Tag Archives: conspiracy theories

I’m Baaaaaaaaa-aaaaaaaaaaaack…

or: Trains = Hitler!!!

or: Driving is dumb. Seriously, driving is dumb.

A Friday or so ago, I found myself bellied up talking family, politics, and work woes with my old buddy Discomustachio. When our mutually lapsed blogs came up I said there comes a point when screaming into the abyss feels like pissing in the wind and we immediately knew how I would start my next post. I went on, “The catharsis that comes with thinking aloud in the nameless, faceless void of cyberspace begins to lose its appeal when time to do so becomes less and less and thoughts can’t be fully thought because for the first time in seven+ years you’re no longer on a job accessible via public transit…” – I went on some more – “…so instead of blogging you’re channeling your creative energy into reasoning why you shouldn’t punch yourself in the face which would clearly be more pleasurable than being stuck in traffic behind three buses on Western Ave because school just got out or being gridlocked on the Kennedy because, well, it’s the fucking Kennedy or driving 15.6 miles out of your way to get home in seventy minutes instead of seventy-five on a good day”. (I’m aware that makes for quite the run-on sentence, but like I said, we were bellied up and I’m embellishing a bit.)

But to be perfectly honest, I can’t blame my absence from the JobsiteLiberal solely on being stuck in traffic two-and-half to three hours a day (much that I would like to). At least some of my absence from blogging can be blamed on something entirely different but equally petty. Plain and simple, I didn’t want to be on record with all three of my regular readers saying something dumb in the wake of the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Sure that may seem contradictory to some – after all, what would a blog be that didn’t at least occasionally venture into the Realm of the Dumb? I guess I just felt there was a enough collective Dumb swirling around the social and “news” networks that I didn’t need to make my contribution to the pile. And what a steaming pile it was. But now that I’m back on a job accessible via public trans I’ve decided – at the risk of saying something dumb – that it’s time to fire up the JobsiteLiberal again – even if the only noticeable result is a urine soaked collection of denim.

So what to write about in my much anticipated return? One of the many scandal-less scandals* in the news lately?

Nah – I think Colbert‘s got that covered.

How about Boston now that I’ve had time to gather my thoughts?

Nope – not that either. Still feels like tragedy porn and I’m not yet recovered from the bombing’s ensuing barrage of Facebook idiocy or, for that matter, the it’s myriad conspiracy theories – Jesus Christ the fucking conspiracy theories. (On a related note, why oh why do so many people confuse conspiracy theorizing with critical thinking?)

Ok – so maybe the factory explosion on West, Texas from the same week? Seems ripe with potential extrapolations for a blog called JobsiteLiberal.

Maybe next post.

Alright, I think I’m onto something – how about, to mark my humble return to the glories of the CTA, public transportation? Seems safe enough. Boring, even, and definitely not a post that might cause a rift between friends. Sounds like a nice way to ease back in this assumed virtual identity. (After all, I don’t want to soak my jeans after just one post.)

Well that settles it – public trans it is.

Let me start by saying I love the CTA – buses and rail alike. Metra too. Pretty much any method of transit that allows me to focus on something other than getting somewhere for the entire time I’m getting there is fine by me. The Metro, the MARTA, the MTA, the CTA, the RTA, I love ’em all. The Orange Line to MDW, the Blue Line to ORD, the ‘A’ Train to JFK (now up and running again), the South Line to ATL – all good stuff. Anytime a blue collar worker such as myself can have the effective luxury of ‘a driver‘ or at bare minimum be relieved of the cost of parking or the hassle of finding a spot, I’m in.

“But wouldn’t you prefer to be on your own schedule?” you ask.

But aren’t I? It’s not our mode of transit that determines our schedules, it’s work and other obligations that determine our schedules.

“But… but… Freedom!” you insist.

Freedom indeed. I can’t imagine many behaviors more slavish (2nd definition) than subjecting myself to the unnecessary abuse of traffic jams and gas price volatility when with a little hustle and ingenuity I could be reading what I want (sci-fi as of late), browsing the web, reading the paper, digging into my RSS, zoning out entirely, or catching up on some much needed sleep all while getting where I need to go. Now what are my options when I’m driving? They’re pretty much limited to listening to the radio. But as long as I brought my walkman/discman/mp3 player/smartphone, I can do that on the train as well. What else can I do whilst driving? Punch myself in the face? Maybe. But again, I can do that on the train too though I can’t imagine I would feel the need with so many other options. And if that is my preferred extracurricular activity I’m pretty sure I could do it with that much more ferocity when I needn’t see the road before me.

Here’s my point – I’ve gone on ad nauseaum about the importance of institutions promoting the condition of freedom but let’s face it, freedom rooted in our collective institutions is slow to develop and quick to rigor. Freedom built into the space around us on the other hand is immediate and can act as a baseline for the more complicated and harder-to-quantify (try as some may) freedom that depends on a tenuous relationship of increasingly disparate institutions. And ya know, “Yay bikes!” and all that but our national infrastructure is a far cry from one that facilitates our individual agency and thus promotes freedom. Instead, a sprawling, poorly maintained highway system alongside a public transit system perpetually plagued by funding shortages limit too many of us to lead car-centric lives.

Now this may seem petty, especially with the “revelations” regarding our privacy last week. But if our concern is freedom, we shouldn’t restrain ourselves to the cyclopsian** view that the relationship between freedom and government action is a zero sum equation. We should also be asking ourselves what actions our government can take to promote freedom and individual agency. One answer that I can offer is a massive infrastructure project based in the expansion of public transportation. Stay with me here. It may feel like I’m about to go off of the proverbial tracks but, as always, I’m going somewhere – I promise.

The NBER working paper Subways, Strikes, and Slowdowns suggests that not only does public transit promote freedom by providing people with more ways of going hither and yon; it also promotes freedom by reducing the amount of time people without access to public transit spend getting themselves where the have to go. My man Paul Krugman sums up nicely: “[M]ass transit has a significant impact in reducing traffic congestion, even when it carries only a small fraction of commuters. Why? Because commuters who take mass transit are, very disproportionately, people who would otherwise be driving on the most congested routes. So even the small number of people taken off the roads has a surprisingly large effect in reducing travel delays.” In other words, when people choose public transit over private autos, not only are they free to do as they please on the train/bus/carriage but they de facto provide others with more time that they don’t have to be stuck in traffic on the fucking Kennedy in their godforsaken cars. Sounds like more freedom for all if you ask me.

Ezra Klein gets to a larger point about our national infrastructure in general which basically amounts to “Now! Now! Now!”. “Delaying either [infrastructure investment or reducing the deficit] means saddling the future with debts we declined to pay off in the present. But this is a particularly good time to invest in infrastructure and a particularly bad time to cut deep into the deficit”. Let me explain: it’s a good time to invest because, when you account for inflation, interest rates are so low that the U.S. government can borrow at negative interest rates – even with inflation as low as it has been and is projected to be. It’s a bad time to cut because the amount of money circulating through the economy is well below what it could be and taking any more out just slows things down further. So let’s borrow and spend the money now and put people back to work. As Klein also points out, “Putting them to work today would be a huge boon to the economy in a way it won’t be in, say, 10 years, when they’ll (hopefully) have work.” And let’s put ’em back to work on public transit projects where we’ll get the most bang for our buck – or freedom for our, er, finances? You get the point.

Anyway, that’s that. A little bolierplate liberal thinking on public transportation to get the wheels turnin’ again. Not as pointed as I like but at least my jeans are still mostly dry – so I got that goin’ for me. I’ll be back later this week or early next.

* I started this post before the big NSA data mining revelations last week so cut me some slack if I don’t seem to be freaking out over it. Though if you want to know where I stand, I’m probably with Andrew Sullivan who for the time being seems to have the least knee jerk reaction to the whole deal. #underwhelmed

** Cyclopsia – the tendency to apply the same intellectual framework to a variety of social and political phenomena. Individual cases yield the cognitive bias known as ‘illusory correlation’. It is contagious and is generally spread via Internet. These collective, more extreme cases which have become more common since the Iraq war are at the root of most conspiracy theories. Sufferers tend to make a point of confusing said conspiracy theories with critical thinking. More on this later.

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The Return of Discomustachio…

Occasionally I venture into areas of debate that are slightly out of my realm of expertise. This was certainly the case when I started drawing comparisons between the “Cold War” and the “War on Terror” in this post. (My BA after all is in religious studies, not US history.) Lucky for me, I had just the guy to turn to for help in fleshing out my thoughts: my old buddy Discomustachio. He used to host a blog with a political bent similar to JSL called “Whydontyourelax”. It was funny and always informative and able to deliver a harsh reality in a matter-of-fact and digestible manner. About a year or so ago, he and I were out bar-hopping our way through Bridgeport and I was schooled (in the most welcome way) on the manner by which political remnants of the cold war still play a role in international policy. So clearly, when I started thinking about parallels between the Cold War and the War on Terror, I knew I had the guy to talk to. But rather than talking it out and regurgitating his thoughts, I asked him to write a guest post for me.  So here it is:

The Return of Discomustachio…

The Jobsite Liberal asked me some time ago to address the question of how our rights as citizens and our government’s ability to infringe on those rights have differed from the Cold War to the modern era. Due to the endless distractions that life throws at you I never really had any time to really devote to this. And then at work one day I got a fresh cup of coffee, decided to take a break (from working), and decided to have a “one-off” with this topic. So here’s a 20 minute ramble on a word doc…

In comparing the relationship of US citizens to their government and how it compares to different periods of our history deemed “crucial” or “special” it’s important to remember that, historically, this current period is like any other time in our history. The rights that we are allowed by our government and their willingness to infringe on those rights may differ depending on the threat but they will always try to balance the need to protect the nation with staying in keeping with the moral foundation of our nation’s commitment to liberty and justice. But ensuring the continuation of the system is always the mission – even if it means a certain percentage of citizens are rightfully or wrongfully denied their rights. Publicly the government may drone on about individual liberty and the rights of citizens. But in the end, as Dick Chenney once said, “Moral principle is meaningless if you lose,” (which may well be the only thing he’s ever said that I agree with).

So consider for a moment the threats we have faced over, say, the last 50 years. People in today’s world often forget that in the Cold War years the threat to the nation was complete. It was irreversible if realized. It was all encompassing and it was systemic. A nuclear war with the Soviets was something that could not be tolerated.  So, helping them was seen as the true measure of violating your relationship to your country if you were a citizen. From the government’s stand point, simply helping the Soviets could tip the balance of power, encourage them to choose general nuclear war if they felt they had a true first strike advantage, and render all principles the US supposedly adhered to meaningless as it crumbled under the weight of nuclear destruction. The need to curtail citizens’ rights were premised on preventing this eventuality; the balance needing to be struck between allowing citizens the power of constructive dissent all while ensuring the republic survives – primarily by keeping the global balance of power in place. Of course it was easy to misuse this understanding in order to further different agendas that may run counter to the spirit of allowing citizens their freedom. Consider the endless accusations by Segregationists in the American south calling MLK a Communist and arguing that his prevention from participating in public life was actually good for social order.  Back then the aim of Southern White Supremacists was to prevent Black Liberation.  Sure, it was ludicrous to infer that the Civil Rights movement actually aimed to make Alabama Kazakhstan – but the endless accusations that activists like MLK were “Communists” played all too well into the prejudices of those who were against Black Liberation in the first place. Tying Black Liberation with Communism played into the public at larges’ understanding over the world they lived in, the space that they inhabited, and the threats the world posed to them as citizens.  No one rightfully though that MLK or the Black Panthers would aid the Soviets in anything.  But the simple subconscious association with pairing the two ideologies helped opponents of Black rights continue to disrupt Black progress wherever they could.

Fast forward to today and the relationship between security and rights needs to be more intrusive and focused because the nature of the threat is entirely different. Now that the US is the only dominant power in the world – the modern day Rome – it’s entirely true to argue that destabilizing the international system is the real threat. We are the reserve currency. We are the military stabilization force for Global Corporatism. Our position on the globe just in terms of shear geography provide us with an advantage that no other nation can dream of. At the same time, the threat to that system is much more diffuse and doesn’t require our nations complete destruction to alter the balance of power. Consider the aim of Al-Qaida, which is primarily to weaken the United States enough to force it to retreat from the world, which would then, in their best case scenario, allow Muslim nations a much larger say in global affairs as they would be united under some sort of modern day Caliphate. In order make that reality possible one need not saturate North America with nuclear missiles. Our complete geographic destruction doesn’t play into it. Instead, the application of hostile force to our systemic weak points is what drives Islamic militant strategy. So, because an American born cleric who’s publicly declared war on his nation of birth (as Alwaki did before getting his ass blown in half by a predator drone) can post YouTube videos encouraging other Muslim born Americans to conduct attacks on the United States, he becomes a threat because the level of what the system can tolerate and still function has been greatly reduced in a world run by the US. In the Cold War days someone getting on YouTube (had there been one) and advocating for the Soviet Union to launch a premeditated nuclear strike against NATO, or any hostile military move, would have been deemed nuts and would have hardly been considered a threat because unless he worked in the military his ability to aid that attack was nil. He wasn’t even a pawn in that great game. But in a world in which 3 or 4 Islamist fanatics, or right wing Christian fanatics, or left wing anarchist fanatics, can launch a cyber attack that would cripple the power grid indefinitely and cause a complete destabilization of the United States and the global system along with it, “protecting the rights of citizens” has to be measured against the ability of one single solitary citizens ability to destroy our system of government, making US moral principles meaningless as we all shoot each other trying to get the last can of soup from the Jewel Osco everyone has raided in the ensuing chaos.

Of course, misusing the understanding of these threats continues today just as it did in any other “pivotal” era of this nation’s history.  Think of all of the times someone on Fox News screamed that liberals “wanted the terrorists to win” for simply questioning the rationale for invading Iraq, to say nothing of the evidence.  Think of every time MSNBC screamed that George W Bush was a “dictator” despite his never actually infringing on anyone’s rights en masse.  Sure, some folks got whisked off to Gitmo.  Some folks had the NSA listen to their phone calls to relatives in Yemen.  But those were not the actions of a dictator, just as killing American citizens who are actively aiding the terrorist enemy in Yemen via Predator drones is not dictatorial either (I’m talking to you, Rand “I love the sound of my own voice” Paul).

In the end, every individual citizen needs to figure out for themselves where they stand on issues regarding the rights of citizens vs. the need to protect the nation from those who wish for our destruction. To the individual citizen, the choice is clear. You want your rights protected and that’s the end.  Depending on your understanding of “freedom” you will rationalize what you feel is acceptable.  But that’s where the problem comes in doesn’t it?  You may feel that you should have the freedom to stockpile massive amounts of automatic weapons in some sort of need to satiate your fear of some unspecified apocalypse.  But, since you can take those weapons and give them to others who might want to conduct a mass casualty operation, like the Hutaree Militia in Michigan in 2010, are you not a threat to the system at that point?  Are you not equipped to strike at the very same weak points that groups like Al-Qaida might target?  The point is that whether or not you are some Christian Nationalist, or some hacker, or a US born Islamist, or just some guy, you have to reconcile the idea that we can’t live in a nation that protects the individual liberty of its citizenry in its entirety.  You simply can’t protect the system by protecting every single solitary citizen’s rights.  Those who are hostile to the system will take advantage of their rights in order to destabilize the system.  What one must accept is that we can either live in our imperfect society that is filled with injustice and Have’s vs. Have Not’s, or we can exist in anarchy in a world filled with injustice and Have’s vs. Have Not’s.  The difference between the two is simply that what the Haves and Have Not’s value in each system is drastically different.  You can either choose to bitch and moan on your computer in air conditioning or fight for that last can of soup at the Jewel-Osco.

I’m not spiritual but I’m a conspiracy theorist…

I’ve written once or twice about my frustration with conspiracy theorists so it’s important that I don’t sound like one in my posts. I do my damnedest to remain aware of my assumptions, implied or otherwise, in order to ensure that I don’t venture down those paths when thinking through whatever it is I’m thinking through. Guns, gold, and god; information technology, drones, and the war on terror; all lend themselves quite readily to some pretty heavy conspiracy-theorizing. But it’s not my style. The theories fit together too easily. Their general framework never really changes. Somehow, someway, they always manage to incorporate any new idea, storyline, or piece of evidence to the contrary and assimilate it into an already determined narrative. The circle of conspirators grows ever larger and, along with it, my frustration as I listen to someone close themselves into an all-too-comforting two-dimensional plane of discomfort. They amount to new age spirituality for hard economic times and I just can’t buy ’em (or, for that matter, new age spirituality but that’s a different post). They’re too neat in in a world that my experience has revealed to be pretty fuckin’ messy. (Which I guess is why I do my best to create stability and comfort for my family – so that I and we are best equipped to deal with the mess that the world – and we – can be from time to time (but that’s another post too and maybe even another blog)).

Fortunately the words I choose give a healthy assist in determining what my assumptions are. The words are imperfect. But, something I was reminded of when listening to Li Young Lee a couple weeks ago, imperfection might be their greatest strength. It’s their flaws that reveal to me what I’m thinking beneath my thoughts. For me and – I’m pretty sure – for most, the words are never quite right. They’re getting at an idea, pointing to an object, homing in on a feeling and never quite getting there – their imperfection the birthplace of art, music, and religion. This can occasionally make for some hard times in friendships, work relations, marriages and any number of other personal relationships. But what about the words we use to debate policy? The words that make up our legal structure? Our political campaigns? Maybe most significantly, what about the words that frame our campaigns of war, like the war on terror? (You didn’t think I was gonna post something apolitical, did ya?) Whether conceptual (like the wars on poverty and illiteracy) or concrete (like the wars in Iraq and Afganistan) or some amalgamation of the two (like like the war on terror), the word ‘war’ carries with it a number of assumptions. Good guy/bad guy for one. Prolonged conflict for another. Nation states and military. Killing and dying. Value and sacrifice. Protection and harm to name a few. But alongside these assumptions it also implies a coordinated attempt to overcome.

In the reading that I did for my last post I came across a piece in the generally unforgiving Counterpunch that really spoke to me when it comes to thinking about the United States’ military conflicts in Muslim countries – what we refer to in shorthand as the war on terror or as the Obama administration prefers, our “overseas contingency operations“. The author writes, “…the War on Terror is not a vast conspiracy perpetrated by those constituencies favored by it. It is, instead, a complex and confused assemblage of interlocking, overlapping, and contradictory policies, foreign and domestic. It’s a sputtering, jerry-rigged contraption with layers, scaffolding, tweaks and adjustments worthy of Rube Goldberg. Yes, we have secret memos, secret actions and secret courts. But the lion’s share of the War’s undercarriage and infrastructure grew out in the open. And thanks to Wikileaks, whistleblowers, and witnesses, we eventually come to know the secrets.”

Take a minute with that.

He goes on, “The War on Terror is a piquant stew of ideas and ideology that underwrites the vast, global deployment of American men, money, and machines. The War’s authors and enablers truly hope that Afghanistan will ‘stabilize’ sufficiently by 2014 to permit the withdrawal of most US troops. They hope that the mess they left behind in Iraq sorts itself out. They hope that air power is enough to ‘safeguard US interests’ in Libya and Mali. They believe what they say about ‘terrorist groups’ Hamas and Hezbollah. They genuinely hope that drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia make the world safer for the United States and its allies. The problem before us then is not one of sincerity or intent but of results.”

Take another minute and ask yourself what the results might be over time.

More or fewer terrorists? Greater or less liberty? Security? I’m not sure we can know one way or the other. Nor am I sure that these questions are any more or less relevant now than they were, say, during the nuclear arms campaign conceptualized as the ‘cold war‘. I’m not suggesting for a minute that we don’t question, dissent, and protest. I’m just asking that we do so with an awareness of our assumptions and that we refrain from assuming that ours is somehow a time more laden with threats to our civil liberties than times past – that we refrain from framing our conflicts in apocalyptic terms unless we’re talking about something potentially apocalyptic like, say, global warming. The war on terror – be it the variety of military actions the phrase encompasses or the PR campaign that aims to make them legitimate – is deeply, deeply flawed. But like the words I choose, I find reason to hope in it’s flaws, it’s overreaches, it’s contradictions, and its secrets. I mean, we find out about them, don’t we? (I’m talking to you conspiracy theorists.) It’s messy and much of it is greater reason for shame than it is for pride but something must be working right if the war on terror continues to reveal it’s vile and vulnerable underbelly to us.