August 5, 2004

Sick, Sad World

A friend of my mother's died yesterday.

Truthfully, he was not someone I knew very well. After my father died, my mother and brother moved back to Canada while I stayed in Indiana. This friend was someone she came to know after returning to Canada. So, I can't claim to be greatly traumatised. Still, it's always a bit of a blow when someone you know, someone you've seen alive and in the flesh, someone who has a name and a voice, dies. It makes you take a good hard look at things.

It's a lot harder on Mom. This was someone who had been a part of her life for over a decade. He was chronically ill and was staying with my mother because at the end he had nowhere else to go. Mom's like that. She takes in strays.

I bring all this up because I'm not feeling very cynical right now.

I've had a hard year, and it's been reflected in a lack of blogging, among other things. We haven't really turned the corner here yet. But my problems seem pretty small compared to watching someone dying of liver disease in your spare bedroom.

It also seems small compared to widespread state-ordered torture. But, real and immediate difficulties seem to me a lot bigger than discovering that your country is as often the bad guy as not. I could be wrong though. I don't exactly have a country, just a citizenship and a somewhat unrealistic fondness for a homeland I see a few weeks a year.

I don't say this to encourage people to be mean or heartless or to stop participating in international issues. I say it in hopes of providing perspective. Abu Ghraib is not something to ignore and I do not encourage letting Bush and the Pentagon bury this. The Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Army should have to resign. Someone in the top ranks of the Pentagon should be forced out. If the US really wants to prove it means it when it says this is an irregularity, it will execute some senior officers. This ought to make Americans start to believe they need the ICC to protect themselves. But we all know none of this will happen.

Most people aren't mean. Most people do care. But most people are local. Confronted with a cruel world, they may try to keep the cruelty to a minimum in their small corner. But no matter how many times we say never again, violence in some far off place among people we've never met and know nothing about except what we see on TV is never going have the same impact. People who are willing to entertain the idea that the government is concealing evidence of alien landings and the assasination of JFK are surely creative and cynical enough to dismiss the knowlege that their own government sponsors torture, rape and murder.

Cynicism is a not a personality trait, it's a defensive reaction. I realised, reading Abu Aardvark, that the way I feel about international and military relations is something like Daria talking about high school. High school sucks. For all that grown-ups talk about fixing it up and making it less oppressive to its inmates, it just keeps on sucking. The top of the social ladder is always the quarterback and the head cheerleader, who are both dumb as rods. Every day, some dorky kid gets beat up behind the bleechers, getting angrier and angrier at his powerlessness. There are teachers and administrators who are supposed to be on your side, who are supposed to enforce rules and preserve fairness, but they don't.

International politics is like high school.

The cool kids aren't all bad, but their leaders can be. Sometimes, folks realise that the social elite are jerks and twits, but given the power structure of high school - the Realpolitiek of the lunchroom - there's nothing they're going to do about it. No matter how many teen empowerment films Holywood makes, it never, ever really happens.

Obviously, I didn't much enjoy high school. In an admission that will shock absolutely no one, I was a misfit in high school. A geek back in the days before geek was a badge of honour. The truth is I've actually managed to block out most of my high school years. Thanks to the work of filmmakers like John Hugues and Cameron Crowe, I've managed to replace most of my painful memories of life in suburban New Jersey with wistful memories of growing up in suburban Chicago with Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheeny, Matthew Broderick, Sean Penn and especially Phoebe Cates.

But the more I think about it, the more I think it's the kind of cynicism I felt in high school that I feel towards the Abu Ghraib scandal. It's not being left out that makes teenagers cynical and moody, it's the inability to escape. No number of scandals, no number of bad wars, no amount of evidence that this is far from irregular behaviour, none of it ever makes a difference.

The thing that teenagers don't realise - that their parents and teachers work hard to keep them from realising - is that all they have to do is survive adolescence. They don't need good grades, they don't need to study hard, and they aren't going to learn much of anything useful in class anyway. They just need to live through it. We're all so paranoid - at least in America - about getting out of high school so you can get a good job, or into a good college so you can get job, that we forget that high school diplomas and college degrees aren't actually half as useful as we like to pretend.

It's not so easy to escape international politics, although that doesn't stop people from trying. You don't outgrow it. If you have enough money you might be able to outrun it, but there are no guarantees. It can only be lived through. And every generation talks about fundamentally reforming the international political scene. Each war is a new War To End All Wars, each reform is intended to finally set things right. But it certainly feels like it never changes.

So, I'm left with the choice of looking for the international political scene's equivalent of the stoners: the nations that are laying back, staying in their corner of the lunchroom, puffing on their blunts, waiting the current mess out; or keep bitching to no evident end about distant events that are remote to me and to most of the people who read me; or be cynical, assume the worst, and get on with diminished expectations. The first is tempting but irresponsible and I haven't always the energy for the second, so you have to excuse me if I indulge the third.

Posted 2004/08/05 21:49 (Thu) | TrackBack

I'm surprised you didn't cite this, but maybe you haven't read it. (Even though I've pointed you to that, I have to admit that I don't trust Paul Graham's perspective--this sort of equivocation about what he says is close to my feeling on it. Still, it is thought-through.)

And, things do get better. Kissinger won't ever get another political appointment; war criminals from the Balkans are actually being tried; constructive things (though probably not enough of them) are being done about Darfur. Even fifteen years ago most of that wouldn't have happened.

It's not outside the bounds of possibility, either, that the system in the US will be reformed so giving leadership of the world's most powerful country to $some_random_junta by means of gerrymandering and fraud becomes a hard problem.

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at August 6, 2004 13:08

Done as you requested.

Actually, I mostly agree with Graham in his letting the popular kids off the hook. Not fitting in in high school is not an especially "smart kids" problem, and the popular kids are pretty miserable too. You talk to them later, after their skills grow devalued, and they'll tell you as much. As much as I might identify with Daria's complaints about how she doesn't want to go to provate school because she already goes to a school where all the other students think they're cooler than her, and doesn't see the need for a school where they think they're smarter than her too, the point was not to bitch about high school so much as about the nature of international relations.

Yes, there is more attention paid to some of these humanitarian crises. But not much more. Darfur is in the news now. It was Rwanda before, and Congo after that, and before that Mozambique and Ethiopia, and way back in the 60's it was Congo again, and Ethiopia in the 30's... I remember the same sort of talk about doing constructive things back in the 80s too, and some got done.

Kissinger is gone, but Negroponte remains. The US says terrorism is unacceptable and that it will hunt down its backers, but Orlando Bosch and Otto Reich don't seem troubled. Milosevic gets a trial, but we all know that it's because he lost as much as because he's guilty. Prosecuting enemy loosers isn't new.

Some of the bad get their comeuppance in the end. But the institutions breed new ones without making the comeuppance come any faster.

As for political reform in the US, I think I'm more pessimistic about that than I am about international reform. When Clinton left office, they said that the age of the imperial presidency was over. Of course, they said that when Nixon left too. Congress annually votes to disempower itself on matters of any importance.

Okay, I'm having a shitty week. It will probably pass.

Posted by: Scott Martens at August 6, 2004 14:06

Did you used to live in Haledon, NJ?
If so, I think we might know each other.

Posted by: Jeff at August 6, 2004 21:04

Yes, I lived in Haledon, in the appartment complex on Lupton Lane. But I only went to school there for a year. I went to high school at a private prep school in Glen Rock after 8th grade instead of Manchester. OMG! I've only encountered one other person from my past via the blogs. I'm afraid I don't recognise you from your picture, but then I haven't been in Jersey since I was 16, so I'm afraid you'll have to refresh my memory.

Posted by: Scott Martens at August 6, 2004 21:21

Jeff Cioletti.
Friend of Matt Bolton (we still hang out). Ring a bell yet?
Remember that silly talent show skit in 1984 in which you were supposed to be a newscaster reporting on a Canadian invasion of the US? We were supposed to throw oranges at you from offstage, but you got the flu, so I had to sit in for you.

Posted by: Jeff at August 7, 2004 0:45

Oh hell yeah, now I remember! God, I haven't thought about that in at least ten years. I remember you and Matt. I remember that flu too, it was a stomach flu. Salmonella, IIRC. Exorcist barfing. *Yeeeaaaarrrgh!*

Wow. That takes me back. I've even seen Silent but Deadly, but the name never registered. I had no idea.

So how's it going? And how's Matt? And the old neighbourhood?

I see you're in the film business now. Any rumours on the new Star Wars film? :^)

Posted by: Scott Martens at August 7, 2004 1:02

Well, I'm not that deep in the film biz...I'm just a self-financed indie who does festivals and such...
Have you seen All three Silent But Deadly films?

No real rumors on the new Star Wars film, other than the fact that I've seen footage of Hayden Christensen (Anakin) putting the Vader helmet on.

I'm a senior editor at a beverage magazine...that's what pays the bills.

What're you doing when you're not blogging?

It's funny because Matt and I were out of touch for close to 12 years and got back in touch about 5 years ago.

Posted by: Jeff at August 7, 2004 1:07

Just the first two. I didn't know there was a third one. I'm afraid I don't follow Star Wars fan films that closely. But, now that I click over, I see that it's there.

As for me, I write code to pay the bills. I work for a Belgian translation company - which, oddly enough, is in turn largely owned by a beer company - that's pushing new technology as an edge over the competition. I have a Belgian degree in using computers to take over the world, and a most of a Canadian degree in French translation, so it seemed logical enough. The wife works for an international treaty organisation that probably prefers to not to be associated with me.

I was in college in Indiana when Dad died, so I didn't ever go back to Jersey after high school. Then I studied in France for a while, and then Montreal, and then I pulled up my stakes and chased after this woman in California and stuck it out there through the dot-com boom. Now I live in Brussels.

Posted by: Scott Martens at August 7, 2004 1:27

Hey Scott how's it going?

Jeff and I work in the NYC and had lunch today and your name came up. All it took was a google search.

I'm a professional monopoly rent extractor (I work for a labor union) and I am just finishing up a masters in economics/industrial relations.

Send an email!

Still using a sinclair? just kidding!

Posted by: Matt at August 7, 2004 5:17

Hi, Matt! Long time, no see. Sorry, I've been out all weekend, but I'll drop you a line today from work.

The Sinclair is a closet in Winnipeg. My brother still has it. No, I work mostly on UNIX and MacOSX nowadays. I don't do WIndows.

Posted by: Scott Martens at August 9, 2004 9:36

Go Mac! I don't do Windows either.

Posted by: Jeff at August 9, 2004 21:07

ahhhh the Mac "cult" rears its head

Posted by: Matt at August 10, 2004 6:03
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