Fire on the Mountain

There is an argument that the United States of America is the greatest nation on earth, that our democratic ideals are an inspiration to the world, that our power is great because we are morally right and just, that we are a benevolent giant, a city on a hill.

There is an argument that the United States of America is among the worst nations on earth, that our military and economic dominance are a threat and a burden to the world, that we preach democracy but promote tyranny, that we are a brutal giant, a city of filth.

The difficulty is that the United States is neither… and it is both.

Listen: the United States is a representative democracy — never perfect, and in constant need of improvement, yet for two hundred and thirty years it has held together and remained a republic, the rights secured constantly growing to match the rights promised. It has been an inspiration to the world, even when, as with Haiti, what is inspired has not always been to the US’s liking. It has met and mastered great evils, rid the world of horrors, and (for most of the people for most of the time) been a place of peace, liberty, and prosperity. This feat, however flawed, is a monumental achievement.

Listen: since even before its beginning the United States has invaded, occupied, conquered, or staged coups. It was born in a westward-running act of genocide, has exported despotism to scores of countries, and invaded dozens more, more than any other nation now extant on earth. Since the fall of our last real rival and the end of the Cold War we have staged three wars and two major interventions, and have bombed or assassinated in half a dozen more. As I write these words we have literally countless military bases around the world. These acts, however justified, remain dangerous, threatening aggressions.

Listen: once upon a time America put a man on the moon.

Listen: twice upon a time, America used nuclear bombs on inhabited cities.

The US has been both a model for the world to follow and a monster for it to fear. The one, in fact, has allowed the other. Had this country not been an inspiration for all humanity, it would long ago have been destroyed by all humanity, an eagle brought down by many sparrows, because if the US were not so inspiring, it would be terrifying. Rome endured and Persia endured and the United States has endured because life under their swords was and has been better than it was before; without that betterment the US would be not loved but dreaded, and eventually not accepted but destroyed.

If you are loved enough, those who love you will do anything for you. If you are feared enough, those who fear you will do anything to you. The United States has forever walked between the two, both loved and feared.

These past few months have retaught Americans an old lesson, if they — we — can learn it. Democracy, an idea the US restored to the world, now has the potential to flourish where once it was only a dream. But the obstacles to that dream now being removed were put there by the government of the United States, and by extension by us, the people who elected it. Mubarak was ours. The sultans are ours. Even mad Gadhaffi, our former foe, became a useful tool in our latest war. And in our culpability and guilt the United States can only faintly praise the triumph of our ideals because it means the end of our allies. If we spoke, in fact, our bloody past might have stained our encouragement — we could not even help with a word, because our words are suspect. Now America sees what happens when our two faces clash: the world rises up as the US taught against the those the US made, and when these peoples become free they say, “No more of you. We thank you for any good you have done us but we also remember your crimes against us. We no longer need you. We don’t want to become you. No more of you. Go away.”

Whatever example we have set is marred, now.

It is time for us, we the people of the United States, to pause. I think it is time for our country to withdraw. I think it is time for us to reflect and consider what we have been. Call home our soldiers, teach them to do more than control or kill. Dismantle our nukes, scrap our ships, ground our planes. Rein in our banks and conglomerates, check our urge for markets and wealth. Time to stop playing god. Time to diminish, and remain ourselves. Regain our goodness by relinquishing our power. Recover our blessings by renouncing our curse.

We have been a fire on the mountain, we have been both a beacon to steer by and a conflagration to flee from. We enlighten the world — and burn it. Let us instead become a candle, one candle among many, and see which way gives a greater light.


Neoliberal Sustainability

We all know the times we live in: global recession, everyone feeling the pinch, austerity measures necessary, etc. In terms of unemployment, the indicator most of us care most about, this is the longest and worst recession since World War II. So we all know the situation’s bad. Here in the US, state budgets are being keenly affected, as they rely on income or sales taxes, both of which have taken cuts — and many states have passed balanced-budget laws, meaning the old US Federal Government standby of borrowing their way out is unavailable. Life has grown grim.

Opinion is rather divided on how to respond, however.

The followers of John Maynard Keynes immediately demanded a stimulus package. Both President George W. Bush and President Obama tried this tactic, although Bush’s was just through tax rebates. Obama’s was somewhat more comprehensive, with tax cuts taken directly out of the paycheck withholdings to try and encourage immediate spending, reinforced by government funding for a variety of projects, particularly in construction (remember “shovel-ready”?). While some claim that the recession is now over, and while some signs on unemployment are encouraging, it’s clear we’re still deeply in the hole, and climbing out only slowly.

So the Keynsian tactics have run into trouble. Explanations abound as to why; but certain parties have their own theories on how to save the day. Speaker of the House John Boehner demanded that the pre-recession Bush tax cuts be made permanent for all Americans — i.e., that they be made permanent for the wealthiest Americans as well as everyone else, as it’s only in dispute for a fraction of the population. “[W]e must cut spending and stop all the looming tax hikes,” he writes. He didn’t get the cuts made permanent, but struck a deal with President Obama to extend them two years. Boehner’s principles seem to be both emblematic of the GOP’s platform and rather neoliberal: tax cuts for the wealthy, spending cuts and privitization, and laissez-faire economics policy from the government (the latter indicated by Boehner’s past resistance to bank reform legislation; more recently, Republicans serving on a panel on the financial crisis voted to expunge all instances of the words “Wall Street” and “deregulation” from their panel’s report. They don’t want their culpability uttered aloud.) Milton Friedman would be proud. Continue reading

The Hiatus, and other items

On Monday the 7th I woke up and decided to go on hiatus.

An internet hiatus, that is; I’ve been noticing that many of my afternoons and morning have been swallowed up by pointless link-clicking and page refreshes. I have tried to restrict my internet activity on a smaller scale: limiting my Facebook access during times of great emotional upheaval (bad or good), and paring down my list of frequently-visited websites. TV Tropes, the most diabolical time-sink of them all, was first to go. But I still found myself sucked into those sites that I still visited, wasting hours on idle, flicking through archives and re-reading pages I’d already seen before, just to pass time rather than using it.

So Monday I called a hiatus.

Now, the internet is too enmeshed in my life to simply not turn on my computer for a week (although I did manage two days). I teach two classes online, and so obviously I’d need to get on for them — and the majority of my communication, either business or pleasure, is via email. So I laid down some ground rules at breakfast that Monday. I allowed myself to check business email as often as needed, check my personal email once daily (if that), check my bank accounts, and obviously teach my class.

I also constructed a list of offline activities that I could do instead, including walks, workouts, and above all writing. I anticipated that finding myself at loose ends or bored would be the moments of greatest temptation, so having a list of acceptable alternatives laid out in advance, I figured, could help a lot.

On Monday I left my computer off entirely, instead passing the day with a little writing and a great deal of reading, finishing a lengthy and enjoyable book.

On Tuesday, I figured I’d better check my email. Opening it up, I remembered that a lot of what I might term “business” email goes to my more personal account, so my original distinctions really didn’t work. I also discovered that I had a conference call scheduled for just a few hours later, and that someone had emailed me about setting up a job interview two days before. Having gotten to both of these in time, I did a little writing, then got in a run, and then later a walk, since the run had been insufficiently sunny and the weather had improved since. I also checked my bank accounts and then ran down to deposit a check.

Wednesday I hit peak efficiency. I taught my first class, began to do my taxes online (deciding this was covered as “money stuff”), then wrote an immense amount by hand, quite possibly my most significant output in months.

Thursday my resistance wavered. While I held firm and didn’t visit my normal sites, I compromised and watched some TV episodes online. Since this could have been with a DVD or an actual television, this seemed a lesser violation, though a violation it remains.

Friday I taught my American Government class. Since it has a current events focus, I needed to catch up on the news. I fired up one of my mainstay news sites for the first time in a week, and discovered that Mubarak had stepped down as president of Egypt about five minutes before. This quickly dominated the rest of my day (and my class); I kept al-Jazeera’s live feed playing in the background quietly. For contrast I tried the CNN and Fox live streaming, but they never had sound; al-Jazeera, however, had every celebratory roar. I watched President Obama’s brief address in the afternoon, then called it a day and got my workout done.

Saturday I checked my email but nothing more; this was aided by being at work until 1pm and on the bus until 2:30, but also by friends playing boardgames into the evening. Sunday I checked my email again, spending no more than 30 seconds on it.

All in all, my rules required some flexibility, and my resolve was imperfect — especially when it came to the episodes. The overall experience, however, was an excellent one. A few important connections were nearly missed but weren’t, and in one moment of almost divinely fortuitous timing I managed to get the major news of the week practically as it happened, despite having been out of touch for days. Other news, however, never got to me — I realized as I ran errands on Tuesday that I had no idea who had won the Super Bowl, and didn’t find out until I read an actual newspaper on Sunday. (David Sirota’s column on the Super Bowl is worth reading, though. You can probably find it online.) The largest “mass culture” event in American society and it simply passed me by! It was an almost liberating feeling.

Instead of staring at a screen for hours, I read a good book and filled 44 handwritten pages in my notebook. Likely my best production ever.

Getting back online I find I actually regret reestablishing my connection to the modern world, although there are things to be done and online friends I haven’t talked to of late. I’m already looking forward to doing another hiatus next month, and contemplating a large-scale one, maybe for a full month, during the summer. Try it! Although I recommend brainstorming that “alternatives list” first, which helps with sticking to it.

The internet, as Egypt has lately proved, can be a powerful tool indeed. But when you stand away from it, you might get a refreshed perspective.



Since I’ve been away for a while, here’s a Weekly Query for you:

How do we use our time?
Does our use of time reflect our values?
What could you change about your time usage? What would you like to maintain?


Just as a heads-up, a few major pieces that I’ve been working on for a while are nearly ready to go, so stay tuned: big things coming.