Thoughts on the #Alexandria shooting

This attack was a warning.

It could have been much worse. There could be more than a dozen dead congressmen right now. We could be in a national crisis as severe as 9/11, or more.

This was a premeditated and carefully planned act of domestic terrorism. It is clear that the attacker was politically motivated. Millions of Americans share his extreme views. Thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, believe that his actions were justified.

It is only by the grace of God that the attack was thwarted. As Congressman Loudermilk said, “God was there.”

I believe in a God who is intimately concerned with the details of our individual lives. I believe that His hand guides the events that shape us, and that He takes a particular interest in the course of the United States.

He has given us our individual agency, the freedom to choose between good and evil. That is a gift that He will never take away. No matter how violent we are toward one another, no matter how much anger and hatred fills our hearts, He will not violate our agency nor revoke that Liberty wherewith He has made us free, but will leave us to our devices until we return on our knees to Him.

This attack was a warning. We would do well to heed it.

Several months ago, I came to the conclusion that the United States is between three and fifteen years away from an existential crisis as great as the Civil War. Will this crisis turn into a second civil war? I believe there’s a significant chance that it will. Certainly we are on that path right now.

Wake up, America! You talk of wars in far off countries, but you know not the hearts of men in your own land. Even now, the voices of evil speak louder in your ears than that which will shake the Earth. Treasure up wisdom, and remember: if you are prepared, you shall not fear.

A political rant

There is no meaningful difference between Clinton and Trump.

Both are narcissists.

Both are habitual liars.

Both are corrupt.

Both have a tendency to blame others for their failures instead of taking responsibility for their own actions.

Both treat the people underneath them poorly or with outright contempt.

Both think they are above the law, and seek to use the law to put down those who stand in their way.

Both are masters of saying what their audience wants to hear without saying anything of actual substance.

Both have flip-flopped 180 degrees on major national issues.

Both want to accelerate the same fiscal irresponsibility that got us into the Great Recession and prolonged it for so long.

Both are perfectly willing to order the military to do things that violate their sacred oath to defend the Constitution.

Both believe in an authoritarian government that violates constitutional principles and the basic rule of law.

I cannot, in good conscience, vote for either of them.

My greatest political fear is that our Republic is about to be overthrown and transformed into an Empire. We have a system of checks and balances to prevent that from taking place, but that system has been steadily eroded ever since the New Deal (or arguably the Civil War).

Eight years of economic stagnation have created a tremendous amount of restlessness. Looking at global trends, it seems that things are going to get worse before they get better. Historically, this type of chronic restlessness tends to lead to war, as leaders seek to either deflect it toward an outside enemy or channel it for their ruthless ambitions.

And both Clinton and Trump are nothing if not ruthless.

Everything old is new again. The authoritarian ideologies of the 20th century have resurrected and taken on new forms. Every day, I hear echoes of the deadly drumbeats on social media and the news.

Fascism is back. Communism is back. The 21st century equivalent of bookburning is taking place on campuses across the nation. The class warfare that started with the Occupy movement has taken on some decidedly racial undertones. If we’re following history’s playbook, a strong leader will soon emerge, promising security and prosperity at the cost of liberty.

Both Clinton and Trump promise to be that strong leader.

There’s a long tradition of doomsday predictions among political commentators in this country. At the risk of sounding paranoid, I’d like to chime in with some of my own. After all, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that everyone isn’t out to get you.

First, the gobal economy is about to suffer a massive downturn. China, Russia, the Eurozone crisis—it’s all headed toward collapse. The US will come out on top, but only because we won’t fall as hard as everyone else. We’re still going to take a fall.

Healthcare in this country will continue to be broken and unaffordable for the next four years. Best case scenario, Obamacare collapses and the gridlock in Washington prevents us from replacing it with anything else. Worst case scenario, socialized medicine stiffles innovation, costs and inefficiences skyrocket, and committees are formed to decide who lives and who dies, just like every other nationalized healthcare system.

The originalists on the Supreme Court will be replaced with activist judges who will dismantle the checks and balances of the Constitution, causing it to hang by a thread. Frankly, this is the thing that scares me the most. It’s already starting to happen with the controversy surrounding Scalia’s replacement, and he won’t be the only Supreme Court justice who passes in the next four years. This will be the ultimate legacy of whoever wins the presidency in 2016.

The world is about to get a lot less safe for Americans abroad. It’s already a lot more unsafe after eight years of Obama, but it’s about to get worse. The chaos in the Middle East will spread. Terrorist attacks will accelerate, both abroad and at home. The wars and rumors of wars will increase.

There are a number of unlikely but plausible scenarios I’ve been mulling over. The most frightening of these involves a second American civil war, in the form of an insurgency, and the true nightmare begins when the UN sends a peacekeeping mission into this country much like Lebanon or the Balkans. Like I said, I don’t consider it likely. But it’s just plausible enough that it would make an excellent novel—the kind that later generations laud as being written before its time.

In short, I predict another four years of economic stagnation, fiscal irresponsibility in Washington, cronyism, corruption, and collapse. If America becomes “great” again, it will only be the Empire at the expense of the Republic.

So what am I doing about it?

Stocking up on food storage. Growing a garden. Learning how to be a responsible gun owner. Striving to be as independent and self-sufficient as possible.

And you can bet that all of this is influencing my writing. There’s a war of ideas that’s raging right now, one that may influence the ultimate outcome of our era more than any elected official. As a writer, I see it as my responsibility to play a role in that battle, not through message fiction per say but through stories that reflect truth. I have no idea if any of my stories will be as influential as 1984 or Les Miserables, but I intend to write them as if they could be.

It appears we’ve been cursed to live in interesting times. Let us rise to the occasion and write timeless and interesting stories.

Flashpoints by George Friedman

Some people say that Science Fiction writers are in the business of predicting the future. In fact, that’s only partially true: we don’t predict the future so much as we show people what possibilities the future may hold. But strategic forecasting is a real business, and the foremost personality in that business is George Friedman.

In a world run rampant with hyperbole and sensationalism, Friedman’s analysis consistently stands out for its calm and measured rationality, as well as its ruthless incisiveness. As cordial and softspoken as Friedman can be, he does not mince words or walk on eggshells. He calls it the way he sees it, and he sees some very interesting times coming in the years ahead.

In Flashpoints, Friedman analyzes the current situation in Europe by placing it in the context of history, beginning with the Age of Exploration and culminating in what he calls “the thirty-one years.” From 1914 to 1945, more than 100 million Europeans died of political causes, the most spectacular human catastrophe of the modern era. The question he asks is whether Europe has truly changed, or whether we are on the verge of a return to the savage cruelty that defined the 20th century.

Friedman’s take on the history of the continent is quite fascinating. He points out a number of things that most histories overlook: for example, that European unification was originally an American project, imposed on a recalictrant Europe as a means to counter Soviet expansionism. In any war with the Soviets, West Germany would be the first line of defense, and therefore NATO and the Americans needed a strong West Germany and a united continent. Thus, the European Union started as an essentially American project—something the Europeans often forget.

The thing that really made this book fascinating, though, were the numerous personal insights from Friedman’s own life. As a Hungarian Jew whose mother was a holocaust survivor and whose father was conscripted to fight in Operation Barbarossa, Friedman’s personal story is just as fascinating as the story he tells about Europe. The two weave together in a way that offers a unique and powerful perspective on the challenges currently facing the continent, providing insights that can’t be gleaned in any other way.

Friedman’s writing is remarkably clear. His analysis is eye-opening, and his predictions are compelling. By the end of the book, I not only felt like I had a better understanding of Europe, but a better understanding of humanity as well.

In my opinion, this is Friedman’s best book. The Next Hundred Years was quite excellent, but a project that large in scope couldn’t help but feel a little fantastic. The Next Decade was also good, but it had neither the grand scope of The Next Hundred Years nor the depth of focus of a book dedicated to a single geopolitical question. Flashpoints possesses both that depth of focus and the grand scope of historical context, tracing the rise, fall, and rebirth of what is simultaneously the most savage and civilized continent on this planet. It’s a fantastic book, and I highly recommend it.

Trope Tuesday: Sinister Surveillance

secure
This was actually a real poster.

Someone is watching you.  Their eyes are everywhereEverything you do, everything you say … it’s all being recorded in a giant database.  But don’t worry–you can trust the ones watching youThey have your best interests at heartThey’re only after the bad guys.  You won’t even know that they’re there.

Sinister Surveillance is a hallmark of Dystopia, as essential to the genre as the Crapsack World and the Police Brutality tropes.  Often, you’ll find all three in the same story together.  It’s closely related to Big Brother is Watching, where the government is so powerful, and reaches into so many aspects of everyday life, that they see and record everything you do.  Where Big Brother shapes every aspect of the society, however, down to the language of the citizens and the basic truths accepted as facts, Sinister Surveillance is more about the surveillance itself, and the ulterior motives behind it.

It’s not enough for the government to simply watch you, though.  Even more important in some ways is the idea that you don’t know what they can and can’t see.  The reason for this is the same reason why, in horror stories, we almost never see the monster until the very end–because our imagination makes things a lot scarier than they really are.  If we the bad guys know the limitations of our government surveillance, we they can safeguard our privacy and basic rights game the system.  We’re all afraid of the dark, not because of what’s actually there, but what could be.

The concept behind all this goes back to the Panopticon, a hypothetical prison where the prisoners know that the guards are constantly watching them, but can’t actually see any of the guards themselves.  Proposed by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 1700s, the idea is to disempower the prisoners and empower the guards simply through the act of surveillance.  If everything you do can be seen, and you don’t know exactly who’s watching, that puts a tremendous amount of social pressure on you to conform.  As Michel Foucault put it:

The Panopticon creates a consciousness of permanent visibility as a form of power, where no bars, chains, and heavy locks are necessary for domination any more.

But if the prisoners are the citizens, and the guards are the government, how can such a system ever be democratic?  How can the citizens of such a society ever give their informed consent?  Well, that’s kind of the point.  The government in dystopian stories is rarely democratic–it’s usually a dictatorship of some kind, or a system that turns well-meaning people into Knights Templar, showing how even the best of us die like animals when the game is rigged.

As benevolent the intentions of the government may initially be, it is nonetheless true that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Just as the Panopticon takes power from the prisoners and concentrates it with the guards, so does universal surveillance grant dangerous amounts of power to the government–not because the act of surveillance is dangerous in itself, but because it brings out the worst in the people doing the surveillance.

In The Road to Serfdom, Freidrich Von Hayek pointed out that self-serving, ambitious, power-hungry people tend to rise in government a lot faster than people who have others’ best interests at heart, especially when so much power is concentrated in the government.  That’s one of the biggest dangers of surveillance–and in stories where Sinister Surveillance is in play, the government has already passed that point.

I wish I could say that this trope is limited mostly to the realm of fiction, but unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case.  These days, it’s impossible to talk about surveillance without getting political, even on a blog dedicated to books and writing.  Because everything these days is online, it’s easier now than ever before for our governments to watch us.  And if Edward Snowden’s claims are even partially correct, that’s exactly what they’re trying to do.  Even more worrying are the indicators that they’re trying to do it in secret, such as this recent letter from Senators Wyden and Udall.  The United States government has lied to us in the past about the extent of the PRISM surveillance program, and it would appear that they’re continuing to do just that.

Wherever you fall politically on PRISM or the Edward Snowden case, I think that Sinister Surveillance is a trope that we should all find profoundly disturbing.  When George Orwell took this trope to its extreme logical conclusions in 1984, he did so to prevent that horrific social order from ever coming to pass.  I wonder: only two or three generations after that book came out, have we forgotten its lessons already?  Or do we need a new retelling to remind us?  I fear that that retelling is taking place, not in the pages of a novel, but in real time on the major blogs and news sites.