CONTROLLED DEMOLITION (1998)

(This essay was originally written in 1998. Thank goodness for the Wayback Machine.)

You’ve seen the pictures: one moment, there is a building, seeming solid and stable. Suddenly, flashes of light can be seen within the building, and puffs of smoke appear from its windows. The building seems to inhale for a moment, and then, as it exhales, it slowly folds in upon itself in a great cloud of dust and debris. The surrounding buildings are untouched, undamaged, except perhaps for a coating of dust.

It’s called “controlled demolition,” and the people who make it happen rely on a number of things:

  • An intimate knowledge of the structure to be brought down
  • Thorough understanding of the capabilities of their tools
  • Careful planning and consideration in the use of those tools
  • Absolute concern for the effects of their actions on the surrounding environment and the people within it.

Now consider the global society in which we live as a building of its own. Look at the conditions on the lower floors, where the air is fouled, the plumbing backed up, where children and old people sleep in hallways or closets. There has been a party going on in the penthouse for years, of course… but the partygoers are either unaware or uncaring about the conditions below them that make their party possible.

There are those of us, within the Green movement and elsewhere, who believe that this structure is inherently unsustainable — that at some time, it must collapse under its own weight. But what should we do? If we simply sit back and wait for the collapse, countless numbers of innocent beings will suffer needlessly. If, on the other hand, we just bring in the bulldozers and knock it over (the approach that was advocated by quite a few during the 1960’s), we will still cause unnecessary suffering – and be left with a bigger mess than we began with.

It seems to me that the task before the Greens and their allies is multifold.  Here is what must be done:

  1. Construct alternate structures.
  2. Help people become aware that alternatives are both necessary and possible.
  3. Enable as many as people as possible to make the transition.
  4. Then — and only then — bring the structure down, in as controlled and deliberate a manner as possible.

The first two steps are being done, to some degree.  Many individuals and groups are building alternative institutions, and the awareness of their existence is growing.  But we are nowhere near the point where large-scale transitions are possible.  In the meantime, there are other things to be done.  Within this metaphor, for example, electoral and legislative activity are attempts to temporarily shore up parts of the structure, to try to stave off the collapse until the other parts of the work can be completed.  This is not trivial work, it is not a waste of time, it must be done — but we must not deceive ourselves that electoral or legislative successes in and of themselves are the goal.  Rather, they are only one part of a much larger work.

THE WANNABE SUPERVILLAIN’S LAMENT

Someday when I control the world from my atomic easy chair
I’ll search around the world for you but won’t find you anywhere
I’ll send out drones to bring you home but my search will be in vain
And I’ll have to use my own mind control ray to get you out of my brain

CHORUS
I’ve got submarines that roam the seas
I’ve got satellites above
But I can’t devise the fiendish plot
That will bring me back your love

I’d love to share my secret lair on that remote volcanic isle
But I’d give it all up in a minute just to see you smile
Yes I’m the mind that lurks behind a dozen vast conspiracies
But it only takes one look from you to drive me to my knees

CHORUS

My fingers are in everything, but I can’t get you in my arms
I manipulate the world interest rate but can’t interest you in my charms
Yes I might hold total control of the whole economy
But you control my very soul & you’re just not impressed with me

CHORUS

THE EXISTENTIALIST GAZELLE (A Fable)

THE EXISTENTIALIST GAZELLE 
(A Fable in the Manner of Bierce)

Having thought things through, an Existentialist Gazelle approached a Lion.

The Lion, who was resting in the shade, roused himself from his near-slumber. He was surprised to see the Existentialist Gazelle standing in front of him.

“What can I do for you?” said the Lion politely, for he was a Noble Beast.

“I’m here to be eaten,” said the Existential Gazelle.

“I beg your pardon?” said the Lion.

“I’m here to be eaten,” the Existential Gazelle repeated. “I know it is my eventual fate to be your prey. I accept this, but frankly the waiting is causing me great anxiety. I would rather take command of my destiny, and so here I am.”

“But I just ate your cousin a couple of days ago,” said the Lion. “I’m not hungry yet.”

The Existential Gazelle had nothing to say.

“And besides,” the Lion continued, “I can think of nothing more unappetizing than killing someone who isn’t running away from me as fast as they possibly can. The hunt is the best part of the experience. Now please, return to your herd and let me resume my nap. I suggest you focus on enjoying each moment, and stop worrying so much about the future. It will come soon enough.”

The Existential Gazelle bowed his head in respect, for he saw the wisdom in the Lion’s words. He backed away slowly, and then turned and bounded quickly across the veldt.

The Lion’s stomach grumbled, and he rose to his feet.

“Ah, now, that’s more like it,” he said to himself. And took off in pursuit.

THE SONGS OF BLIND PEANUT NICHOLSON

Just to make a canonical list for further reference… These are the country songs written by my distant cousin, Blind Peanut Nicholson of Possum Claw, Arkansas… We might be able to look forward to some kind of output from the man one of these days…

  1. Trouble, Trouble, Trouble
  2. I Must Be The One That’s Dead
  3. De Facto Divorce
  4. If You’d Been Thinkin’ What I’ve Been Thinkin’ (You’d be Drinkin’ Too)
  5. Never Go Down to the River (With the One You Love)
  6. Who Are You (And What Have You Done With My Wife)

THE RISING SEA

(Inspired by the People’s Climate March, 21 Sept 2014)

I built a castle in the beach sand
Patted it down with my tiny hands
I watched the waves knock at its door
Soon it was not there anymore

Now we build castles aimed at the sun
So unaware of what we have done
Never a care for what might be
Have we unleashed the rising sea?

Let us go down to the rising sea
We must go meet the rising sea
All of us – you and you and me
Now we must face the rising sea

Nature has laws that cannot be crossed
Fragile balances forever lost
Cannot avoid her penalties
We must embrace the rising sea

Let us go down to the rising sea
We must go meet the rising sea
All of us – you and you and me
Now we must embrace the rising sea

Now there is nowhere left to run
No way to win by bomb or gun
We cannot appeal, there’s no clemency
We must give ourselves to the rising sea

If we would have a planet to save
We must become a part of the wave
Washing away what should not be
Let us become the rising sea

Let us go down to the rising sea
We must go meet the rising sea
All of us – you and you and me
We must become the rising sea

That’s Just the Way It Is

The representative from Tau Ceti IV had brought his own chair, one that was more accommodating to his elongated, six-limbed figure. The noise of the riots raging outside the gates of the White House could be heard faintly, but neither the representative nor the President paid them much mind.

“Our oxygen?” the President was saying. “You came here for our… oxygen?”

“Yes,” the representative replied. “Just the free atmospheric oxygen, you understand. We could hydrolyze your oceans, of course, but that takes more time and energy than we find profitable. We’ll just extract what we need for our purposes and be gone.”

“But – ” the President stammered. “that would mean – “

“The immediate extinction of most of your aerobic land-dwelling species. Including yourselves. Yes, we understand that.”

“Then you also understand that we will defend ourselves!”

“That is why we began our relationship by destroying your planet’s highest mountain ranges, Mr. President. We wished you to immediately understand the futility of your situation, and spare you needless effort. We also understand that you might desire a bit of time to reconcile yourselves to your various deities. You have something we want. We are by far the more powerful; therefore, we get to take what we want. It’s the fundamental rule across the Galaxy, as you well know, as basic as gravity…”

“We know no such thing!”

“Really?” The representative seemed quite surprised. He leaned his carapace in towards the President, his multifaceted eyes staring intently into the President’s face. The President felt his life – no, not his life – the history of his country, indeed his species, flashed before his eyes. Aboriginal peoples, nations, entire civilizations, bulldozed into the maw of Progress, time and time again.

“We have studied your history, sir. We thought you understood perfectly.”

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: THE UNENDING WAR

Maybe you remember: it was a beautiful Tuesday morning, clear and sunny. I had spent a couple of early morning hours training with my martial arts teacher, and I was headed home to start in on my day’s obligations for my telecommuting job. I stopped at a health food store in Hamlin for a beverage – and it soon became clear that something was not right. The radio was tuned to NPR and the newspeople were still on the air, though it was now way past the time for the morning news programs.

And what they were saying made no sense.

“What… happened?” I asked the clerk.

She looked at me with a strange expression. “The World Trade Center… the towers are gone,” she said. “And the Pentagon’s been attacked.”

There was not much else to say. She rang me up, and I headed towards Honesdale. There was no flood of cars on the road, no indication of panic or a disaster. My very first thought, my main concern at that moment, was simple: “Is the Internet still up?”

Somewhat surprisingly, it was – and it didn’t take long to learn what had transpired while I was training. I had been spared the live sighting of the impact of the second plane, the one that made it obvious what was happening, the one that ripped apart all our preconceptions and let us know that we were now in a strange new world. The first plane to hit the towers could have been a fluke, a horrible accident, a tragic coincidence – but that second one spoke of planning, and malicious intent, and the possibility of more to come.

Thus began one of the worst periods of my life, and probably of yours.

But for some people, it was a glorious moment. I’m not just speaking of Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the other terrorists of al Qaida. I am speaking of the people called “neoconservatives,” for whom the 9/11 attacks were nothing short of a Godsend.

The neoconservatives were (still are, though you don’t hear the term used much anymore, not in polite company at least) a group of foreign policy experts (including, among others, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz) who were strongly influenced by the writings of a fellow named Leo Strauss. A good introduction to those ideas can be found in a 2003 article by Danny Postel called “Noble lies and perpetual war: Leo Strauss, the neocons, and Iraq.”

The neoconservatives did not see war as something to be avoided at all costs; indeed, they regarded it as actually beneficial to society. In its absence, Strauss argued, societies become too concerned with being comfortable – and turn weak, ineffectual, and decadent. (The profits to be realized from defense outlays are just so much icing on the cake, of course.) So 9/11 provided just the kind of energizing “Pearl Harbor moment” that the neocons thought America needed. “If we just … wage a total war,” Richard Perle wrote, “our children will sing great songs about us years from now.”

This fact has to be kept in mind when you hear people calling the “War on Terror” a “failure.” Consider the possibility that the goal was in fact to create a situation of perpetual war – if so, then the neocons have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. All the so-called “blunders” of American policy in the Middle East, during the Bush Regime and after, from Abu Ghraib to drone attacks, actually make perfect sense: they have succeeded in keeping the region unstable, creating an unending stream of resentment and hatred towards America and the West, and guaranteeing that for generations to come someone will have good reason to come attack us.

If you want perpetual war, after all, you need a permanent and reliable supply of enemies.