Thursday, February 14, 2013

Williams: Reinstate the Draft

This week Buz argues for the institution of a regular two-year stretch of military service for every young American, and while I disagree entirely about the form, on substance I think he has a point.

Why this would come up now I have no idea. Perhaps it's been stuck in his craw for a decade or so, shown in his gratuitous use of Rep Charle Rangel as a punching bag for a couple of grafs. (Why  regressive writers are so uniformly compelled to waste ink on irrelevant references to their favorite bugbears I'll never understand.)

But to get to the substance, I agree that as a people we could greatly benefit from a custom of participation in civic duty. A large part of why our political discourse is so enfogged with simpletonian nonsense is that so few people involve themselves with government and public service, leaving them ignorant of its value to us all. Requiring people to participate won't solve that problem entirely, but it could help a great deal if handled in the right way.

It's amusing that Buz, a Tea-Party-styled tax-hating libertarian who sees government as the enemy, is advocating an across-the-board military obligation, but the idea is well grounded in the Constitution and our legal history. At the founding of the nation every (white, male) citizen was drafted as a militiaman, and further required to arm himself to a basic standard of gun and ammo at his own expense and give of his time to training. (I know, the NRA utopia.)

My ancestors accepted that obligation because the most important public good at the time was facing down an oppressive occupier with no compunction about killing rebels. Need I point out that those days are long past?

The military draft ended because as our military missions shifted after 1946 from defending our homes, allies and values to securing resources and enriching corporations, it just stopped working. Better educated draftees could see what was happening and refused to buy in, feeding into the debacle that was Vietnam.

Further, a military investment to the degree Buz is advocating — can you imagine how much it would cost to pay, feed, clothe, equip for war and maintain the health of every 18-year-old in the country for two years on an ongoing basis? — would be a pretty near dead loss for the country. Military operations, whether active or in reserve, produce nothing beyond the profits of the suppliers. When they're active, military operations destroy, adding long-term cost burdens both here and around the world, and making enemies to boot. No, Buz, our military is not a character-building school, though that may be a side-benefit for some, it's a machine for killing people and breaking things. War does not make a better world.

But strip the idea down to its essential element of a public-service obligation and look at what we have in place as resources to support it. Already we have an across-the-board obligation to stay in some sort of school  up to the age of 16. Could we extend that with two years of public service, usually starting from high-school graduation and maybe taken early by those for whom high-school isn't working? Might it be broadly beneficial to push the usual entrance to higher education back for a couple of years, maybe providing the new student college credit or cash for their service? Could our nation benefit from the infusion of young people learning about and helping with water delivery systems, public administration and accounting, bridge and highway construction, design and improvement of parks and public lands, museums and educational systems, election systems, public safety, and on and on according to their interests? And wouldn't those benefits be at least as large for the young people involved?

It would still cost, but that would come back as real benefit to us all, and we could see that benefit both in the practical improvements in public infrastructure and in young people better equipped to be adults.

So yeah, Buz has hold on a piece of a Big Idea, one that's worked very well for us in the past: New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration provided exactly the sort of disciplined experience with public service that Buz says he likes. It hasn't yet occurred to him just how socialist it is, of course, even in its military form. I won't tell him if you won't.

It's Not the Guns, It's the Fear

Pop Rocket, February 2013

Our media consumed the entire month of January with talk about guns, gun violence and what we might do to stop it. Most of it has been regurgitation of the same old time-wasting arguments, and I am absolutely resolved to avoid falling in that trap and wasting yet more of your time and head space. So like the country as a whole, I'm challenged to come at this problem from a different and maybe useful angle.
     Sincerely, it surprised me that Americans near and far took so to heart the killings of the little kids at Newtown. Over the decades we've generally become so inured to this sort of violence that I expected this mass shooting of innocents would quickly sink beneath the waves of popular distraction like the many gone before. That it's spurred a sustained public conversation about gun violence, of such power that every legislator and enforcement officer down to the local level seems compelled to weigh in, is amazing and encouraging. It's about time we got this issue out of the national sock drawer and had it out.
     As I've said in this space before, it's obvious to any thinking being that our national problem with guns is out of control, but there seems to be no practical way out of it. Towering reams of opinion good and bad, usually putting the onus on someone else, are being hacked out daily on this subject, so for both our sakes I'm going to have to assume that you're sufficiently plugged in and I can skip the basics.
     When a problem seems intractable, it's a signal to me that I'm not seeing the whole picture. So let's back up a step to: Why does an ordinary person want a gun?     I see two answers to that, two sides of the same coin: power, and fear. We feel powerless, we need to defend ourselves against something we fear. Drone on all day about the cold reality that holding a gun is vastly more likely to hurt the holder than any bad guy, you won't get through to someone who's afraid. Cite all the statistics in the world about how rare crime really has always been in daily life and how it's diminishing, the fearful seem to fear it all the more.
     Most of us have grown up with the teevee myth that a good guy with a gun always wins and every week he's beset by another bad guy, and while we know intellectually that it's all fiction and mostly nonsense, it still shapes our self-images, emotional landscapes, and ability to competently assess risk.
     Most of the time the bad guys turn out to be people who believed they were good guys, or at least doing the right thing within the mythology they'd created for themselves. We all go through changes and problems, and there's no clear way to be sure any of us won't wind up doing the wrong thing with that weapon. So the problem isn't guns, really; broadly, it's unreasonable fear, coupled with unrealistic myths about our ability to defend against those mentally inflated monsters. It's our national neurosis.
     On left and right we love to posit "mental health" deficiencies as an important cause of mass shootings, and there's no doubt that the murderers of random innocents and their own families are by definition mentally unfit. What we've yet to address is whether our society as a whole is unhinged, become a garden bed full of low-grade poison sprouting the odd murderous weed.
     From outside our borders, our collective neurosis is as obvious as that of a bum shouting at traffic. Citizens of civilized countries around the world, contemplating daily delusionary behavior that Americans take for granted as normal, go all wide-eyed and blanch at the thought that the lords of the world's largest nuclear arsenal could really be this nutz. But here inside the wire we're insulated from ourselves the same way a lunatic's skull contains and protects his delusion.
     At this point the religionists reliably pipe up, fingers wagging, and say, "That's what you get when you abandon Gad!" Man, it would be nice if it were that simple and most mass shooters and gun-huggers were non-believers. Exactly the opposite seems to be true. Magical thinking is much more the problem than the solution.
     But what if we could leave out the magical parts and apply the good and useful parts of religion? Trusting our neighbors, taking care of one another, dealing with one another morally and free of judgment, accepting responsibility, seeing something higher and better in ourselves and striving to live up to it -- the religious reflex, one face of our evolutionary heritage as social animals, is itself a method for assuaging fear and building a secure community.
     If a member of a religious community hurts his family, the group routinely looks to what it might have done differently. Now we have the opportunity for that sort of soul-searching as a nation, to see the shooters as our own family and our own failures, to squarely face the mirror they hold up and gauge what part we played in the tragedy.     Can we be adult enough to look at our national obsession and ask ourselves, how many deaths of innocents are we willing to accept as the price of our freedom to hold a deadly weapon? How can we allow so many of us to indulge in unreasoning fear? Is the illusory sense of comfort and power that gun gives us worth the lives of thousands of innocents every year? Could we maybe find more effective and less costly ways to feel secure?     Like a chain-smoker facing his addiction, we're at some point going to have to stub out our fear and let go of what's killing us.
     Maybe you think the essence of freedom is that the community has to leave you alone with your toys and personal myths. Sorry, it doesn't work like that, and never has. If you accept the benefits of community, you're obliged to follow its rules and care for it. Seriously, would you rather be in, or out?