Category Archives: Politics

Spiritual Warfare

Just now, I watched a youtube video linked from a front-page Reddit post entitled “Monster Energy drinks are the work of Satan.”  I expected it to be a video explaining the perils of diets comprised of synthetic preservatives and sugars, for instance, but the video actually featured an apparently midwestern white lady explaining the semiotics of the Monster energy drink branding and its mockery and disparagement of the Christian God.

I hopped down into the comments to feel the satisfaction of knowing I’m on the same side as the Internet’s peanut galleries, and I almost immediately came across a comment that sent triggers up my spine:

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Although I grew up in a reasonably churchy household–and although our church was both protestant and even included “Evangelical” in its title(!), I was only rarely exposed to fire and brimstone in my own churchgoing experience.  Indeed, the only memories I really have of hearing threats of hell and damnation from people in my church as a child were typically other kids trying to scare each other or adults trying to enforce discipline.  Apart from those sorts of incidents, the most off-putting teaching I can really remember learning from my own church was that dogs don’t go to heaven because they don’t have souls.  Frankly, I think the pastor was talking out of turn by being so presumptuous, but maybe he learned soul-detection in seminary and is just not at liberty to disclose practices and methods.  But I digress.

What I’m getting at here is that, while I grew up in a house where church and Sunday School attendance were both compulsory on a weekly basis, the point of church seemed to be about being part of a community rather than top-down moral authority.  In fact, I reflect on the church of my childhood as not even having a particularly in-group focus:  there was no special process for receiving communion for visitors, and I recall pretty much every event having some focus on expanding and developing the community.  Obviously, this agenda isn’t all smiles and rainbows, as it’s precisely what fuels missionary work, but it’s important to thoroughly contextualize my own religious upbringing; when I was a boy, prior to the death of my father, I sincerely wanted to be a good Christian.  I can remember reading Proverbs in bed one Saturday night, yearning to be more insightful and/or righteous and/or decent and/or whatever else I was supposed to derive from solemnly poring over so-called ancient wisdom.  I did this, not to escape any pain or to find salvation so much as because I’d been raised to admire and respect my elders, who appeared to understand life and who showed up weekly to …sing about it and drink coffee, I guess.

All this brings us to 1992.

And actually, I bet that Saturday night I spent reading Proverbs was also 1992…  Maybe that was around the time that I had discovered I really liked NWA.  My Muslim friend had made me a tape of I-forget-what, but Side B of this tape contained about half of Niggaz4Life, which quickly became a favorite lawn-mowing cassette of mine.  And if I can guess about my mental state at the time, I probably felt conflicted about liking such vulgar music (don’t matter just don’t bite it) while also feeling a commitment to Jesus, his teachings, and the general level of decorum and respectability I saw in the church community–these were people putting on their Sunday best and getting together to pay homage to their creator and to sing and laugh and dote on their associates’ babies; it was a million miles–no, a hundred miles and runnin’–away from the world NWA described.

NWA, of course, wasn’t the first rap group I’d heard or liked.  I think maybe I started getting steered towards rap in summer camp between 3rd and 4th grade, when I first heard Milli Vanilli.  Sigh.  My first “real” rap tape, though, came around Christmastime in 1989; my dad took my brother and me to the music/bookstore, and I picked up a calligraphy book and Young MC’s “Stone Cold Rhymin'” album.  It was great.  Then, in the spring of fourth grade, I was elated to pick up a copy of MC Hammer’s “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Em.”  These two tapes quickly became my long-distance running soundtracks, as I trained to set the record for most laps completed annually in my local elementary school’s once-every-other-week running program.  Oh shit, I’m getting way off-course.

So Summer 1992.  Here we are:  it’s the summer before I start junior high, which entails all kinds of social changes both in school and in church.  First of all, the junior high has “socials,” which are school dances outside of school hours.  Secondly, many church youth groups begin the process of “confirmation” around the same age (and, at my childhood church at least, also had after-hours dances).  In preparation for all this, I would be going away for a week to a Lutheran camp with the rest of my church youth group.  In addition to this, because I had a good friend who was Episcopalian and who spoke highly of his own church camp, I would first be going away for a week with his church youth group.  For me, this was (I think) the first week away from home since 1989, when I spent a week at Spanish camp, and I was pretty excited about it.

When my friend and I finally got unloaded at his camp, I was feeling enthusiastic but also felt a little stressed at first, since I didn’t know all of the prayers and songs that his people knew by heart; I remember reading from the song book while most everyone else expressively sang along to these songs they already knew.  Still, the camp experience was fun, and I would even go so far as to say it seemed a little more adult than my own church youth group and camp experiences.  For instance, they watched Jaws as a group, whereas at my church camps, pop culture seemed to be eschewed.  Also, I remember our camp counselor at my friend’s camp leading us to a girls’ cabin for us to serenade them, though he rejected “You’ve lost that loving feeling” in favor of something more benign and circumstance-appropriate.  Maybe this is just a bias of my perspective, but my feeling at the time and in recollection was that my friend’s church camp treated us early adolescents more as adults or at least beings of flesh and desire.  I found this conflicting at the time, because I simultaneously felt his church culture seemed to involve many more formalities than the one to which I was accustomed.

Once again, I’m just trying to establish context, because where his church’s camp diverged from my own religious experience, that shit got real fast.

A few nights into my experience at his camp, I first heard the term, “Spiritual warfare.”  The preacher who was running the camp, who dubbed himself, “Father Dog”–and who generally seemed like a fun guy, explained that at every moment of every day, God and Satan were fighting for our souls.  I remember feeling terrified by this (and also curious about how I might witness or experience this condition).  Father Dog had a right-hand man called Tim, if I recall correctly, and Tim was the life of the party–a very fun guy who would wear silly hats and sing in silly voices and generally loosen up the campers, making people feel comfortable away from home.  Mostly.  There was a Muslim kid at the camp who had come with a friend, and I remember Tim giving him the third degree, wondering aloud why he’d even come to the camp given that he was a nonbeliever.  I remember wondering if I’d attract similar treatment for being Lutheran rather than Episcopalian, but (SURPRISE!) it never became an issue.

The camp continued to be fun for the rest of the week, but I remember a sense of momentum leading towards something.  On one of the later days of camp, we played a massive game of capture the flag on the sprawling camp grounds, which was great, but I remember finding it odd that some of the camp counselors had donned army face paint in order to blend in with the dark.  On another afternoon (maybe the same afternoon?), we had a massive shaving cream fight called “Bedlam,” a term I had to look up upon returning from camp.  The shaving cream and/or water balloon fight seems like a staple of church youth group activities, but I remember a greater sense of ritual than I’d ever experienced before.  Again, it felt like we were moving somewhere–towards something.

It must’ve been on the last night of camp that we were finally taken on the night hike.  They led us into the woods after dusk, and if I recall correctly, we were in groups holding on to ropes so that we could be led without seeing (poetry).  Early into our hike, one of the camp counselors who had been wearing army face paint during our game of capture the flag jumped out of a tree to startle us.  We continued forward into the woods.

During the last few days at camp, different people had been talking about rumors of “Pierre,” who ….did something with a chainsaw or something.  I forget the story, but I remember that gossip about “Pierre” had just emerged out of nowhere and suddenly had the talk of the campers, who were very interested in the details of his story and whether or not his ghost still lived in a cabin in the woods at the camp.

We continued hiking into the woods, and as we came upon a rotten, flimsy cabin in the woods, Tim and Father Dog were there.  Tim first told us the story of old Pierre and whatever he did with the chainsaw or axe or whatever and whatever happened with his ghost.  The story may or may not have ended with him or someone else making scary noises; I don’t recall.

Then it was Father Dog’s turn.

Father Dog proceeded to tell us the story of how he got his moniker.  You see, Father Dog had been traveling with his family when he was a young boy, when they encountered a bad storm while in an airplane.  If I recall correctly, it was a snow storm of some kind, and he wound up being tossed from the plane when a door opened mid-flight.  He fell to the ground, survived, and was cared for by a pack of wolves until authorities were able to find him several/many days later.

Even as I type this out, twenty-two years later, I can’t quite bring myself to call the story fake.  After all, within 13 months of hearing that story, I was in a plane crash, myself, and I freed myself from the wreckage to go find help; strange and unexpected things do happen, no doubt about it.  However, as I recall the totality of that camp experience — as I recall hearing this shit about spiritual warfare, it’s hard for me to accept this story on its face, simply because it appears to have been part of a regime for scaring people into faith (irony alert).  From the easygoing check-in through the late night ghost / survival stories, the camp experience seems to have fit a narrative of escalation–specifically an escalation of intensity and anxiety.  Much like the woman fearing the devil in Monster energy drink tries to do, these camp clerics seemed to manipulate us juvenile campers with their conviction and interpretations.

And so, after decades of contemplation, the best sense I’ve been able to make of anything is that when people roll up and start telling you how it is in your soul and how invisible symbols mean something sinister and this sort of thing–when people try to diminish your spirit with their wide-eyed warnings and judgments… *That* is spiritual warfare.

In Substitution of Wisdom

I recently heard about a man studying The History of Ideas. I’m not sure I’d ever heard of this field of study before, and it struck me as both novel and obvious; of course the nature of ideation ..nope, not a word.. anyway, it seems obvious that the manner in which humans form abstract thoughts and all the associated whats and whys are worth cataloging as a matter of human history. Maybe. Honestly, sometimes it feels good to just throw away the old stuff, but based on my experience with humankind, I’m unconvinced we’re at a level where we can risk discarding knowledge; we still need to get a handle on what we have so far and to find better ways to help people understand that.

When I went back to college to add a second major to my degree (did not finish), I remember seeing on my instructor’s office door some excerpt from some book. I always remember it as either “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” or “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” because whichever was the case, I hadn’t read either book at the time and wouldn’t have been able to distinguish between the two based on writing style. Knowing what I know now, I want to say it was Kundera, but in any case, the excerpt entailed the narrator lamenting the pages and pages of knowledge and expression and pedagogy piling up; he observed that words will be written and go unread. Well, I can’t remember any of the phrasing, but the idea really stuck with me.

As a youngun, I was taken by the world of artistic [and otherwise] expression, and I always saw myself seeking to offer some contribution of my own. Growing up with the emergence of the consumer Internet [and significant, continued dispossession of the American working classes], however, Kundera’s (or Eggers’?) description of the world with the essays piling up seems tame compared to the media culture in which we currently exist circa 2014. In fact, just as I type that, I look down and see a CD of music that features the music of the father of a chiropractor who gave me the disc. As it’s on CD and as I do not own a CD player, I’ve never actually listened to it, but this is how empowered expression is as a result of the culture that has been fostered by the Internet and, more specifically, digital media. And so, now an adult–and having lived through a variety of life experiences in order to get here, the allure and intrigue of self-expression and artistic creation have worn out, and where I once saw clever independent producers, I now see hucksters. Sadly, many of my musical role models are still touring, doubtlessly selling tickets to the same audience as twenty years ago; maybe we’d have a little room to breathe in the marketplace of ideas if some of these has-beens could find it in their hearts to take five.

But before I cross fully into Haterville, let me posit that it’s not The Offspring and Wyclef Jean who are responsible for all of today’s ills. No, I believe this malaise I feel is specifically related to the disenfranchisement of the middle classes I alluded to in a previous paragraph. Here’s the deal: the difference between this blog post and a blog post that makes a blog writer thousands of dollars has nothing to do with the quality of the content in any socially useful terms. The economy of ideas has been sold to privileged young people in privileged western societies as some nebulous panacea that will account for peoples’ and society’s needs so long as they’re articulated in a way that can offer investors and public fund managers a problem to solve, typically by providing financial support to people who have little or nothing to do with the problem in question. If you want to do something in America today, you present your company/product/self as the solution to a problem. In these terms, everyone can agree to synergy.

On the other hand, if you want to do something that is not identifiable as a problem–or if you want to solve a problem that doesn’t have an adequately-monied audience/market–good luck, pal. This game of life is about getting paid and getting ahead. Ahead of what is unclear but always forward, forward and towards some kind of ersatz consensus that was handed down from above and presented as a shared group goal. You can forget about political reform, too; authoritarianism and greed are both siblings and cousins. Plus, responsibility takes effort, and effort is harder than no effort.

And that’s how I know I’m not contributing anything except more pages to the unread pages of history–because this easy and takes very little effort. Indeed, I ate two tacos while writing this; leisure at its finest.

Once upon a time, I wanted children

Naw, not really.  I’m a dude — a dude who experienced the traumatic loss of a parent as an early adolescent; I have to go through various transformative experiences before I’m ready to have children–ideally positive ones to undo the damage ^_^.  But still, I have traditionally cared a lot about justice in the world and have strongly valued the importance of civil society and an informed electorate and honor among men and all this, and I feel like the implicit reason for it has been to pass down a better world than the one into which I was born.  Nowadays, however, after years of being bombarded with stories about the horrors of the world and all the unfairness and all the tragedy, I just feel like it’s hard to imagine wanting a child, to sacrifice my progeny to a world built on servicing global capitalism, to struggle as a serf to the powers that be of the future.

Which reminds me.  I forget if I mentioned it here, but I have suggested in real life–meatspace–that maybe society is so fucked up because all our stories about society being fucked up are all we know, so we act out what we recognize.  Because, just to be devil’s advocate, let’s say Edward Snowden never came forward and we never got to know that all the most heinous conspiracies about NSA spying were just the tip of the iceberg; let’s say the NSA was like totally infallible and managed to escape public disclosure of its most secret tactics forever.  In that scenario, where people who believed William Binney and Thomas Drake were just gullible conspiracy theorists, one could reasonable argue that civil society and individual liberty weren’t really at risk because oppression simply isn’t happening.  It would still be happening, but because you didn’t have specific details as a result of disclosure, you could reasonably argue that it’s not.  And in that scenario, it’s reasonable to consider dystopian sci-fi as escapist fiction and cautionary tales.  You could indeed argue, on account of the absence of Snowden-type disclosures, that “things are getting better” and “governments are getting better” and other such statements that only advertise one’s acquiescence or allegiance to the dysfunction as it exists.

Alas, this is not that world.  This is the world in which Edward Snowden did publicly disclose, via the ostensibly-free press, details of government and commercial snooping that reveals straight-up depravity.  To borrow a line of reasoning from Snowden that made a lot of sense:  (and to paraphrase)  As a strategic matter, why would we risk the long-term trust of more or less the world population rather than build better defensive tools and capabilities?  And, if I can add my own point on to this, why not educate the population to be more savvy, rather than use citizens’ personal computers as bots and for panoptical purposes?  Given its practices, the so-called “Five Eyes” have presumably amassed one of the largest collections on the planet of non-consensual pornography–and that’s without even addressing what percentage of Yahoo chatters were of legal age when US and UK governments were snagging their pics.

I have a new theory–so actually I hadn’t thought of it before, but this is actually a second part to another theory I have.  OK, theory #1 I came up with a while back, but it basically is that the majority of the heavy lifting of the economy is done by people under 26.  Personally, I think the sweet spot is 23.  When I was 23, I would do annnnyyyyttthhinnngg just to demonstrate value so that I could get _a_ job.  By the time I was 26, I was savvy and comfortable enough to treat myself with a modicum of self-respect and not just comport myself to external expectations.  Also, let’s keep it real, I had been beaten into ….no, that’s too harsh…. I had seen the options available to me, and I sought to find a path that fit for me in my life, recognizing that I can never be and would never want to be all things to all people.  In any case, I was at least stable enough to start to specialize further, which made me “lazier” because I was delivering more value on account of more specialized knowledge.  Of course, I wasn’t less productive in strict terms; indeed, I can accomplish much more today at 34 than I could on any given …month… when I was 24, but if you need a bunch of people to accomplish tasks?  If you have very clear processes and instructions, and you’ve segmented out work to scale horizontally, like political canvassers do, young people are a great demographic for laboring.  And it extends to all industries:  young construction workers, young art curators, young PR coordinators, young securities analysts–it’s all about exploiting people who don’t really have a clue and sort of putting them into a position to buy into something without considering it, while instilling in them the rationalizations and defenses necessary to do what they have chosen to do.

Now, this new theory, theory #2, might seem a little counterintuitive given theory #1, but hear me out.  Theory #2 is this:  if you were to take the average entry-level government intelligence employee and have him/her write policy and set usage guidelines and priorities, I would bet the farm that it would be a million times more sane than what we’re looking at in all these news stories from the Snowden disclosures.  Of course this is a totally half-baked and unsubstantiated theory, but the basic idea is that if you take someone who hasn’t been corrupted by the power and the culture of transgression, you would get better policies because you wouldn’t base the policies on justifying and legitimizing abuse.

Anyway, it’s just super-disappointing because I took all that history and American values shit really seriously; don’t get me wrong, I never made it to Webelos, but I always took pretty seriously the idea that rule of law was important and that America prioritized this shit, which I sincerely appreciated.  Then, as I grew up, I learned more about life and, especially since the war in Iraq, have seen my country separate into the haves and the have-notes, with the haves often benefiting at the expense of the have-nots, often deceiving the have-nots, often creating instruments of oppression to control and harass the have-nots.  Nowadays, a new demographic emerges:  the technologist.  Although these people, like other minorities, come in all shapes and sizes and persuasions, they’re being stereotypically defined–and sometimes stereotypically defining themselves–as privileged libertarians, buffered from the harsh realities of living in a society that doesn’t care about workers.  Many technologists, of course, are workers, but given that many have the skills to automate people out of jobs, for instance, they also can’t typically be bothered with poor people shit unless they can give it an upvote and move on.  And so they build the software that gets backdoored because they don’t really want to stand up to the government because they don’t have an army; they have a bunch of 23- to 26-year old geeks building tools of oppression because Fuck the kids back home who bullied us when we were growing up, that’s what’s up.  Nevermind that the kids that bullied you are now the police.

Anyway, yeah, I’ve always thought about life in terms of like “I should be an honest and/or responsible person because civil society isn’t an accident,” with the assumption being that I would have children at some point.  And I think even in my 20s, I thought, “Well, things sure are fucked up now, but maybe in like 10 years, things will seem better.”  Ok, I feel like I’m making that up, but I wanted to be able to make the point that now we’re 10 years later, and ….I see no flying cars.  And so, the horror that first occurred to me around age 24 or 25, that unless you have enough money to where your children won’t need to work, you’re basically conscripting your children to labor by having children.  I regret that I wasn’t born to a large estate–ok, that’s also just a literary device; don’t get me wrong, I think I would have been a fantastic heir, but I also appreciate my own experience and obviously can’t make that kind of trade blah blah blah.  Point is, it’s just a baby, man; you’re gonna have a baby knowing that it’s gonna have to grow up and be spied on by authorized creepers and have to go work for some exploitative company and gonna have to compromise principles or not get ahead?  I have trouble with that at this point in my life.