project Office, a senior representative from U.S. Strategic Command, and a professor of the Hypersonic Systems Initiative, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, University of Notre Dame.
What a lineup! These people make very good money developing faster and faster missiles to blow things up or to intercept other missiles that blow things up. And I do appreciate the rare honesty of the name “Air Force Global Strike Command.” Global strike is far more accurate than national defense.
As a teenager, I used to read “Aviation Week & Space Technology” at my local library. I loved keeping track of the latest cool weapons, which back then meant fighter jets like the F-14 and F-15 or bombers like the B-1. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t give much thought to what these and similar weapons were all about: blowing things up and killing people. They just seemed exciting and a little bit sexy, and I bought the hype.
Sad to say to my teenage self but this will be a conference I’ll have to miss.
Note: I wrote this article in 2015 on the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima. Nuclear weapons should be eliminated from the planet.
August 6, 1945. Hiroshima. A Japanese city roughly the size of Houston. Incinerated by the first atomic bomb. Three days later, Nagasaki. Japanese surrender followed. It seemed the bombs had been worth it, saving countless American (and Japanese) lives, seeing that a major invasion of the Japanese home islands was no longer needed. But was the A-bomb truly decisive in convincing the Japanese to surrender?
President Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs against Japan is perhaps the most analyzed, and, in the United States, most controversial decision made during World War II. The controversy usually creates more heat than light, with hardliners posed on mutually opposed sides. The traditional interpretation is that Truman used the A-bombs to convince a recalcitrant Japanese Emperor that the war was truly lost. A quick Japanese surrender appeared to justify Truman’s choice. It also saved tens of thousands of Allied lives in the Pacific (while killing approximately 250K Japanese). This thesis is best summed up in Paul Fussell’s famous essay, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb.”
Even before Hiroshima, however, a small number of scientists argued that the A-bomb should not be used against Japan without a prior demonstration in a remote and uninhabited location. Later, as the horrible nature of radiation casualties became clearer to the American people, and as the Soviet Union developed its own arsenal of atomic weapons, threatening the United States with nuclear Armageddon, Americans began to reexamine Truman’s decision in the context of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Gar Alperovitz’s revisionist view that Truman was practicing “atomic diplomacy” won its share of advocates in the 1960s. (Alperovitz expanded upon this thesis in the 1990s.) Other historians suggested that racism and motives of revenge played a significant role in shaping the U.S. decision. This debate reached its boiling point in the early 1990s, as the Smithsonian’s attempt to create a “revisionist” display to mark the bomb’s 50th anniversary became a lightning rod in the “culture wars” between a Democratic administration and a resurgent Republican Congress.
Were the atomic bombs necessary to get the Japanese to surrender? Would other, more humane, options have worked, such as a demonstration to the Japanese of the bomb’s power? We’ll never know with certainty the answer to such questions. Perhaps if the U.S. had been more explicit in their negotiations with Japan that “unconditional surrender” did not mean the end of Japan’s Emperor, the Japanese may have surrendered earlier, before the A-bomb was fully ready. Then again, U.S. flexibility could have been interpreted by Japanese hardliners as a sign of American weakness or war fatigue.
Unwilling to risk appearing weak or weary, U.S. leaders dropped the A-bomb to shock the Japanese into surrendering. Together with Stalin’s entry into the war against Japan, these shocks were sufficient to convince the Japanese emperor “to bear the unbearable,” in this case total capitulation, a national disgrace.
A longer war in the Pacific — if only a matter of weeks — would indeed have meant higher casualties among the Allies, since the Japanese were prepared to mount large-scale Kamikaze attacks. Certainly, the Allies were unwilling to risk losing men when they had a bomb available that promised results. The mentality seems to have been: We developed it. We have it. Let’s use it. Anything to get this war over with as quickly as possible.
That mentality was not humane, but it was human. Truman had a weapon that promised decisiveness, so he used it. The attack on Hiroshima was basically business as usual, especially when you consider the earlier firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay. Indeed, such “conventional” firebombing raids continued after Hiroshima and Nagasaki until the Japanese finally sent a clear signal of surrender.
Of course, an event as momentous, as horrific, as Hiroshima took on extra meaning after the war, given the nuclear arms race, the Cold War and a climate represented by the telling acronym of MAD (mutually assured destruction). U.S. decisionmakers like Truman were portrayed as callous, as racist, as war criminals. Yet in the context of 1945, it’s difficult to see any other U.S. president making a different decision, especially given Japan’s apparent reluctance to surrender and their proven fanaticism at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere.
As Andrew Rotter notes in Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb (2008),World War II witnessed the weakening, if not erasure, of distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, notably during LeMay’s firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 but in many other raids as well (Rotterdam and Coventry and Hamburg and Dresden, among so many others). In his book, Rotter supports the American belief that Japan would fight even more fanatically for their home islands than they did at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two horrendous battles in 1945 that preceded the bomb. But he argues that Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson engaged in “self-deception” when they envisioned that the effects of the atomic bomb could be limited to “a purely military” target.
A quarter of a million Japanese died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the years and decades following. They died horrible deaths. And their deaths serve as a warning to us all of the awful nature of war and the terrible destructiveness of nuclear weapons.
Hans Bethe worked on the bomb during the Manhattan Project. A decent, humane, and thoughtful man, he nevertheless worked hard to create a weapon of mass destruction. His words of reflection have always stayed with me. They come in Jon Else’s powerful documentary, “The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb.”
Here is what Bethe said (edited slightly):
The first reaction we [scientists] had [after Hiroshima] was one of fulfillment. Now it has been done. The second reaction was one of shock and awe: What have we done? What have we done. The third reaction was it should never be done again.
It should never be done again: Just typing those words here from memory sends chills up my spine.
Let us hope it is never done again. Let us hope a nuclear weapon is never used again. For that way madness lies.
Here are two comments I made in response to previous comments on this article:
I think the comments once again show that no consensus is possible on whether the atomic bombs were decisive in ending the war sooner. Even well-informed people at the time disagreed.
Again, I return to the context of August 1945. A war-weary America, facing the prospect of a delayed Japanese surrender, was using every weapon at its disposal to drive the Japanese into the ground. That included blockade, firebombing, and invasions (Iwo Jima and Okinawa). A longer blockade and more Japanese would have starved. More firebombing, more dead Japanese. More invasions, more dead Japanese, and of course Allied troops as well. The Japanese were well indoctrinated to fall in battle like cherry blossoms in the service of the emperor, whom they viewed as a god.
How to get a Japanese leadership and people to surrender when they saw the very act as dishonorable to the warrior code of Bushido? How to persuade a military that was already committing suicide on a massive scale in Kamikaze attacks against Allied ships to capitulate and live on with the shame of defeat?
It’s clear from the evidence that Truman believed the atomic bomb would shock the “beast” of Japan (“beast” was Truman’s word, a description that Allied soldiers and other Asian peoples who suffered at the hands of Japan, e.g. the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Koreans, would have agreed with). It surely did shock them. Profoundly. Was it sufficient? Was it necessary?
Again, there is no alternate reality in which the atomic bomb wasn’t dropped, and thus no way of knowing whether in that other reality, the Japanese would have agreed to surrender on August 15th.
My reading of the evidence is that impressing the Soviets was a factor, but not THE factor, in the decision to use the bomb. Ending the war as quickly as possible was the driving factor. If the bomb had been ready in December 1944, it would have been used against Nazi Germany as the Battle of the Bulge raged. But the bomb wasn’t ready until July 1945, when the Germans had already surrendered.
Iwo Jima and Okinawa were fresh in the minds of everyone. Though the Japanese had extended peace-feelers, others in Japan were hardline and didn’t wish to surrender on any terms. Faced with a war that could last weeks or months longer, perhaps into 1946 if an invasion of the Japanese home islands had been necessary, the US leadership decided the bomb could be the shock that would force the Japanese to capitulate. And so it seemed, after the fact.
It’s a very complicated question that I’ve read a lot about, and written about as well. Many people at the time simply saw the bomb as a “bigger” bomb, not as something world-changing. Only a few people truly grasped the horror of atomic weapons.
I know this probably isn’t convincing, but again this is my reading of the evidence. Certainly, Nagasaki was completely unnecessary — it came far too quickly for the Japanese to process what had happened at Hiroshima.
I saw this headline and story at the Guardian today: “Pandemic and protests spur Americans to buy guns at record pace.”
And it just made me sad. Sad because Americans see guns as a security blanket. Sad because guns are so expensive and also so easily misused. Sad because more guns is really not the answer to anything. Certainly not a pandemic.
Consider the sheer expense of guns. A decent revolver, ammunition, a cleaning kit, and a few hours at your local gun range will likely cost at least a grand ($1000) at a time when almost half of Americans can’t meet an unexpected expense of $400. Yet people find solace in a gun, a form of mental comfort, a sense of “I’m prepared.” For Covid-19? For peaceful protesters? For the Purge? Who knows?
It’s sad as well to recognize a gun in the home raises the risk of suicide by gun, and of course of accidental shootings. Too many people buy a gun without knowing much about them — and how important it is to keep them secure, especially from children.
Look: I’ve owned guns and have shot everything from pellet pistols and rifles to Dirty Harry’s famed Smith & Wesson .44 magnum. I can even cite Harry’s “Feel lucky, punk” line from memory. I’m not anti-gun, but I am anti-hysteria.
Too many Americans are looking down the barrel of a loaded pistol for answers — and that’s neither the wisest nor safest place to look. We need to strengthen our communities, not fortify our bunkers. Buying more guns only does the latter.
Killer robots! How many “Terminator” movies do we have to see before we conclude this is not a good idea?
You guessed it: the U.S. military is at it again. Awash in cash, it’s investigating killer robots in earnest, striving for ever more “autonomy” for its robots, thereby reducing the need for humans in the loop. Part of this drive for robotic warfare comes from the Covid-19 pandemic, notes Michael Klare at TomDispatch.com. America’s tech-heavy approach to warfare puts lots of people in close proximity in confined spaces, whether on ships and submarines or in planes and tanks. “Social distancing” really isn’t practical even on the largest ships, such as the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, briefly put out of commission by the pandemic. So why not build ships that need few or no people? Why not build autonomous killer robot ships?
Obviously, the Pentagon thinks that movies like “The Terminator” and “The Matrix,” among so many others that warn about humanity’s overreliance on machinery and the possibility the machines themselves might become conscious and turn on their creators, are just that: movies. Fantasies. Because technology never has unpredictable results, right?
So, killer robots are on the horizon, making it even easier for the U.S. military to wage war while risking as few troops as possible. I’m sure once America invests billions and billions in high-tech semi-autonomous or fully autonomous killing machines, we’ll keep them in reserve and use them only as a last resort. Just like we do with our big bombs.
To read Michael Klare’s piece on killer robots, follow this link.
In The Matrix, Neo (played memorably by Keanu Reeves) saves Morpheus by breaking into a heavily fortified facility guarded by special agents. When asked what he’ll need to pull off this longshot rescue, Neo says, simply: “Guns — lots of guns.” It could serve as America’s new national motto. In God we trust? No — guns. And lots of them. Somewhere north of 300 million guns are currently in private hands, enough to arm each and every American, the tall and the small, with at least one firearm.
So it’s not surprising when Donald Trump references Second Amendment rights. (It seems the only amendment he knows.) He likes to assert these “rights” are in danger of being curtailed, but gun sales are still booming and there are no serious efforts at gun control.
As one of my friends whose barbed humor I enjoy put it: “There is only one amendment — the second amendment.” Mull that conundrum for a moment.
Back in World War II, America was known as the arsenal of democracy for all the weapons we supplied to allies like Britain and the Soviet Union. Now it’s just an arsenal.
The brutal truth is we’re stuck with all these guns. There is no political will to buy them back, even military-style assault weapons, and indeed what will there is centers on selling more of them. Back in 2017, several articles appeared noting how black women were buying guns in increasing numbers. Last week, NBC Washington ran a report on women of color becoming licensed gun owners in increasing numbers, partly as a response to police violence. “Peace of mind” is bought with a gun. Talk about racial and gender progress!
Speaking of the police, small wonder that America’s cops are edgy. When we talk about police violence, which is all-too-real and all-too-deadly, a factor we should consider is the reality that America is awash in guns, making every police call a potentially deadly one.
So, as much as Trump tweets about “LAW&ORDER,” what really rules America is money — the money to be made by selling lots of guns and ammo, as well as the cultural ammo you can always count on when hippy-dippy liberals like me start rattling rhetorical sabers about gun control.
The pen may be mightier than the sword, but an AR-15 trumps both in this man’s America.
I’ve owned guns myself and have shot everything from a pellet pistol to a .44 magnum, but I’ve defunded my modest gun collection, so to speak. I decided happiness is not a warm gun and that there are amendments other than the 2nd one.
For once you start shooting bullets, there’s no way to recall them. And, as far as I know, the only guy able to dodge bullets is Keanu Reeves as Neo.
You can always count on the Pentagon to come up with jargon that unleashes hubris. When I was in the Air Force, it was all about “global reach, global power.” I also heard about “full-spectrum dominance.” Now the latest buzzword is “All-Domain Operations.” “All-domain” means land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace, which are supposed to be integrated by computers, with information being shared at the speed of light, or close to it. The U.S. military will know so much, be so nimble, and act in such a coordinated fashion that its rivals and enemies won’t have a chance.
This is what the Vice-Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to say about this:
“we’ll have a significant advantage over everybody in the world for a long time, because it’s the ability to integrate and effectively command and control all domains in a conflict or in a crisis seamlessly — and we don’t know how to do that. Nobody knows how to do that.”
I’ve been hearing about “seamless” and “global” integration for a long time, and it’s never going to happen. War is fundamentally messy, chaotic, a realm of chance, influenced by what Clausewitz termed “fog and friction,” and of course the enemy rarely reacts in ways that are predictable. No matter. A “global” vision of “all-domain” dominance has the virtue of justifying enormous defense budgets, so it’s likely here to stay.
As an aside, I do like the way the term has grown like Topsy, according to this report:
“Breaking Defense readers have seen these ideas evolve rapidly over the last few years, with even the terminology becoming ever more ambitious, from Multi-Domain Battleto Multi-Domain Operations to All-Domain Operations.”
Yes — who wants only multi-domain battles when you can have all-domain operations? Let’s show some ambition here!
Note how in this vision, there’s no talk of national defense or of upholding the U.S. Constitution. It’s all about power projection in the cause of dominance. It’s an enabler to forever war — one that will be increasingly driven by computers.
What could possibly go wrong with such a vision?
One thing is likely: if there’s ever a war of hubristic buzzwords in the future, the Pentagon might finally have a fighting chance.
Edward Snowden recently talked to Joe Rogan for nearly three hours. Snowden has a book out (“Permanent Record“) about his life and his decision to become a whistleblower who exposed lies and crimes by the U.S. national security state. As I watched Snowden’s interview, I jotted down notes and thoughts I had. (The interview itself has more than seven million views on YouTube and rising, which is great to see.) The term in my title, “turnkey tyranny,” is taken from the interview.
My intent here is not to summarize Snowden’s entire interview. I want to focus on some points he made that I found especially revealing, pertinent, and insightful.
Without further ado, here are 12 points I took from this interview:
1. People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse. Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way. This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing. (I saw the same in my 20 years in the U.S. military.)
2. The American people are no longer partners of government. We are subjects. Our rights are routinely violated even as we become accustomed (or largely oblivious) to a form of turnkey tyranny.
3. Intelligence agencies in the U.S. used 9/11 to enlarge their power. They argued that 9/11 happened because there were “too many restrictions” on them. This led to the PATRIOT Act and unconstitutional global mass surveillance, disguised as the price of being kept “safe” from terrorism. Simultaneously, America’s 17 intelligence agencies wanted most of all not to be blamed for 9/11. They wanted to ensure the buck stopped nowhere. This was a goal they achieved.
4. Every persuasive lie has a kernel of truth. Terrorism does exist — that’s the kernel of truth. Illegal mass surveillance, facilitated by nearly unlimited government power, in the cause of “keeping us safe” is the persuasive lie.
5. The government uses classification (“Top Secret” and so on) primarily to hide things from the American people, who have no “need to know” in the view of government officials. Secrecy becomes a cloak for illegality. Government becomes unaccountable; the people don’t know, therefore we are powerless to rein in government excesses or to prosecute for abuses of power.
6. Fear is the mind-killer (my expression here, quoting Frank Herbert’s Dune). Snowden spoke much about the use of fear by the government, using expressions like “they’ll be blood on your hands” and “think of the children.” Fear is the way to cloud people’s minds. As Snowden put it, you lose the ability to act because you are afraid.
7. What is true patriotism? For Snowden, it’s about a constant effort to do good for the people. It’s not loyalty to government. Loyalty, Snowden notes, is only good in the service of something good.
8. National security and public safety are not synonymous. In fact, in the name of national security, our rights are being violated. We are “sweeping up the broken glass of our lost rights” in today’s world of global mass surveillance, Snowden noted.
9. We live naked before power. Companies like Facebook and Google, together with the U.S. government, know everything about us; we know little about them. It’s supposed to be the reverse (at least in a democracy).
10. “The system is built on lies.” James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, lies under oath before Congress. And there are no consequences. He goes unpunished.
11. We own less and less of our own data. Data increasingly belongs to corporations and the government. It’s become a commodity. Which means we are the commodity. We are being exploited and manipulated, we are being sold, and it’s all legal, because the powerful make the policies and the laws, and they are unaccountable to the people.
12. Don’t wait for a hero to save you. What matters is heroic decisions. You are never more than one decision away from making the world a better place.
In 2013, Edward Snowden made a heroic decision to reveal illegal mass surveillance by the U.S. government, among other governmental crimes. He has made the world a better place, but as he himself knows, the fight has only just begun against turnkey tyranny.
I was educated in public schools by dedicated teachers in the pre-digital age. My teachers read books to me and had me read books. I learned math, partly by rote, but also through friendly student competitions. Science I learned by doing, like chemistry with Bunsen burners and test tubes. I had classes in art and music, and even though I had little talent in drawing or playing an instrument, I still learned to appreciate both subjects. My high school was big and diverse, so I took electives in courses I really enjoyed, like science fiction, photography, even a course in aquariology, in which I built my own aquarium. And I must say I’m glad there wasn’t the distraction of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and similar social media sites to torment me; video games, meanwhile, were in my day still crude, so I spent more time outside, playing tennis, riding my bike, hanging with friends, being in the world and nature (fishing was a favorite pursuit).
When I was a teen, we learned a lot about history and civics and the humanities. We spent time in the library, researching and writing. I took a debate course and learned how to construct an argument and speak before an audience. When I graduated from high school, I felt like I had a solid grounding: that I knew enough to make educated choices; that I could participate as a citizen by voting intelligently when I was eighteen.
Something has happened to education in America. You can see it in the big trends that are being hyped, including STEM, vocational training, computers and online courses, and privatization (charter schools). What suffers from these trends is the humanities, the arts, unionized teachers, critical and creative thinking skills, and, most especially, civics and ethics.
STEM is all about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. My BS is in mechanical engineering and I love science and math, so I’m sympathetic to STEM classes. The problem is how STEM is justified – it’s usually couched in terms of keeping America competitive vis-à-vis other nations. STEM is seen as a driver for economic success and growth, a servant of industry, innovation, and profit. It’s not usually sold as developing critical thinking skills, even though STEM classes do help to develop such skills.
From STEM we turn to vocational training. Many students seek a career, of course, and not all students wish to go to a four-year college, or to college period. But once again vocational training is mainly justified as a feeder to business and industry. It’s often reduced to education as training for labor, where the primary goal is to learn to earn. It may produce decent plumbers and welders and electricians and the like, but also ones who are indoctrinated to accept the system as it is.
In The Baffler, Tarence Ray has an article, “Hollowed Out: Against the sham revitalization of Appalachia.” Ray critiques ARC (the Appalachian Regional Commission) in the following passage that resonated with my own experiences teaching at a vocational college:
“The ARC [in the late 1960s and early ‘70s] also placed a lot of emphasis on career and vocational education. This appealed to President Nixon, who was desperate to counteract the student activism of antiwar and environmental groups. ‘Vocational education is more politically neutral,’ one White House aide put it. But it was also advantageous for the multinational corporations who controlled Appalachia’s coal resources and most of its institutions of power–the goal was to create a workforce that was skilled but also obedient. An education in the humanities emphasizes critical thinking, which might lead to political consciousness, a risk that the ARC could not afford to take.” [emphasis added]
My dad liked the historical saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same. A vocational education sounds good, especially to those in power. Doubtless young people need marketable skills. The shame of it all is that the final “product” of vocational colleges–skilled graduates who are “workforce-ready”–is by design a limited one—an obedient one. America needs active and informed citizens as well, and they need to have the skills and mindset to question their bosses, their so-called betters, because if they lack such a mindset, nothing will change for the better in our society.
Along with STEM and vocational training is an emphasis on computers and online courses. Nowadays most school administrators would rather fund computers and networked classrooms than raise pay for teachers. In fact, online courses are advertised as a way to replace teachers, or at least to reduce the number of full-time teachers needed on staff. But I question whether one can learn sociology or art or philosophy or ethics by taking an online course. And I remain skeptical of big “investments” in computers, SMART boards, and the like. They may have their place, but they’re no substitute for education that’s truly student-centered, and one that’s focused on civics and ethics, right and wrong.
The final trend we’re seeing is privatization, as with charter schools. The (false) narrative here is that teachers in unions are overpaid, unaccountable, and otherwise inflexible or incompetent. Somehow the magical free market will solve this. If only one could get rid of unions while privatizing everything, all will be well in America’s schools. Private corporations, driven by profit and “efficiency,” will somehow produce a better product, a word I choose deliberately, for they see education as a product. And while some charter schools have been innovative and effective, many others have failed, mainly because education isn’t education when it’s reduced to a “deliverable” – a commodity driven by and reduced to money.
At a time when the United States desperately needs critical and creative thinkers educated in the arts and humanities as well as STEM and vocational subjects, our schools and especially our legislators are rejecting their duty to serve democratic ideals, choosing instead to embrace business, industry, economic competitiveness, and obedience, all in service of the bottom line measured in dollars and cents. Now more than ever, America needs young people who are engaged civically and ethically, who value more than money and materialism. Yet many of our schools are pursuing a much different agenda.