Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Obama's War Doctrine Or "ISIS Is The New Black"

President Obama’s demeanor was calm, cool, and calculated as he walked up to the podium with an air of authority and assurity on September 10th. However, as he began to speak his skin began to whiten, his voice became more privileged, and he started to sound more like a Texas Oilman than a community organizer from Chicago. His tone was eerily reminiscent of those who’d gone before him: Bush 1, Clinton, and W (pronounced “dub-ya”). We all knew what he was going to say, that the US military was going to war with “ISIL” (or “ISIS” or the “Islamic State” or whatever the hell they call themselves these days), but what we didn’t know was the extent to which the “greatest military in the history of the world” would engage.

First off, I am sure everyone and their mother noticed that President Obama did not say that “we are going to war.” Why? Because according to his tone and rhetoric we are going to do something substantially less. We are only participating in “targeted air strikes” and a “sustained counter terrorism strategy… like we have been doing in Yemen and Somalia for years.” I had to stop.

“Wait, what? Did he really just hold up Yemen and Somalia as shining examples of the New American War?” (More on this later)

President Obama is a very deft politician and knows how to sell a red plan and make it look blue. He was not so foolish as to attempt to tell the American people that he was putting “boots on the ground” in Iraq again, but he did very slyly change the way that Presidents sell war policy in the public eye. No longer do we live in the era of “speak softly and carry a big stick.” We are now living in the Age of the Obama’s Doctrine: Modern Warfare.
If I may, I would like to outline this new X-Box-like destruction philosophy to examine each of its components for their import on global stability.

The 21st Century War Machine

Both Bush Presidents and Clinton have all gone on national TV to announce aerial campaigns in the Middle East, but none of their strategies contained the air power now available to the US military. In his speech President Obama reassured Americans that he would not put Americans in harms way in this campaign because the military would employ strategies similar to those “in Yemen and Somalia that we have been doing for years.” He glossed over those two campaigns but let’s evaluate them a little, shall we? What has happened in Somalia and Yemen in the past few years that they should be held up as shining examples of New American Warfare? Well, first off they have been conducted via drone.


Though fighter jets are still researched, produced, and used, our military has not had to put “boots on the ground” in Yemen and Somalia because they have been able to put robots in the sky. While the Politicians would have you believe that these robot-led campaigns are quick, precise, and surgical, they hide the fact that they are illegal, imprecise, and messy. Civilian casualties are not rare in these operations. As a matter of fact, they are so frequent that they have their own designation: collateral damage. Even an American citizen, Anwar Al-Awlaki, was killed on foreign soil without the benefit of a trial, which is guaranteed in the US Constitution. Furthermore, Congress, those who are supposed to represent you, have no say in these policies. The Patriot Act gave explicit powers for the President to hunt down Al-Qaeda after 9/11 but those (ill advised) privileges have evolved into an accountability-free pass for the President to kill whomever he/she deems a threat.
All that to say that President Obama’s tone seemed to indicate that these “targeted air strikes” were less than significant. “It’s no big deal. At least we’re not sending in the infantry. So, trust me,” he seemed to be implying. No, we do not trust you, Mr. President, because yours and W’s Death-By-Terminator strategy is just as brutal as your ground game. Maybe even more so because they cause you to dismiss the deaths of innocents as an acceptable side effect, no matter how numerous they are.


Secondly, Mr. Obama claimed that he was going to (ironically) increase ground support. (I don’t want to gloss over the fact that sending in troops, no matter their role, is technically putting “boots on the ground,” but for the sake of brevity I am going to have to let it be.) Mr. Obama lauded his efforts so far in the current crISIS by claiming that the couple of hundred strategy staff that he sent to Iraq so far had already given them and the Iraqi and Kurdish armies a significant strategic advantage. Now he is going to send 475 more to train “moderate Syrian rebel forces” in the ways of Modern Warfare. Where are they going to do this? Saudi Arabia, a country with ties to “state-funded terrorism”. And who are they training? Some of the same moderate Syrian rebels that have now (as I am sure some will in the future) allied themselves with ISIS. (By the way, in case you have forgotten Osama Bin Laden’s original reason for declaring jihad on the US was due to the presence of US military personnel in the Holy Land a.k.a Saudi Arabia.) It is not even eerie how similar this situation is to the past CIA training of the Mujahadeen, Taliban, and Al-Qaeda; it is history repeating itself.


Thirdly, Mr. Obama mentioned that he would employ a “sustained counter-terrorism strategy”. What does this actually mean? In actuality your guess is as good as mine. The White House released a statement that basically reduced this broad definition to include i) cutting off funds to ii) strengthening allied defenses to iii) stemming the flow of fighters to and from the battlefield internationally. What they did not say is the other components that they will most definitely be using including, but not limited to, their spying apparatus in the NSA, their CIA assets in the regions, and their aforementioned drone capabilities.


Lastly, the President pointed out that the campaign against ISIS would have humanitarian goals. What? Really, what? I applaud the effort of any government who would open its borders to a flood of refugees or would use its wealth to provide for those seeking refuge from violence, but a supply drop every now and then to remote areas does not whitewash the civilian casualties that will inevitably result from this so-called “sustained counter-terrorism strategy”. In other words, the few you save with MRIs do not justify the thousands you kill with drone missiles.

World War Always

A few days after President Obama’s address Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to the Middle East to try to drum up support from “regional allies.” Why? Because otherwise the campaign would look very Crusade-y. The President referenced a collation of friendly nations who would ally themselves (without naming any names), but he knew he needed Arab nations to participate as well. Otherwise the coalition would look a little too pasty in the faces of soldiers from France, Poland, Italy, Denmark, Canada, and Australia walking around Arrakis. Britain, America’s closest ally, along with Germany, decided that they would not participate. Iran also decided to join the party. (Wrap your head around that for a minute: Iran and the US are allies in this campaign). Mr. Kerry’s attempt to gain the cooperation of more Arab states is simply a legitimization tactic aimed at not making this an East vs. West conflict. He succeeded in part by gaining the support of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq (not Turkey), but they did not specify the extent of their commitment. (UPDATE: Since writing this piece Mr. Kerry also has succeeded in drumming up the support of some 40 or so countries in a Monday [9/15] meeting in Paris, some of which have committed to support roles and others [Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. included] to active engagement such as air strikes.)

Every war is world war three these days. The Internet has made it possible to share information, and consequently emotional reactions to information, at the speed of light. Therefore, a Nigerian problem becomes an American problem; an Egyptian problem becomes an Israeli problem; and a Russian problem becomes a French problem all at the same time. Not all of these consequences are bad, but they do define a new world order that has not been set in stone by the willing engagement and sanction of the People of Earth. What used to happen in wartime situations is that country X would encounter problem Y and then seek solution Z, possibly with the help of allies A, B, and C. Now, information travels so fast that both traditional allies and enemies receive the same information about what happens to country X as fast as country X itself. Therefore, the whole world is instantly demanded to take sides. In a world where one to three countries have all the gold, and therefore make all the rules, this is a very dangerous situation. Because country X’s problems become the world’s problems.

The problem is that country X in our situation, the US, is not the moral leader of the world it fancies itself to be. In fact, it is the polar opposite. The US military is the part, parcel, and cause, directly and indirectly, of a lot of the suffering that goes on in the world today. Hell, the guns, tanks, and mortars that ISIS is using have “Property of the US Government” written on the side of them. Therefore, what role does the US military have in setting the world to rights when it is their presence and toys that have destabilized the world in the first place?

“BREAKING NEWS: Such and such happened. What is the US response? Stay tuned to fine out.” (God, I hate the fucking sensationalist say-anything-to-turn-a-profit-on-advertising mass media.)

I think Mr. Obama’s approach is a bit wiser than his predecessors, but it still reeks of imperialism. In his address he spoke of America’s “responsibility to lead”. Where did this responsibility come from? Did the world hold a referendum that I didn’t know about where they voted the US as their sovereign? No, but that doesn’t stop our government from basing their emotional reaction to world events as a personal attack on their credibility as the world “peace keepers”. In reality, the United States has wrought more destruction upon the world than any people group in history, but the modern communication systems have made sharing information so fast and easy that every world problem becomes a US problem in real-time.

President Obama’s speech to the nation was clear: the US military will not put infantry on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Instead it will simply use its arsenal of space age fighter jets and drones to blow shit up; send “military advisors” to continue to convince these Eastern peoples that thinking like a US trained soldier is the way to peace and prosperity (by the way, what do you want to bet these some of those “advisors” are actually “Call Of Duty”-esque Special Ops soldiers with covert missions?); maintain a “sustained counter-terrorism strategy”, which is code for using a lot of high-tech gear that will most likely result in scores of civilian causalities; and provide humanitarian aid. I cannot even buy into that last one enough to be snarky about it.

What he was not clear about is that the US and the world have moved into a new realm of international conflict. Countries don’t fight countries anymore. Now, you either get with the Business-Civilization Program of development (BCP) for the Earth or you go on a terrorist watch list and are subject to the full wrath and power of the US military. President Obama said it himself, “if you threaten America you will find no safe haven.” The scary part is that I am threatening America just by disagreeing with the BCP by writing this post. Am I now a terrorist? Do I now have no safe haven? There was a time when such questions were laughable. These days, not such much.

In an era where Presidents can kill even citizens with impunity and robots and the Police stand as a ready military against any voice of dissent, no one is safe. Sure, today the target is ISIL. Tomorrow, who knows? What is for certain is that wars are no longer fought eye to eye on battlefields. From September 10th, 2014 until the American military machine is dismantled, wars will be a matter of westernized business-nations allying and mobilizing almost instantly against any person or group that threatens the stability of the New World Order. It’s not dystopian fiction anymore, people. We are living it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Empathy and Solidarity: What I Learned From Doctor Who

Picture with me a battle scene on a planet light generations away. Explosions rock the ground beneath your feet as you stumble around trying to find your comrades while the smoke burns your eyes out. Tears tear from your eyes like melting plastic. Imagine the hatred you would feel if you saw your kin being slaughtered by stray bullets and mortars. Imagine you are immersed in the battle, storming the beaches of the great devil. All of this in the name of obtaining a paradise. 

As you are running through the smoke screen fog you hear someone yell out in a foreign accent. "Don't shoot! I have it. I have what you are looking for." It's not much, that sphere-like thing that you and your comrades died and were maimed to procure. It's being held by a strange man in a suit. However, you don't have too much time to think about him because opposite you on the other side of the clearing, running to the same sounds in the same battle but from the other side, is a battalion of your enemies with firearms locked, loaded, itching for revenge, and pointed in your direction.

The scene tenses instantly as it reaches its breaking point.

Then you hear the voice of the man with the orb. Unlike the scowling ash sooted and graven faces of your enemies this man looks clean, smart, and a little nerdy. He doesn't seem quite as tense. As a matter of fact, the sight of his quirky form kind of relieved the tension… slightly. He is holding the orb high and confirming everyone's suspicions. Yes, he indeed does possess that mostly holy grail of objects. 

Legends had been told from the east to west about the great orb that could bring you and your people out of the darkness of this perennial war. You and your friends had traveled thousands of miles and left families and homes in search of this sphere so that the world could finally be put to rights and your people could have their revenge over their bitter rivals. 

Little did you know, the people in the uniforms opposite you in the battlefield clearing have a similar legend about a great object of war that would bring the war to an end and destroy the heathens across the world. They had come to this very spot in search of that holy relic.

Currently, however this squirrely man was holding it high in the air carelessly as if he were the angel of death come to rob you of your hope. Both armies trained their guns on him in the time it took him to lift it. 

"Good, now you're getting it."

Surprisingly, the stranger knew our language. He explained that he was some sort of field medic who had crash landed here in a time machine (!) You had never heard such non-sense, but he seemed to know things. He knew that your great ancestors sought a holy weapon to put an end to this war and bring peace to Battlefield Earth. He also knew that you were continuously thwarted by clans from the other side of the world who had come to destroy your homes. Then he told another story to the unclean soldiers and they seemed too to be similarly surprised at his knowledge of their culture. 

He said he knew what we sought-- the end of the war. As if awakening from a daze every soldier on the field remembered where they were and who they were there with and raised their guns at each other in unison. At which point, the squirrely little man, to the sound of a communal gasp of surprise 100 strong, dropped the orb to a cry…

"Look, it will end the war."

As everyone on the field fought back the urge to fire they looked and saw a blue light escape the orb like wisps of smoke to permeate the air like incense on an altar. As the light touched the singed leaves of countless plants they slowly turned green, stood upright, and reached for the sun instinctively like a newborn babe at its mother's breast. Then smoke began to change colors into the most purest of white before collapsing as water to soak the parched ground to give it a nutricious color. The sky began to turn from yellow, red, black, and gray to the cleanest and most pristine of baby blues. The moisture unfurled on the canvas of the sky and collapsed in your tear ducts. Joyous rain fell from your eyes to water the new ground. 

"It's an Eden terraform module", the suited man, now looking calm and regal, quietly whispered over the prairie "It wasn't a weapon you both had been looking for your entire lives and your parent's lives and your grandparent's lives. It was a terraform. When activated it sends carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen in the air to purify it. Really, it's clean. Take your helmets off. Give us a smell." 

You take your helmet off and breath in the first non-recycled air on your planet in 200 years. You start to weep along with a solider on the opposite side. You put your gun down, walk over, and embrace him. In that moment the sun shown on the good and the evil… which turned out to only be a matter of perspective. 

The Doctor, he said his name was "the Doctor", later told us, as we removed our uniforms and began to lie down in the grass to rub our naked skin in it, that our two peoples had originally been one of distant cousins before being put at odds by a traitorous General centuries ago who tried to withhold the orb from the people. He owned a gun store and business was bad. He traversed long terrain to sow deceit among the tribes about each others desire to wipe the other out and of a holy weapon that could destroy them all. He died as Governor of the planet and they had been fighting ever since.

In reality, the orb was a gift from time traveling strangers who left a note. It said:

This is a rough one. You and I both know it's against the rules, but just this once. 

Allons-y, D

This brief little story is a generalized synopsis of a Doctor Who episode I saw a few years ago. It wasn't until I watched the newest episode that I realized that I had learned a great life lesson from the Doctor: empathy and perspective. 

Each person in this story is seeing the world from a certain perspective. Each figure is enacting their own story, some of which has been told to them and some of which has been established by personal experience. Each person is also interacting with another perspective. Each army (let's call them X and Y) has been told an overarching story in which they are the valiant heroes who are being oppressed by the evil fiend from elsewhere. (It's strange that they never interact with each other other than the battlefield, but no one had ever had time or reason to question their motives.) They simply received their marching orders, warred, and died like their ancestors before them. 

Neither army knew that their stories were so similar because they had never been given the chance to talk. They always had guns pointed at each other and no one can talk or listen honestly when they fear for their lives. However, this particular time there was a third perspective: a traveler's. 

This traveler did not have the emotional attachment (baggage) of either group. He wasn't from their world. So, when he inquired of each people for their histories he realized that they were essentially telling him the same story from both sides of the line. The traveler also can read with clear eyes. In the legends of the armies they spoke of the prophet (the gun store owner) who identified who they were, who the enemy was, and how they should live. They didn't speak of a man who had a good deal of stock tied up in a guns business who needed to sow descent to build his empire. Only an outsider could put that story together. 

But the Doctor did not chide them for their ignorance or belittle them for their tragic history. He simply brought the truth into the light and watched it literally change the world around them. What started as a holy conquest of right and wrong from two perspectives grew into a peaceful cooperative effort to rebuild a world torn down by hatred. It took seeing the world through a stranger's eyes to see that the opposing sides were actually working toward the same goal, but they had been deceived by someone seeking their own enrichment at the cost of generations, as to how to get there. 

I learned what solidarity means from the Doctor. Solidarity is not support for another's cause. It is the ability to see with another's eyes and empathize with their story. Very few people are malicious for maliciousness' sake. They are most often acting a part within a story that was handed down to them by generations. In some cases leading actors in cultural stories tend toward hatred and bigotry instead of empathy and understanding. Solidarity is recognizing that life is difficult and it is difficult to survive on this planet, but we are all in it together. 

This law does not originate with humans and neither does it find its fulfillment. Empathy and solidarity do not limit themselves to an ideology, makeup, or even species. True empathy is recognizing that everyone and everything is enacting the story of the universe. Untold and countless unique causes has brought everything to the point in time which we occupy. Enlightenment comes when the human (and I only designate human for now because other species don't have the capacity to read the word yet) pulls back the veil of their ego and realizes that everything in the world and universe comprise a biosphere where everything is dependent on everything else for sustenance and meaning. 

Not only does this produce a profound sense of completeness, but it also unlocks the experience of (literal) universal joy. No longer is man the center of the universe for whom everything is made, but we are a part of a universal process… and that process is sacred. Recognizing this place in the universe open us up to empathize with all creatures because they are enacting the same story we are…just from different places with a different story and language. 

The Doctor, in being able to show armies X and Y their common history and ultimate goal, was the central cause of their disarming and commitment to peace. I wonder what it would take for humans to realize our place in the Universe. I wonder what it would take to convince generations of tribes of humans that they are not the center of the universe for whom everything was made, but an integral part of a cosmic drama whose only antecedent is meaning itself. If everything came from nothing then everything was born equally at the same time, composed of stardust just like everything else. 

Is this humility not the stuff that "truth" is made of? Because if a creature sees its environment and its fellow creatures as fragile fingerprints in the cosmic drama and can appreciate from experience that life is difficult…really difficult…then we can move to help each other--human, animal, and environment alike--because we know what its like to need help ourselves. Seeing the need for help in another person's eyes is the root of empathy; moving to help is the flower of solidarity. 

The Doctor put that bud in the lapel in my coat. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Philly Fast Food Workers Strike (A Report)

It was hot in Philadelphia on this Thursday afternoon (9/3/2014), the day of the second major nationwide fast food workers strike. The air was moist and the effort taxing, but the tough conditions did not stop workers, allied organizations, and supporters from shutting down a broad swath of center city traffic to draw attention their their demands: a citywide $15/hr. minimum wage and the right to form a union. 

The crowd of around 150 gathered at a McDonald's on North Broad Street, which if you are not familiar with Philadelphia urban geography stretches directly north from City Hall, to rally before marching south to another McDonald's location at the corner of 10th & Arch Sts. Many organizations showed up to stand in solidarity with fast food workers nationwide call to action including, but not limited to, SEIU Healthcare PA, CWA local 1300, the Green Party, Clergymen, and several Socialist groups including 15Now, Phight for 15, and the DSA. I even ran into a self-professed Republican proud to show his support. 

Several workers spoke out including Sonia*, a mother who works two jobs who decided to strike today. She came to this decision because she said that she cannot afford her rent and enough food for her family. Jesse, another striking worker, proclaimed that he decided to participate because he believes that a $15/hr. minimum wage and a union are "fair and just" demands." "This is serious business," he went on to say "because you can't tell the landlord that you don't have enough money."

Justin, a volunteer organizer with 15Now and President of CWA Local 13000, told me that he and his Local showed up because they believe that the growing movement of restaurant industry workers is "a fight for all workers." He continued, "Fifteen dollars an hour is the bare minimum to provide for a family. I'm here to help the workers organize their own power in an offensive against the bosses." 

While this brouhaha raged outside I decided to go in to the McDonald's to ask the workers still on duty what they thought. As I approached the counter I was asked by a tense looking gentleman if he could help me. I told him who I was, who I represented, and that I just wanted to ask if any of the workers had an opinion. I figured they did since they were gathered around the counter like they were watching history unfold on a wall sized screen. He directed me to the manager who told me that he didn't have an opinion. He further directed me to another man who turned out to be the designated liaison from a PR agency (Tierney) who was hired by McDonald's to keep the workers silent. He told me that the inside of the restaurant was private property and that I was not allowed to ask questions inside. He took my email and assured me that he would email a statement from McDonald's. The statement (printed below for your enjoyment [1]) attempted to redirect the conversation away from the justice of a raised minimum wage to the effect on the business owner. They even tried to blame Obamacare! 

Anyhoo, back to the action. 

As the peaceful march proceeded down Broad Street drums echoed off the buildings from a local youth drumline demanding that the protesters be heard. Directly in front of them a woman danced with her children in the street, proud to be representing their future. Chants also rang off of buildings and in the ears of passer-bys such as "We shall not be moved"; "The workers, united, will never be defeated"; "Can't survive on 7.25!"; and a call and response:

"What do we want?!" 
"15 and a Union!" 
"When do we want it?!"

Despite the large police presence the crowd remained peaceful. Upon arrival at the second McDonald's location another rally was set up that lasted around a half an hour. As it died down a local priest made a request for folks to sit down in the street. Traffic was blocked going west on Arch, which (again if you are not from Philadelphia) is a pretty busy intersection around noontime. Keeping the energy up was an older man with a guitar. He sang a few traditional labor movement songs including "This Little Light Of Mine", "We Shall Not Be Moved", and "Solidarity Forever". While these timeless anthems did not ring with the same potency of some performances (everyone was hot and tired by this point) they did provide a certain sense of historical continuity with movements past. Also providing a sense of continuum was the police response. While they were not violent they did end up arresting 11 people including striking workers, supporters, and even a local Union President.

I spoke to Officer Steve Glenn, the Captain of the Civil Affairs Unit, afterwards and he told me that the protestors were arrested for obstructing a highway, a summary offense which would result in immediate release with a citation, provided that they were carrying IDs, for complying with police action. What they didn't say was that they had posted a little more than a half dozen mounted police around the corner. "Well, that's a bit much," I thought.  

By the end of the action the crowd was less energetic because they had spent the better part of two hours chanting, marching, singing, dancing, drumming, and sitting down to take a stand for justice. As the protestors were taken away via police bus (!) the crowd dissipated to fight another day. The irony of this action is that just one block away a newly renovated Dilworth Plaza, one of the concrete parks surrounding City Hall, was being unveiled and celebrated with colorful balloons, drum circles, and shiny new program pamphlets. What's so ironic about that? Three years ago Dilworth Plaza was the camp site of Occupy Philly, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street--the Populist uprising that in some ways ignited the current fires of dialogue surrounding economic equality in the US, until it was dismantled to construct this new 1% playground that now occupies the space. While Mayor Michael Nutter was congratulating himself on a job well done (in his mind anyway) 11 protestors were being hauled off in a bus usually reserved for criminals. Why? Because, by their own admission, they can't make enough money to feed and clothe their families. What are Philadelphia's priorities? 

*Names have been changed to protect identities

[1] At McDonald’s we respect everyone’s rights to peacefully protest.  The topic of minimum wage goes well beyond McDonald’s- it affects our country’s entire workforce. McDonald’s and our independent franchisees support paying our valued employees fair wages aligned with a competitive marketplace. We believe that any minimum wage increase should be implemented over time so that the impact on owners of small and medium-sized businesses – like the ones who own and operate the majority of our restaurants – is manageable.  Additionally, we believe that any increase needs to be considered in a broad context, one that considers, for example, the impact of the Affordable Care Act and its definition of “full time” employment, as well as the treatment, from a tax perspective, of investments made by businesses owners.

It’s important to know approximately 90% of our U.S. restaurants are independently owned and operated by franchisees who set wages according to job level and local and federal laws. McDonald’s does not determine wages set by our more than 3,000 U.S. franchisees.  - McDonald's Corporation