New American Tribalism and the Rise of Trump

It would generally be unfair to say that a Donald Trump presidency will be the end of the world barely a couple of weeks into his administration. Traditionally we would reserve this hyperbole until after the first hundred days. And to rush for the hills before he’s had the opportunity to showcase his presidential side, separate from his campaign persona, would not only reduce our credibility, but it would also make most of us look naively partisan, or worse, Donald Trump.

But if we are to move past the animosity in today’s America, a country deeply divided in mostly everything including what the definition of truth is, and begin the “peace talks” that will hopefully lead to a reunification of the country—an outlandish sentence that would fit better in a Korean or Israeli-Palestinian context—we must, first of all, be sincere about the source of the rift. This is a noble endeavor, necessary for world stability. But it’s a process that will be slow and painful. And one that will most likely worsen our situation before improving it.

The absurdity of this past year’s presidential campaign has left many wondering if everything we know about the world is wrong. After all, it wasn’t long ago that the narrative of experts like Nate Silver and institutions like the New York Times prepared us for a monumental win that would never come.

To the awe of pollsters, scientists, journalists, behavioral experts, politicians, and three million more people than those who voted for Trump, he not only managed to walk away with the grand prize, but Republicans took every piece of the government with them. The result was a humiliating defeat that banished every Democrat from the local-party level up into the cold, with their tail between their legs and licking their wounds. An outcome we’d all been assured was next to impossible. Instead of hopeful, that depressing narrative we remember would come to serve as a cautionary tale for the future.

So was Trump’s upset-win a failure of statistical math or an over-dependence on “predictive” polls? Was it a big “fuck you” from an estranged lower-middle class; or was it a highly organized ruse to exploit the weaknesses in our political system?

It’s painfully obvious now from our obstinacy to consider unlikely outcomes that we can’t discount any possibility, no matter how improbable. Thus, if Trump truly is some sort of Machiavellian savant who concocted an airtight plan to disestablish the establishment, then it’d be more than fair to say that he succeeded magnanimously not only in fooling the opposition, but even many of his supporters as well.

However, with the benefit of hindsight in mind, it seems that the “Trump Phenomenon” offers a much simpler and much more sinister explanation. One that is grounded in years’ worth of evidence about who Donald Trump is, about changing social attitudes, and about deep political divisions that are wider now than ever before. This analysis is not meant as a standalone post-mortem. It’s written as a supplement to everything we already know: the Democrats’ failure with the lower-middle class population, Russian intrusion, political corruption, etc.

Whether you’re skeptical to Trump’s abilities in either direction, it’s the past few weeks, and specifically the past few days, that tells us the most about what this presidency will be like. It’s in these few days that his moderate-supporters are now realizing what his opponents are being reasserted about, that Trump has no dimension other than the one he displayed on the trail.

Starting with his cabinet picks—which seem more like a concerted effort to undermine the very institutions they are appointed to serve—to his infantile Twitter rants, to his micro-management of every battle no matter how insignificant, to the petty, incessant lies, the choices the president has recently made point to a trend that is much more likely to continue. Aside from the few campaign promises he’s managed to enact into legislation through executive orders (the most of any incoming president on the same time period), there’s a more obscure aspect to his presidency that is worrying, specifically his disregard for expert opinion, his obsessive preoccupation with his popularity, and his readiness to spar with whomever disagrees with him in the slightest degree.

In a bizarre turn of events, Trump has even managed to briefly alienate the same intelligence community that he’ll have to rely on to expand the powers that his predecessor established, which more than likely he will. Admittedly to see two traditionally reciprocal institutions so publicly at odds is worrisome to say the least. It seems clear now that the strong-arming of Trump by the 17 different intelligent agencies and governmental departments involved in the Russian-hacking investigation, was meant as a message that Trump continually failed to grasp or resisted to do, which was simply to read between the lines and roll with the punches to put the whole thing to rest. In the end, in order to maintain his baseline support, he caved.

The aim of investigations, headed by the same institutions that failed to protect American autonomy in the first place, were not meant to change anything, and until now have been only slightly revelatory. Of course, it’s not the job of the intelligence agencies to change public policy. But it’s the nature of the investigations that do reveal a lot. First, by being primarily a product of public outcry, not of internal inquiry. And second, by exposing Trump’s demagoguery.

Now, ten days into his administration—predictably the most unpopular in record time—he continues to defy the logic of presidential governance by appointing White House Chief-Strategist Stephen Bannon to head the National Security Council, a post usually reserved for high military roles, such as the Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff. Whereas before any intention to reorganize this cabinet-level department was widely criticized, this time the voices of opposition are silent. However, as reviled as Bannon is by nearly everyone who knows him, he does share the same qualifications to chair the NSC as Donald Trump does to the presidency.

These moves fly over the heads of the fiscally responsible Christian Republicans who just approved a wall that would cost anywhere from $15-25b, and who are more than content to deny entry to visa-holding travelers from Muslim majority countries, excluding Muslim countries Trump has business ties to. After all, he did just win them all three branches of government.

But what does this say about the American public who voted for an”unconventional guy”? It matters to know for two important reasons. One, because unconventional is not necessarily a good thing. Especially in a job, like the presidency, where predictable conventionality is mostly always an asset not a liability. And two because these conclusions say even more about Trump’s base than they do about him.

We can guess as to how the establishment will react. However, for his most ardent supporters, which compose a little less than half the country, the ends, necessarily, justify the means. The irony is lost in some of them when they are confronted by the reality of his style, much in keeping with the opposition and establishment they abhor, which seems, as always, diametrically opposed to people’s attitudes.

A scary-enough prospect considering that in order to pass a lie as truth, truth has to mean absolutely nothing.

This behavior doesn’t grow out of nowhere. It is directly the byproduct of manufactured convictions, the same which have been employed by religious extremists for thousands of years. Unfortunately, in this climate we currently live in, where untruths are allowed to fester and grow like bacteria in the petri dish of ideological bubbles, no one wins. And although one side bears most of the fault, both camps are guilty of this behavior.

Comedian and political commentator Bill Maher has said as much in his show Real Time, noting that Liberals like himself had done the country a disservice by yelling wolf one-too-many times in accusing Republicans and Conservatives of being the harbingers of doom. Equally, Republican and Conservative commentators like Glenn Beck have accused Democrats and Liberals of the same. Now, in light of the potential danger that Donald Trump signifies for the democratic process, both commentators have expressed regret about the role they’ve played and agree that in the end it is the American people who will, once again, suffer the most. But they come too little too late. The American people are through listening.

The end-result is that the country has become desensitized at a very critical moment. Years of mistreating the truth has caused tribal polarity among those who ascribe their allegiance to a group or party, rather than country; and, it has caused people to be much more cynical, more fundamentalist, more unprincipled, and less inclined to search for the truth. This means that seasonal societal clashes that a healthy nation needs to advance progress, are not happening due to the safe-spaces that both sides have created for themselves. Bubbles of animosity that are already bursting with disastrous consequences. In short, we’re fighting each other and disengaging from reality at the same time.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. Ideological conflicts have always occupied a space where strong claims exist, which politicians have always been willing to exploit. The difference between today and say, 1930s Germany (a time many compare to today) is that the abundance of information has made it much harder for anyone to excuse their ignorance on lack of resources. But with new solutions come new problems. The main factor being that sifting through the mud to find the gold-nugget of truth is now proving to be more time-consuming than ever due to misinformation. Add in the eternal unwillingness of people to engage in conversation or even agree on the basic rules of public discourse and it makes the situation worse. Conversations of unanimity depend largely on a compromise to define truth in a post-truth world. The good news is that post-truth can easily be eradicated if we are willing to. The bad news is that we can’t even agree on this compromise.

Unfortunately tribal polarity is not the only side-effect of vilifying the opposition. Acclimation to hate rhetoric is an even more corrosive adverse effect.

As of November 2016, 77% of Americans were convinced that the country was divided. Comically enough, respondents in that same poll were just about evenly split on whether Trump would be a uniting or dividing force.

So most people agree that America is in terrible conflict. But in trying to analyze the situation most people can’t seem to agree where the problem is. Most Democrats agree that the problem starts from the top-down, with our politicians and financial institutions being too powerful and oligarchic. Most Republicans think it’s from the bottom-up with people not being willing to accept personal responsibility and by blaming their problems on others. But as Americans, people seem to be incapable of accepting uncomfortable truths when they see them, or unwilling to compromise their views when they don’t serve their interests. When confronted, most people retract to what they know instead of inspecting the claim. And really who could blame them when it has become increasingly difficult to stay objectively informed.

This doesn’t mean there are no reputable sources to follow, only that they’re hard to find. It’s only logical to assume that in the absence of a trustworthy solution people will resort back to what their familiar with, their tribes.

Donald Trump found a behavioral loophole in our social construct and benefited from it. His opportunistic nature to seize on weaknesses, which has made him a very successful businessman, has also given him the tools to create a narrative right out of a mediocre political thriller. Whether he believes it’s in his own interests or the country’s, his imaginative, although simple, mind devised all the plot-elements necessary to make it work. He created an antagonist and a conflict, and then he alone provided the hero and the solution. Sadly, it is the very real weakness of an antiquated system that provided the twist, and people abandoned by the system bought into this narrative wholesale.

It is an absolute truism that Trump lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes. Yet now he claims, without any factual basis, that he lost it because of staggering voter fraud. As embarrassed as we are to have to watch his tantrums on national TV, there’s no doubt that the king believes his case wholeheartedly. And who are we to contradict him?

From the actions taken during his first days in office, it is obvious that the president is more than willing to use his powers against those who swim against the tide of the official line. The imposed gag-orders on all federal agencies even remotely opposed to the president’s philosophy, especially on environmental matters, and the convenient “alternative facts” provided by the administration point to that direction.

Yet even still, no one seriously wants Trump to fail in the general sense just to spite him or his supporters. What the country also doesn’t want is for Trump to succeed in abandoning reasonable governance for the benefit of the doubt—or the ruling party’s interests. Nonetheless, this is the direction we’re headed.

Paradoxically enough, the virulently obstructionist actions of this new administration are now motivating Republicans, the party of small government, to exert more government control, while forcing Democrats to fight to reduce its size. An ideological flip that hasn’t happened since the early 20th century.

In the end it’s up to the people to be cognizant of the fact that representatives are a product of their communities. And we, and we alone, are responsible of forming our own criteria by analyzing opposing and supporting points of view. This makes the very important point that to resist the power of the president is not un-American. It’s perhaps the most American thing there is.

To pre-emptively trash Trump based on nothing but personal convictions is both wrong and irresponsible. To resist him based on established behavior is wise and necessary. It’s possible that this falling plane will stabilize as time goes by. But based on what we’re witnessing today, we wouldn’t be wrong to predict a recurring pattern, one in which Trump creates monsters out of kittens to frighten the children who will in turn hand him all the power he needs, just as we did with Bush. Whatever the future holds, the answers  will never be found in the comfort of tribalism. As a society, Americans would benefit from using distress as a scaffold toward rationality and political centrism.

So to say that Trump is the worst thing that can happen will undoubtedly turn away people who might just be willing to have an honest conversation. But seeing the alternative to a rational presidency, we would be remiss not to be at least a little worried for the future. A future that while we may be inaccurate to classify as dystopian, it’s also now a bit less utopian than what we’d been working for.

Many, including myself, still hold out hope that Trump will find wisdom behind the same desk where Abe Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt sat. His supporters already see him as one of the greats, though obviously with a different set of problems. His opponents, however, remember that the presidency has also produced the likes of Harry Truman and Richard Nixon. Two of the most flawed and unpopular presidents in American history who were not only socially closer to their constituents than Trump is to his, but also much more learned in political theory than Trump is.

Whatever our destiny may be, it’s in everyone’s interest to heed the wise words of author and inspirational speaker Denis Waitley, “Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised”.

The Aftermath of Terror: Understanding ISIS and the Future of Our World

Last weekend France’s Prime Minister François Hollande declared a state of emergency and made the unprecedented decision to close off all of France’s borders after a large-scale terrorist attack was perpetrated in several spots in Paris leaving scores of dead and wounded.

As expected, soon after, a rush of condolences started pouring in from many heads of state and citizens from around the world who also expressed their rage at the situation and offered support for the victims.

In social media, many others whose countries had also been victimized by terrorism, sympathized with the French people by showing their support in different ways. And even hacktivist group Anonymous did its part by taking down Twitter accounts of people who sympathized with ISIS, including many of people who took to the social platform to hail Friday’s attacks as a great victory.

French Flag waving atop Caen Memorial- Nov 15th 2015 French Flag waving atop Caen Memorial- Nov 15th 2015 for the Nov-13th victims.  (Author: Benoit-Caen. Artist does not endorse this work. Creative Commons License. commons/wikimedia.org)

With the painful memory of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January still fresh in our memory, it seems France, and possibly other European countries, is now experiencing another wave of terrorism as leaders of those nations ramp up efforts to combat extremism in their own countries and abroad. Now it’s apparent that these tactics are having an adverse effect in European cities. ISIS for one isn’t having it.

But are we correct to say that these attacks are simply a balancing act of retaliation on the part of ISIS for France’s meddling in Middle Eastern affairs? Or is there something else that many, including progressive-leftists and moderates (including Muslim moderates) seem to be missing?

From the many reports circulating about the identities of the attackers and their motives, what happened in France this past Friday was neither an isolated incident nor amateur hour. It was a highly-coordinated, deliberate attack in response to, once again, not one or two things, but a myriad of events that coalesce to form a situation that can only be described here as a clusterfuck of global proportions.

It’s important to understand that some of these reasons carry more weight than others in determining the motives behind these vicious attacks which, as always, kill more civilians than they do elements of the infrastructure of the target group or country–and to be perfectly fair here, that goes for both sides.

But we also cannot ignore another important fact that most people often overlook, and that is that the repercussions from these attacks–meaning the rain of bombs that will continue to rain on ISIS strongholds–are as coldly calculated into the model of the act of terrorism as the act itself. Meaning that ISIS, who has already claimed responsibility, not only expects vengeance but they in fact welcome it.

Why, you may ask, would they want retaliation.

As far as I–in my limited knowledge–can see, there are a few valid reasons that perhaps you may not be aware of.

Off the Fringe

It’s quite easy to label ISIS as murderous lunatics. And it’s equally simple to say that ISIS is just a bi-product of geopolitics gone wrong. However, while you may be right about one, or both, the facts actually point us in the other direction.

Ever since ISIS (initially an offshoot of Al-Qaeda) stemmed away from the root organization in the early 2000s, it has worked hard to establish “legitimacy” among the local players in the region. At times, this has not been easy. But with the escalation of war activity by the US-led coalition in the Middle East, the civil war in Syria that left entire regions ungoverned, and the abundance of civilian sympathizers both events created, ISIS, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has not wasted any time in recruiting a large force for the purpose of creating the Caliphate he said he would build. By taking full advantage of the governance vacuum in Syria, ISIS under the replenished leadership–including many who had served under Saddam Hussein, including generals and commanders who now oversee military operations–began successful offensives in Iraq and Syria and very quickly began to gain ground.

Of course this is a very simplified explanation of the ISIS-AL-Qaeda alliance, but for the purpose of this post, it’s more than enough.

Although this all sounds like clockwork we cannot ignore the sad reality that the main motivation behind what can only be described as openly-clandestine acts of war (a terribly ambiguous term) has turned out to be more religious than political at this point. So, once again, while you may be right that ISIS is the product of foreign affairs as the United States and our allies armed and disarmed insurgencies in the Middle East during and after the Cold War, and that they truly are murderous lunatics, at this point the religious radicalism in this organization has become so pronounced that the political reasons have effectively ceased to exist.

Unlike their Muslim counterparts in other areas of the Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbollah, who have clear goals in mind, such as the liberation of Palestine and the eradication of Israel, and even Al-Qaeda, who is more theologically-based, although still political–ISIS is unique in that more than anything it seeks to establish a Caliphate (essentially an absolute theocracy) that will follow the exact model of ancient Caliphates dictated by the literal interpretation of the Quran.

So for us to say that ISIS’s motives are purely political, it makes liars out of all of us.

ISIS has for some time now, worked very hard to establish themselves as even more extreme than all other groups cataloged as terrorist organizations by the U.S., the U.N., the E.U., and others. The strategy here, if there ever was one, is to play into people’s fears and emotions, and up until now it seems to be working wonderfully.

"Escenas de la Guerra contra ISIS"- Trans. "Scenes of war against ISIS." Leopoldo Christie. Creative Commons License. commons/wikipedia.org

“Escenas de la Guerra contra ISIS”- Trans. “Scenes of war against ISIS.” Leopoldo Christie. Creative Commons License. commons/wikipedia.org

Since before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, countries and individuals started censoring themselves and each other for fear of offending an invisible enemy that could strike anytime, anywhere. Many of us have made it our business to condemn those who point out the faults in Islam and Islamic extremists by labeling them Islamophobes or “racists” (a term that wouldn’t even be applied correctly), but what those so-called “progressives” don’t seem to realize is that this is perhaps the biggest disservice we could be doing for our communities and our way of life. There is, after all, a way to discuss bad ideas without alluding towards derogatory or hateful undertones regarding a whole population (Islam as opposed to Muslims).

At the same time we give the bad guys a free pass on our freedom of speech. Emphasis on the “our” because of the history of our own societies and our acceptance that speech should indeed be free. This is precisely what ISIS and other terrorist organizations are working towards: a collective psychology molded by fear.

But they also play into people’s emotions  by making use of something so elemental in people’s hearts and minds that it transcends politics, alliances, and even reason: religion.

Other groups with specific goals in mind operating in different parts of the region, groups like Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, et al., are the products of history and of very specific circumstances derived from foreign policy blunders. They are also good PR firms in their own right, and they have only gotten better and better at it. These yahoos are not only crazy, they are also highly organized and very adept at manipulating social media to recruit members, which has worked very well for them in recent years. But while these other groups use religion as a lightning rod to attract extremists, even if they believe what they profess, ISIS seems to take the religious rhetoric to heart, leaving all the political baggage that defines all other groups among the rubble of their conquests. This makes ISIS unique. They have taken the Al-Qaeda model and perfected it.

ISIS is peculiar in that they are not an organization so much as they are the embodiment of an ideology. Its leadership not only understands the endless power religion has, but knows how to tap into that well, and the reason is simple: they believe every word they say to their very core.

There’s a movie called “The Siege” (very apropos in this situation) where one of the characters, a C.I.A. officer investigating terrorist cells in the U.S. along with an F.B.I. agent, tells her partner, “In this game, the most committed wins.” That rings true every time you hear the news.

When al-Baghdadi announced that there would be a new Caliphate on Earth, most dismissed the claim as nothing more than extremist mumbo-jumbo. What people at that time did not realize was that their radicalism was so beyond what we had seen before, something so ingrained into their very psychology, that they truly believed–whether the leaders knew otherwise or not–that they were the messengers of god sent to Earth to bring about an apocalypse, and that only as the Earth was engulfed in fire, could every “innocent and moral” being ascend to heaven.

I’m not making shit up here. These guys have taken the most literal interpretation of the Quran and applied it to the real world. Scary isn’t?

If we have learned anything from history is that literal interpretations of holy books usually lead to disastrous consequences. Google “Holy Wars,” if you don’t believe me. But their plans go further than that and I’ll explain what I mean in the next section.

ISIS knows that it doesn’t have the capabilities, yet, to fight a large-scale war with any country, especially countries who have powerful allies on their side (think the EU), which initially was the reason why they limited their aims only to the local chapters they created as they opened way inside Iraq and Syria. Unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIS did not plan to engage their fighters in foreign soil. Note that this doesn’t mean they did not support stand-alone acts of terrorism by home-grown extremists who were loyal to their ideals. But instead it seemed less-than-clear that they would devote all of their energy towards expanding their hold in that region before operating abroad.

It is more than evident now that they have radically shifted course.

Now, as the world braces for what seems to be a new type of warfare, we are finally beginning to understand how ISIS operates and what they have in mind.

Three major outcomes will stem from deliberate acts of violence and terrorism, which in some countries will converge and feed off of each other in a symbiotic relationship that will centralize gubernatorial power and strip away citizen rights. Not to mention radicalizing the other side.

Retribution and Endless War

The first of these outcomes is that retribution will envelop the Middle East in conflicts for decades. These conflicts will spread, as they already have, into quasi-guerrilla wars that will be taken to the streets of the places we deemed “safe” at one time, which is exactly what groups like ISIS want.

As France vamps up military action, and its allies join in, the world will begin a second wave of wars that will go on for the rest of our lifetimes. Atrocities and injustices will happen on both sides as defenses and attacks are passed back and forth, with civilian populations bearing most of the casualties.

ISIS will undoubtedly continue its attacks on the world’s cities in order to provoke a self-fulling prophecy of apocalypse as dictated on their holy book. And as more attacks and threats unfold, future leaders will inevitably be forced to protect their own populations by any means necessary. This will follow the second outcome which has been happening for some time now.

Totalitarianism: The All-Seeing Eye

As the world becomes engulfed in obscure conflicts with irrational actors, governments will find in a scared and willing population the means to tighten their grip of control with the valid excuse of protecting their countries and their citizens. Valid to a very limited extent.

As 9/11 has proven, clandestine government programs designed with the aim of gathering intelligence at the global level will effortlessly expand to monstrous sizes, giving these governments the tools to police their own citizens faster and easier. These are not sensationalist claims, it is already happening as we have seen with the PRISM and MUSCULAR programs run by the American N.S.A. and the British G.C.H.Q. agencies, not to mention all other intelligence agencies around the world, and with help from major tech corporations like Google, Facebook, and others. With some luck, a portion of these programs will be monitored (although the chances are slim). In reality most of these clandestine surveillance programs will be so secretive that in the future–as it is today–they will not even be known by lawmakers and the general public.

Eventually, fear will work just as good for this side as it does for the other side, and most nations will enter a new era of governance where most central governments will hold immense power and sway over their own populations. But why convince your own people that what you’re doing is for their own good if the enemy can show them more effectively? This is the beginning of the third outcome.

Radicalizing the Other Side

It’s already happening. As I type this, scores of lawmakers around the world have vowed to end the radicalization of Islamism. A few others have vowed to do this the only way they know how, with “good old Christian values” and their own brand of crazy.

One of the (un)intended consequences of what ISIS is doing is radicalizing the other side in hopes that this will bring about the last holy war, where the soldiers of god (which one?) will fight the final battle against the infidels and defeat them. I’ll admit to you that I’m not sure which side I’m talking about here.

Not to make a direct comparison between these two parties, but more and more Greece’s Golden Dawn Party, an ultra-right fascist organization that openly calls for the rejection of immigrants, non-whites, and non-Christians–and the American Republican Party are starting to sound very much alike. And what’s more, people are listening.

These, and many other, organizations advocate for the eradication of Muslims. At the same time, they build up and spread the idea that only Christianity can end this evil. To these people it has never occurred that they are only the other side of that coin.

Even friends of mine have expressed their humble opinions that “their god is a false god, and ours is the only true god.” Please take a moment to understand that logical dilemma.

Racism, bigotry, and xenophobia will increase to exorbitant levels–unfortunately it’s not only the religious who will be turned, but even the fragile moderate base will begin to collapse as fear sets in. We can already see it in our own countries and communities as people often conflate the terms “Muslim” or “refugee” with “terrorist”, and reject these people fleeing war-torn areas where many of them have been victims themselves of atrocities by ISIS or even their own governments.

There have already been reports that terrorist sympathizers might have infiltrated the refugee wave that landed on Europe a few weeks ago and even ISIS has said as much. So it’s not a baseless fear that governments and people have that at some point in the future their cities will be attacked. Unfortunately, many people whose homes and lives have been ruined by war will once again be the victims of hatred and discrimination in a whole new land, all because it plays well into ISIS’s plans that the infidels fear and hate Muslims, whether they are their Muslims or not.

Damages

While it is true that Islamism is at the forefront of these recent troubles, it would be unfair to paint all Muslims with the same brush. However, to dismiss this as an entirely extremist problem is also not accurate either, after all, the tenets of Islam do support the literal interpretation given by ISIS, even if most Muslims don’t. The problem is not Muslims, the problem is extremists and our failure to speak out against them for fear of offending or being labelled as bigots or Islamophobes. As far as the refugees who flee war-torn nations in the M.E. and North Africa, they are hardly to blame for these terrible events.

The world stands united with France in this terrible moment. But before the bombs rain and we unanimously decide that all Muslims are evil and we are the good guys, a few things to ask ourselves: Where is the compassion for the victims of other terrorist attacks throughout the world and why hasn’t there been an outcry for victims of similar atrocities like the ones in Beirut and Kenya? Where are the flags on Facebook and the hash-tags? What are we as individuals doing to combat extremism of all kinds?

One essential question to ask is whether strong nations only support strong nations; whether we only support our allies; or whether we are prepared to repudiate acts of terrorism wherever we find them.

As far as France goes–our oldest ally–we stand with them. We shed the same blood and the same tears. We have similar values and similar views. And at this terrible time, we are all French just as they were Americans on 9/11. But if there’s anything that I can leave you with today is that we are also all Kenyans. And Beirutians. Hell, we’re all humans! So when will we start acting like it?

Speak out, and encourage others to speak out, against extremism of all kinds, otherwise our future might be a lot shorter than we thought, and the apocalypse the other guys are striving for might come sooner than we would want.

It’s a good thing that you show support for the victims of these terrible tragedies. It’s good that you pray, but… Well, I will let the Dalai Lama end this with some words he said following this tragedy, words that are wiser than any I could conjure:

“We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

School Me: America’s War On and For Education Pt. 2

Back again for more huh!

Okay so this is part two of last week’s post when we started talking about our education system and about the challenges our kids face with homework and standardized testing. I also talked about technology and outdated methods, and even religion got an (dis)honorable mention in there. No one was safe from it, parents, teachers, politicians… since we are all part of the pie, we all got a slice of it.

Today I’ll talk about the challenges college students face (provided they made it all the way to college) in the classroom, but mainly outside of it. On this post the blame will be almost completely shifted to our policy-makers, corporations, and the universities and colleges themselves so I will not go in-depth about fraternities or the “college experience”, but rather focus more on the financial aspect of higher education and the ripple effect they cause. But, while distancing myself from too much math, I’ll mainly be talking about student debt and we’ll analyze a risk-versus-reward type situation. So if you’re one of these people suffering from studentdebtitis (don’t try to pronounce that), then you will read some facts here that perhaps you didn’t know. Hopefully I can help in some way or another.

Let’s get into it!

 

All In the Numbers

 

Assuming you passed all that required testing we talked about before- SATs, college admission tests, etc.- college is a new and exciting time that is about to begin! No more lectures about being late to class, no more bullshit about cleaning your room, in fact, if you choose to live in a dorm, no more parents for a while. Man is life great! Well for you. For your parents it’s a different story.

For those putting themselves or their kids through college, it’s important to know where they are in terms of payment if they stand a chance. Forget for a second the very confusing college-application lingo, first you have to know if you can even afford it. The pressure of not knowing whether it will be possible to send your kids to college (or put yourself through college) is only part of a reality we live in today’s America where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a good job, and even harder without a college education, an education that while beautiful and necessary is not free.

So with that in mind, let’s check out some important numbers and see how it all ties in with this higher education I talk about.

College Tuition- Since the 1970s, college tuition has been increasing steadily over the years to an unimaginable 1120% (yikes!), and even without inflation we are paying more for higher education now than we have in the past 40 years, or ever actually.

Student debt- American students have an outstanding $1.2 trillion dollars (that’s 1,200,000,000,000) in student loan debt which is significantly more than American credit-card debt which stands at a little under $700 billion. To put it into context, our national GDP is $17 trillion, which means that student debt is roughly 7% of that. Insane!

Number of Americans with college debt- 40 million. For comparison that is roughly the entire population of Argentina.

Average debt per student- Today college graduates are entering the job market with an average of $26,000 in debt.

Interest rate for college loans It floats between 3% and 6% depending on the type of loan you get.

National median income- As of February of this year the median income was roughly $41,000.

Now comes the hard part trying to make sense of it all.

We all pretty much know the ritual. Students go to college, they get jobs, get married, have kids, and they pay for kids’ college. Well, that’s not happening so much anymore. Less parents are now paying for their kids’ education, which means that now more than ever American students are financing their own educations. This is just a side-effect to the increasing college tuition. But it is also due to other causes one of which is the disparity between what parents make and what college tuition amounts to.

According to a report by the Washington Post from March, adjusted for inflation take-home pay only increased by a measly 0.1% in 2014 for middle-class people, and although the unemployment rate is at a little under 6%- the lowest it’s been since the middle of 2008- and 2.6% for college graduates, job outsourcing to other countries has left the middle-class worker with little or no leverage to negotiate higher wages. This leaves college students in a bind. They can either choose to pay for college themselves, take out a bank loan, try their luck with financial aid, or, if they’re not agile enough to get a scholarship, opt out of college altogether. But wait there’s more bad news.

As of last year, interest rates rose again for college students, mind you it’s not an outrageous amount, but it’s not a negligible amount either. I’m sure that there are a thousand fiscal details to work out that have endless ramifications, but the fact of the matter is that middle-class parents cannot afford inflating college costs, especially when interest rates on college loans usually float around between 3% and 6%. And I’m not even including bank loans, credit cards, or any other alternative means of paying for college, simply what the federal government loans out.

Now this is where you might get a little pissed off, the Federal Discount Rate, which is the interest rate at which the Fed loans money out to banks is .75%. True, this is only for very short-term loans, but even regular loans to huge multi-billion dollar banks are disproportionate to what the regular American student borrows. In other words if the regular American student were a corporate bank (with the current interest rate on college loans), it would’ve either dissolved a long time ago, collapsing under its own debt, or it would’ve gone overseas for a better deal. The reason for that is that a bank would never agree to such high borrowing rate as American students now graduate with. The fact is that the interest rate for students is disproportionate to what they and their parents make, and still a heck of a lot more than what the government loans out to banks. And while the whole comparison between students and banks is an apples-and-oranges scenario, it’s actually more of a gala-apples-and-golden-apples situation.

So it seems that pay-raise is not proportionate to the inflating college bubble, so just as we feared, there is no sustainability between what middle-class people make and the college debt accrued by those same people. And if I told you what investor and shareholder pay, corporate assets, and golden parachutes is, you might just go into a passive-aggressive fit of rage and throw your puppy out the window.

Ironically, for a lot of these students- younger and older- the problem is not acquiring the money they need to start their careers (although that is a problem too), rather the problem is actually getting it. And in a cruel twist of fate what many of these students end up in a “beware what you wish for” situation as soon as the first loan clears. And since a college loan is the only financial instrument that allows you to borrow more and more while your interest balloons up, it makes it a very dangerous tool to resort to.

Obviously the details are varied and extensive but this is pretty much a summary of what’s going on.But that’s still leaves us wondering why college tuition keeps going up despite a slow economic growth.

This is a difficult question to answer since it depends on more than one factor including: rising costs for room and board, slower graduation rates [1], budgetary limitations (whatever that means), skyrocketing costs for research institutions (which actually makes sense), government subsidies for grants and loans, and even the rate at which universities recruit can have an impact on these rising costs. There’s no way I can list all the reasons and the figures for each point, but this comprehensive article by the Washington Post from 2013 lists more exact figures for why tuition has been increasing, especially in smaller colleges and universities around the country.

What this all means is that it costs the state and the students more money and energy to pay tuition and to pay off that debt than to actually use the skills they went to school for in the first place. It’s a psychologically discouraging thing to graduate from college with upwards of $50,000 in debt without being ever comfortable in a job that you love, only to work in a job that you need. That is a debt that most likely will take someone the rest of their lives to pay. The true American dream is to accrue an insurmountable amount of debt after you start working, not before.

Some students and alumni are worse off and some are better off, but the harsh reality is that for of those who do owe, most of their financial decisions for the next few years to come (hopefully just a few) will be based around that debt.

 

Where Does It Go?

 

So where does the money go? Let me ask a simpler question, do you sit back with a beer and relax to watch college chemistry competitions; or college advanced math lectures? Unless you’re Ross from Friends, then I’m guessing the answer is no. College football, that’s the thing you watch.

Turns out that in some universities- those whose intercollegiate athletics programs are not self-supporting- a large chunk of what students pay goes to athletics programs that many of those students will never even attend. This also includes the salary for coaches and their assistants which is an obsene amount of money (in the millions) compared to what a regular college professor makes- less than 200K for the most experienced, much less for the majority. According to research by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, not only is the cost for these athletic programs increasing- which of course has an impact in rising tuition costs- but also almost 20% of Ohio University students wish there was less funding for these programs.[2] I can’t speak for any other colleges, but I’ll leave it to your discretion to assume what other sutdents around the country think about their own athletics programs.

In no way am I suggesting that we scrap athletics programs, but it seems that colleges are more known for how well their football teams and their glorified players performed than for how academically competent they are. Now it would make a big difference if the money the games brought in were evenly distributed across the board (meaning to cover other university costs other than the athletic departments) or even to compensate the players OR their families, but I am pretty sure that’s not the way it is.

Fortunately, most of the money a university receives from tuition, grants, government and private entities, and other sources, is efficiently utilized to pay mainly for instruction and research, and also for other services that the university provides. And a big part of that money goes towards financial aid which is mainly aimed at working-class students in an effort to get them in school.

But the less that states spend on college-level education, the more that public and private universities will need to make up the shortfall by increasing tuition and making cuts in how much it is spent per student. It’s simple economics and as much as I hate to admit it, colleges and universities are a business (even if educaiton isn’t), and as such it also governed by the same laws of economics as any other business.

 

Noble vs. Practical

 

Today everyone and their grandmothers know that going to college is part of an evolving society and by-and-large a great asset to possess if you want to make it in the real world comfortably. While in college you’ll form a relationship with blah, blah, blah.

The truth is that while there are many reasons why people go to college, they all boil down to two main ones: the noble, either because they find some discipline or art truly intriguing and they want to learn everything about it; or the practical, because they want to make money. These two people are not too different from one another, because they both know that whatever the reason, whatever the motivation, having an accredited higher education stamped on a diploma opens a lot of doors in the real world that are becoming increasingly hard to open without it.

This is a mantra that has been drilled for generations into the minds of children. Not a bad one to have drilled actually, but we’ll get to that. The point is that when people finally realize that everything we have now, from the laptop sitting on their desks to the crowns on their teeth, are the product of an incredible amount of study, perhaps a college education is not a bad thing to back you up.

But this constant reminder, like an alarm clock going off at all hours of the day, that they need to go to college right after high school, that they need to graduate and that they need to start making money right away becomes a tedious affair, one that undoubtedly bores some people. They get it from every angle, their parents, their teachers, their employers, even from banks themselves. Again, not a bad piece of wisdom to be given, but for what purpose?d

The message is clear: make money before you die!

It might sound a bit cynical to say something like that, but it’s a truth crudely reflected in numbers. In a survey taken in 2012 by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) in collaboration with UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, found that 87.9% of first year college students go to college to “get a better job.” [3] This pretty much translates to “because I want more money.”

That answer comes to no surprise to anyone since we are still recovering from a very nasty recession and the housing-bubble burst. And even though that survey was taken three years ago, an article by the Washington Post included data from a more recent survey by the same collaboration that echoes the data from 2012. So basically, yes, most people go to college to make money. Can you blame them?

From the 2014 survey, the second most important reason why people go to college is “to learn things that interest me” at 82.2% as opposed to 86.1% for “…a better job.”

What does this mean for college students?

In the first part of this blog-post I mentioned that schools should do away with unnecessary subjects or at least increase school-time in subjects that will be productive and necessary, like technology and the sciences. But I also mentioned that it is our responsibility to make them think and wonder, and not merely become slaves to themselves.

In this second part, it may seem as if I’m changing my views, but I’m not. The point is quite pragmatic in itself: those skills acquired in more elementary education is partly to prepare them for the college life and/or a life that is more technologically centered. I’m not suggesting we get rid of the sciences, or art, or sports, but rather that while elementary education is important in awakening the mind, college education is supposed to refine it, shape it, and prepare it to send it out productively into the world. It’s not really a change of mind, merely just an evolution of ideas.

There’ no doubt in my mind that there are lawyers who simply love law, or doctors who are passionate about human anatomy, or architects who are drawn to numbers and design, otherwise how could they live with themselves for all their lives doing something they hate just to make money? However there are those who view college as a business decision rather than an intellectual one. Which brings me to my next point.

You know how most children when asked what they want to be when they grow up choose the most selfless, most noble careers, e.g. firefighters, cops, doctors; but when they do grow up the smartest ones end up being stockbrokers and politicians? Well there’s a reason why that happens.

Every single day we read in the news words like “golden parachute”, “billion-dollar deals,” “Fortune 500 company,” and if you’re like me, you think to yourself, “man, I’m in the wrong business.”

The fact is that the rest of the arts and sciences are being out-competed by the money and the behavior that making money is more important than anything else is being reinforced in practically every aspect of American life. Fortunately, the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) sciences are on the rise, but we need to build more of that momentum and reward those who make our lives easier (scientists) instead of those who merely make life easier for themselves. That’s where college culture comes into play.

Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson said it best when he remarked:

 

I’m not here to convince you that money doesn’t get you happiness, believe me it does. However, I’m here to tell you that there’s no need to sacrifice something that you really like for something that makes you money. So in choosing a career, it is better to choose something that satisfies your curiosity, and a career that you’re drawn to (or a variation of it that will get you a bit more money), rather than something you hate that will leave you more money.

Case in point, when I was younger my grandfather knew the benefits of going to college and he urged me to choose a career in medicine or law. I have nothing against doctors or lawyers, but I immediately hated the idea of becoming either one, and I knew that if I ever succeeded at it, it would not only be half-assed, but I would be risking more than my own life in the process. I am now 27 and I finally have an idea of what I want to do with my life, and not one second goes by that I regret that decision. I am perfectly happy with who I am and what I do, and I know that I would have been miserable otherwise.

Life is about happiness, your happiness. Not anyone else’s. And it’s not a race, nobody wins at life, in fact the only way to win is to be the happiest that you can be without hurting anyone else or the world around you.

The issue with student debt has been an efficient political tool for both parties in “the Hill” for quite some time now, and a hot-button issue in Main Street; many even point out that student debt not only affects things here at home, but abroad as well. In this competitive world where countries like Russia, India, and China are fast risers in the global economic food-chain, it is more important than ever for America to invest in the best resource and asset it has to outcompete these nations and become once again a leading nation in education, technology, etc: an army of high-skilled and educated people. But is it possible- or have we lagged too far behind?

Today we discuss the education business in America and the next generation waiting to take the torch.

 

A Solution?

 

Often we read cases about graduates living frugally or doing economically-savvy things to pay off their loan so, and we rejoice when we hear one or two people did extraordinary things and got rid of their debt in a few short years. Honestly, yay for those people. But personally, I find it depressing that we have come to glorify the exceptions to the rule, as if it were a heroic thing to live on instant soup so for years on end just to not live with that debt until the day they die. That’s not how the American dream was sold to our generation. Debt wasn’t supposed to happen until later on in life.

The issue that we have is that with college debt, it’s not only the students and parents are paying the bill, but also you, the taxpayer. And it’s an expensive bill.

President Obama’s loan forgiveness program which he passed in 2013 aims at giving college graduates the opportunity to pay only 10% of what they earn towards their premiums for a period of 10 years, after which time their college debt will have been forgiven. But what happens to the rest of that money? Put simply, we pay for it, college graduate or not, we’re all paying for all 1.3 trillion dollars of student debt. As Jeffrey Dorfman of Forbes appropriately writes in this article, “If government wants to subsidize college education it could simply directly subsidize it rather than making loans that are designed to be forgiven.”

He’s completely right. Why do we keep beating around the bush when it comes to college tuition and loans that hurt financially not just the students and their parents, but also universities, financial institutions, and ultimately the government by loaning money we don’t have to people we know will have a hard time paying? A direct subsidy will save us billions in the long run.

But President Obama has his eye on two fronts, this one and also in his plan to make all two-year community colleges completely free to all students who wish to go- rich and poor. The move is not exactly a novel idea as it has already been implemented in Chicago and Tennessee for high school graduates. But his plan, formulated to cover all students regardless of previous education, is intended to be available across the nation.

By making it possible for students to go to college for free, at least for the first two years, the government would be giving those students a break to save up for their continuing education or to make it easier for them to obtain one, once already in college, basically providing a foothold.

But the program intends to do much more than that. By making it easier for all students to start college, its intent rests also in more socioeconomic integration by raising the number of minorities, and economically disadvantaged students and mixing them with students of higher means. The psychology behind it is very promising as it will undoubtedly boost campus and individual morale, something which can have a good effect in the future of those communities.

But what does that matter?

According to a report by Christina Ciocca and Thomas A. DiPrette of Columbia University- using various statistics and surveys- they found that minorities and economically disadvantaged students are at a higher risk of dropping out of public universities and two-year colleges than white students and middle-class students by several percentage points. Following is an excerpt of their findings:

“The National Center for Education Statistics (Snyder and Dillow 2012: Table 379) reports that while 63 percent of white first-time beginners in four-year institutions receive bachelor’s degrees six years after college entry, only 41 percent of Black students achieve the same. Gaps also exist at the two-year level, with 17 percent of white students and 11 percent of Black students receiving associate’s degrees, and 13 and 5 percent of each group transferring to four-year schools and achieving a bachelor’s degree, respectively.” [4]

The report (which I recommend you read) is very interesting and lists possible reasons as to why that happens not just for black students for also for other minorities.

So it makes sense that anything that can be done to help those drop-out rates, should be in place already. This idea (modeled after a Republican plan) has already been met with skepticism from liberals and conservatives alike, both demanding to know just how exactly are we going to pay for the $60 billion that it will cost over a decade. But fret not, my friends, there’s already a plan in motion for that as well. The government will pay for three quarters of the cost while the states chip in with the rest, obviously the tax-payer will get some of that bill.

But why the hell should we get to pay for college even if we’re not attending? Well, why pay taxes at all unless it’s for my own benefit? That’s basically what you’re saying. And since we’re on that question, why don’t you ask the same about elementary and secondary education, it is basically the same argument.

There is something fundamentally flawed about the education system in America. In my personal opinion, it has been commercialized and treated too much like a business rather than a necessity. Obviously we cannot dismiss certain businesslike aspects of it, especially when it comes to big research universities that depend on grants and also tuition money to continue important research. But if we’re admitting things, then we also have to admit that at its most basic level, higher education in the U.S. is becoming much too expensive to afford, and almost not worth the job that most students will get upon graduating- if they’re lucky enough to get one.

And although admirable, even Ivy League schools like Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, and Yale- which provide free education for students and families making less than a certain amount ($125K/yr, $120k/yr, $65k/yr, and $65-$150k/yr respectively) [5]– are the exception, not the rule.

Which brings me to my next question. What, if anything, could take from our European neighbors?

 

Brain-Drain

 

You might have heard that in other industrialized nations, higher education is incredibly more accessible than in the U.S. and in many cases entirely subsidized by the government- I use “subsidized” to not use free, because as it happens, there really isn’t such a thing as a free lunch. These are the countries we’ll use as a model of what an outdated system should turn into and I will try- in my limited knowledge- to explain how they do it (although it’s obvious enough).

Nordic countries, as well as some historically socialist Western European nations, have taken up the noble course of lowering college tuition to- wait for it- NOTHING. I can already feel the seething anger at the mention of “socialist”. But if you can get over it for a second, I will have you know that the word “socialist” here is not strictly implying a socialist political system- at least not in the way that those European nations conduct business. What I mean by socialist rather is the implementation of social programs for the benefit of a society modeled after a socialist framework. This means that the government controls these programs and not private entities.

If you, as a red-white-and-blue blooded American, staunch opponent of Big Brother politics and faithful defender of all things free, believe that America hasn’t been touched by the evil wand of socialism (the political system now) then I’m sorry to tell you that you have not only been fooled, but you have been the recipient of this socialism.

Long story short, these socialist programs created and enforced by the government have in fact made America a better country for it. Among these that have benefited all citizens of this great nation are: emergency services, postal service, transportation, the military, some forms of health care, even ones that you wouldn’t expect like sewer systems and trash collection. And education. All of these programs and many more have been introduced to the American public administration after administration, sometimes with opposition. Can you imagine any of these in the hands of private companies? It’d be disaster. Even without the hand of privately owned enterprise, education in the United States is costing trillions of dollars and not getting much better. Surely some European countries are doing something right if they beat us in: record numbers of college graduates, higher test scores, more productivity, etc.

So where in the world is college education cheaper than in the U.S.? Trick question: everywhere!

Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Slovenia, and France are among very few European countries that offer free or low-tuition college education, all in their respective populations’ dime. For the first three countries mentioned, foreign students are also welcome to enjoy the same educational benefits as their own citizens- higher education free of charge! In the case of Sweden that law has been rescinded to ban foreign students to study there completely tuition-free; but nevertheless the country has allowed many organizations to help cover the tuition of non-EU students, or other students who wish to study there, which still makes higher education in Sweden an inexpensive option.

But what about the rest of the world?

While many universities around the globe might not offer cheap or free tuition to foreign students, they do still offer those same privileges (incentives rather) to their own students. Some of the countries with the cheapest college education include: Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, Netherlands, and Brazil.

While these are just some of the countries with low-cost college education, they are by no means the only ones. This site has an interesting composite of information about the aforementioned nations on college costs, as well as other ones around the globe that also offer low-cost higher education. It’s important to note that for some of these countries (as in the case of my native Mexico) low-cost education is only available for state universities and colleges, while private universities will be more expensive.

But where do we rank in terms of higher education in comparison to other countries?

Well, we’re drawing from a different bag there.

According to this independent research judged by top academics from all over the planet, eight of the top ten universities in the world are in the U.S. of A. In fact, the website offers information on the rankings of more than 300 academic institutions and more in-depth information about them.

So being that American universities hold the top positions for education among the most respected in the world, why is it so difficult for Americans to obtain a college education… in America?

While this question is significant, I believe the better question to ask is: why do some of these other countries allow others to come and study- sometimes for free- only to leave, taking the skills they obtained to another country?

Perhaps they believe in the real value of higher education, or maybe they understand that not everyone can afford to go to college. Maybe it just makes good economic sense to allow students to take advantage of a good thing and offer them the opportunity to stay in their country and exploit those newly acquired skills there. It’s not only ethical, it’s practical. Not to mention that making education free makes good political sense.

Let’s form a comparison. In Germany, the state pays for college education for everyone who wants it, even for foreign students. Parents and students do not need to worry about tuition debts and high interest rates that will slow down their education and therefore increase drop-out rates. The snowball effect of leaving college in the middle of a degree is detrimental in large numbers. Therefore, by using pure mathematical logic, we can see that the cost of sending a whole generation of students to acquire high-level skills is minimal compared to the debt accrued if they don’t pay. The latter is essentially betting on the failure of students. And a debt that governments and financial institutions will be forever trying to collect.

On the other hand, if the education budget can be restructured properly, the gain from creating generations of high-skilled workers is nothing compared to the subsidizing of education in large scales.

We could bring up monopolistic sentiments about why the American education system is fairly inadequate in comparison to the mysticism that the United States has in the world: a powerful country unrivaled in mostly everything. But the simplest answer is usually the right one- our politicians simply prioritize other things over education.

 

Alternative Education

 

In this day and age there are still plenty of people- even here in America- who still don’t have access to education in their own countries and communities. For that reason, charitable organizations and public and private universities, who believe in the power of education have decided to get together and collaborate on massive projects that aim to change just that.

MOOCs- or Massive Open Online Courses- are exactly that, online courses available to anyone with a computer and internet connection in virtually any part of the world, and completely free or of very low cost to those who wish to take them.  These courses, or rather crash-courses, vary in length and can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and some can even last for months at a time, like a regular college class would. They are taught in many languages and you can find just about any subject you want, anything from cooking, to advanced trig, to film critique, to computer programming. Not only are these courses taught by accredited professors from some of the best universities in the world, but they also follow the rigorous online-college course model.

Most universities though do not certify credits accrued from MOOCs however, although there are some that do. But at least those interested in learning something new or in using MOOC services as aid to their actual schoolwork can have the opportunity to do so free and with virtually no restrictions.

MOOCs and other alternative forms of education are a great way to get started on a path for higher education. I, myself, have taken several MOOC courses and am a very big fan of them and I recommend them. So if you’re interested, here‘s a list of several MOOC providers that are for-profit and non-profit. Honestly, I have only used Coursera, but I can tell you that all the courses I’ve ever taken have been free. So feel free to sign up for something interesting to get your mind tickling.

 

Graduation

 

To conclude this, let me tell you that although I believe in the immense power of education, college is not for everyone. Don’t mistake that for “education is not for everyone”, because that would ring false and counter to my beliefs, not to mention detrimental to our society. But employers, teachers, parents, and most of all you, need to understand that true education, true knowledge can only be the product of true curiosity, unhindered by rules and social norms, by restrictions and roadblocks. Forced desire to learn will always yield negative, or at least lukewarm, results. We have to encourage our kids and ourselves to learn, but we also have to provide them with the means to do so.

In the first part of this blog I wrote that America is waging a war against our youth, against education. Let me tell you that it is a false war, an illusion of sorts. Because education transcends all barriers and ideologies, it is one of the few non-partisan issues that we can all make better. But only if we really want to. It is of no consequence what political party you belong to, or nationality, or religion (or lack thereof), or socioeconomic bracket you’re part of- I think we can all appreciate the huge benefits that a well-educated, well-informed generation can bring. And we can make it happen if we work together to make it so.

 

“There are many problems, but I think there is a solution to all these problems; it’s just one, and it’s education.” -Malala Yousafzai

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character- that is the goal of true education.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” -Benjamin Franklin

“He who opens a school door closes a prison.” -Victor Hugo

“The highest result of education is tolerance.” -Helen Keller

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Citations

[1] http://www.bankrate.com/finance/college-finance/6-reasons-college-costs-are-soaring-3.aspx

[2] http://www.centerforcollegeaffordability.org/uploads/Funding_the_Arms_Race.pdf

[3] http://heri.ucla.edu/briefs/TheAmericanFreshman2012-Brief.pdf

[4] http://paa2015.princeton.edu/uploads/152299

[5] http://thinkprogress.org/education/2015/04/02/3642085/stanford-free-tuition/

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Interesting Reads

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/04/07/college-tuition-is-getting-more-expensive-heres-whos-actually-to-blame/

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/corinthian-college-graduates-protest-student-loans-175051741.html

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ccap/2014/09/04/fed-data-show-college-isnt-a-good-investment-for-all/

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-11-13/college-tuition-in-the-u-s-again-rises-faster-than-inflation

http://college.usatoday.com/2014/08/26/how-much-student-loan-debt-is-too-much-2/

http://useconomy.about.com/od/monetarypolicy/a/fed_funds_rate.htm

http://www.forbes.com/sites/keithweiner/2014/12/22/can-the-fed-raise-interest-rates-2/2/

http://consumerist.com/2015/03/19/legislators-once-again-introduce-bill-that-would-allow-student-loan-refinancing/

http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/articles/2015/03/25/take-4-steps-to-understand-student-loan-interest-rates

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-salaries-dont-rise/2015/03/11/38c08cea-c81d-11e4-b2a1-bed1aaea2816_story.html

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/2011-12/world-ranking

Government Expenditures

https://www.usaspending.gov/Pages/default.aspx

http://demonocracy.info/infographics/usa/us_deficit/us_deficit.html

https://www.usaspending.gov/Pages/default.aspx

Pew Data

http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/10/07/the-changing-profile-of-student-borrowers/st-2014-10-07-student-debtors-03/

Cool It! -My Two Cents On Climate-Change Denial

Hey readership! Before we start, I apologize for going m.i.a. these last few posts. I’m not one to make excuses so I will not… the truth was that I was kidnapped by aliens and depraved experiments of sexual nature were performed on me. That was actually quite pleasant, which is why I stayed on their ship to get more of the good stuff so… now you now.

Okay fine! The real truth was that my absence was due to a mixture of that terrible disease we writers refer to as “writer’s block” and another incurable one most people on Earth refer to as “a shitload of work to get done.” For that I apologize. But now that I’m back, let me tell you about a funny experience I had the other day while stuck in traffic (impossible I know but just you wait). But before we get there, let me tell you a little about where I live so you will understand better where I’m coming from.

Texas has been my home-state since I was 13 years old, so basically I’ve lived in Texas longer than I’ve lived in Mexico, my native country, and for 14 years I’ve loved my adopted home as any other native Texan would. This place has everything to offer, even though where I live we are sort of devoid of mountains which I do long to see. Nevertheless, its deserts, lakes (some of them man-made), the Gulf of Mexico, Big Bend National Park, the richness and diversity of nature, its sprawling cities and the badass fact that it has it in its constitution the right to be its own country- all these things make Texas one of the best places to live in the open-wide United States.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area where I live is a dynamic growing city with all the excitement and amenities of any big city and the warmth and closeness of any one of the thousands of picturesque small towns that dot America. I always like to think of Fort Worth as either a big town or a small city, and I have always loved that balance. Although I’d say I’m more of a city guy, the calmness of this place makes it just the perfect place to raise a family or to start a new career.

Texans are very proud of where they live and they show it with every opportunity they have- and rightly so- after all they did fight off an entire army and won their independence. I would not be wrong to say that being a Texan carries a lot of arrogant pride at times; but it would also be unfair not to say that the people here are warm and hospitable, probably more so than any other place. And that’s what makes Texas just as iconic a place as California or New York, and trust me, we like to prove it!

However, just like any other place where pride is a big part of local identity, we are not without our faults either. And this is where I came to a very funny realization the other day.

If you as a tourist came to Texas, you would see clean streets, parks devoid of trash and litter, and maybe even a cop handing out a fine to some passerby for throwing away trash on the ground instead of the garbage can where it’s supposed to go. All of this is part of that whole pride thing I was talking about, and it came about from concerned people for the state of their…well, state! And it was for that reason that in the name of conservation the Department of Transportation (of all the agencies) came up with a way to keep Texas clean and beautiful. Now, any Texan can recite the easily quotable and iconic slogan “Don’t Mess With Texas!” created to reduce roadway litter around the state’s highways and show the nation that here in Texas we don’t mess with our state. For some people though the slogan has come to represent much more than that, it is a source of pride to show to the world.

Well it just so happens that the other day while stuck in traffic, I saw the iconic slogan imprinted on a sticker placed in the back window of a monster four-by-four. And as I stared at it and stared at it, something about it just didn’t make sense. And suddenly the irony came to slap me in the face- either that or it was the plume of black smoke coming out of the massive tailpipe. I realized that while we as Texans are so concerned about not polluting the streets with plastic bottles, cigarette butts, or even gum, we are perhaps a bit hypocritical about not messing with our state in other ways. And I think I’ve finally figured it out. Could it be that we’re simply more concerned about how our home looks and not exactly how clean it actually is?

 

The Important Hoopla

 

In the wildly popular follow-up to Carl Sagan’s 1980s tv show Cosmos: “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson talks about our (referring to the whole of the human race) addiction with fossil fuels- byproducts of the compression and extreme heat of carbon fossils to produce what we now pull out of the ground in the form of oil and natural gas and refined to fuel-grade substances that power most of our machines. In the show he speaks of the dangers of these nasty pollutants and how over the course of a century our recklessness has done to the planet what it would normally take thousands of years for the planet to do to itself: global warming.

You’ve heard that old tale before. We burn stuff, the CO2 gets trapped in the atmosphere before it can be recycled by plants and the ocean and what happens is that the Earth gets hot because the sun’s heat cannot escape, just like a pressure cooker. What you don’t believe is just how implausible it all seems! And it does, I mean come on! We, little old humans can affect the global temperature of an entire planet? Please. Yes, the Earth is a small planet, but even with close to 8 billion of us, it is still gigantic!

Right now… on the day that I’m writing this sentence, easily 97% of scientists all over the world believe that global warming is a real phenomenon happening to our planet, and what’s more, they are almost certain that we “little old humans” are at the root of it all. The other 3% were asleep the day the poles were being taken. 97%. If you’re not impressed by that number try getting the government to agree 97% on anything. Good luck!

We’re not talking here about political scientists, or architects, or psychologists, but about climatologists, astronomers, physicists, astrophysicists, paleontologists, seismologists, even mathematicians. In fact, a wide range of disciplines of science are almost convinced that it’s happening. So why is it that these people who paid a loooooot of money to go to school and spent several years not having fun, not going out to get trashed, probably not having a lot of sex, just sitting there day after day thinking for many years about these problems- why is it that despite their expert advice we don’t believe them- us, who did get to do most of those things?

Psychologists are still trying to understand where that disconnect happens between the population and the scientific community. I’m no expert, duh, but I think there are a few reasons besides the obvious ones like political agendas, corporate greed, and religious convictions that do not get mentioned a lot that we should also be talking about.

Please know that the reasons I’m about to list are not in any way trying to influence you to change your mind- after all if you don’t believe in global warming, you are probably not a scientist- but I list them so you can at least ask yourself “is this something I’m doing?”

 

The Counterproductive “Probably”

 

At this point in time, the climate-change debate is not really a debate anymore so much as it is a one-sided argument. Like I mentioned before, global warming in the scientific community is a non-issue, in the context that the discussion has gone from “Is it real?” to “how do we fix it?”

The problem scientists have (aside from lack of research funding) is interpreting faithfully the data that is collected in order to inform the population. If you think that scientists have an agenda, you’re not wrong. The agenda is trying to convince you that we need to cut the shit and start acting right. Not a bad agenda if you ask me.

Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done. Even collecting any piece of reliable data is very difficult to do, because it takes years to observe measurable change, analyze it, compile it, compare it, file it, publish it, and get it peer-reviewed for it to be an acceptable piece of evidence. If somewhere along the way an error is found, then the process starts over again.

Scientists will tell you, sometimes it is frustrating that after so many years of work, you publish and people don’t even believe it. It’s understandable for the layman to be skeptical when a lot of the science- especially related to GW- is not 100% accurate, which can be misleading.

Scientists understand that there are margins of error that we cannot get past, after all, there are a great deal of things we still do not understand about many fields, things that you wouldn’t believe are related to climate, such as mathematical chaos, “random” events, etc. These factors, and others, for which we still do not have an accurate model of are part of that margin of error that prevents us from knowing with total certainty what the weather is doing and whether it is apt to change in the near future. It is this margin of error that leads humble scientists to use words like “probably,” “we’re not completely sure,” and “we believe…” These phrases often get misconstrued in people’s minds as “we don’t know,” which has devastating effects on the public psyche regarding cold, hard facts we’ve collected about the world that are reliable.

In the scientific community an “I don’t know” stance is a respectable answer to a question for which we don’t yet have enough information about. Not so much in politics, religion, or economics. We are so used to expecting an answer to our questions- even if it’s the wrong answer- that we have come to expect the same from science, and of course the scientific method doesn’t work that way. What we should be doing instead is put on our thinking caps and our science goggles and look at the world through the eyes of a scientist. Look at and study the data and try to understand what the professionals are talking about instead of trying to shout over them. In other words, look at the evidence objectively.

People don’t often question any other element of their lives as much as they scrutinize scientific facts (especially those that have become political or financial tennis balls), but we need to be aware of the simple fact that although being skeptical is a very good thing, we should know when we’re wrong and change our minds when the facts are overwhelmingly in-your-face. It’s a hard thing to do to admit that you’re wrong, but if scientists do it, why can’t we?

 

Why Is It My Fault? Why Should I Change?

 

You’ve heard it before: change is difficult. But why? Well, in this case it’s not hard to see why we’re obstinate to continue burning fossil fuels at the rate that we are, and in my opinion I don’t think that the answer is money. Well, not the whole answer.

Despite the dire warnings that in the “business-as-usual” path we’re at, global temperatures could rise as much as six degrees by the end of the century, we continue to burn fossil fuels at exorbitant rates. I say “we” because the gas your car needs to move, the hot water you use to shower, and the electricity you use don’t come out of nowhere, some of those are products of the burning of fossil fuels, so whether we want it or not, we are all contributors of global warming.

And although six degrees does sound a bit too much, that is the most extreme scenario, but just try this out for fun: raise your house temperature by six degrees and see if you don’t feel a difference. The world works the same way, but the really big difference is that raising the global temperature even one degree can have radical alternate effects on the environment, let alone six. At six degrees, the world will basically turn into an oven where natural disasters will become incredibly violent, much more frequent, and very polarized (some regions will experience severe droughts while others will see a rise in sea level.) The upside is that they will at least be more predictable. I forget why that’s a good thing.

Even if we stopped the current model today, temperatures are still expected to rise one or two degrees well before the end of this century, like a runaway freight train. If you think you can adapt to the heat, maybe YOU can, but you have to understand that the world depends on a delicate balance and that you’re not the only living thing in it. In fact, thousands of species depend on global temperatures staying the way the are and they cannot cope with the changes fast enough to evolve. Believe me that if temperatures rose by six degrees in one year, the world would experience mass die-offs, even bringing humanity within an inch of extinction.

If this sounds alarming it’s because it is. But why is it that this doesn’t sound alarming enough to take action?

One of those reasons I mentioned for why this happens is the inability for people to accept fault. That, coupled with the dread of change. It is, after all, much easier to keep things as they are than to change them.

You see it everywhere, people complain that it’s too hot and yet they buy bigger and bigger gas-guzzlers. We express grief that another species dependent on a delicate environment has extinguished and yet we complain about gas prices. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. We have acquired this passive-aggressive mentality that all it does is stall, and ‘m guilty of the same crime. Environmentalists complain about gas companies and yet they drive to the rallies while stopping to gas up on the way there. There’s no denying the hypocrisy that undoubtedly exists, and we bear the blame. But if we think about it, it is a vicious circle that starts and stops with us. There is such a thing as responsible (or responsible-ish) use of fossil fuels, but we also have to accept that we have been conned, and conned good.

As it stands, the fossil-fuels industry is experiencing its golden age of advertisement, much like it was for cigarette companies in the 60s. Gas companies will claim that the fuel we’re burning has ethanol, that it’s safer for the environment, that uses more plant derivatives, etc. But what they don’t tell you is that the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is so accessible nowadays that it’s far from impossible for billion-dollar companies to make that switch. However, it is inconvenient. For them because that would mean spending a lot of money on something that they would lose money on. At the same time they shamelessly guilt us into thinking that “putting out the fire” will put many people out of work.

There’s no denying that change has consequences. Even good change can have bad consequences as I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” But in the end, I am more than positive that responsible governments can- and should- create or re-position the jobs lost due to a global energy switch when the demand for cleaner energy begins- after all alternative fuels aren’t going to create themselves.

Renewable energy is cheap and virtually limitless. It’s inconvenient for you right now because even the switch is admittedly still a bit expensive to implement- and for them [corporations], because they can cash in on that inconvenience. That doesn’t change the simple fact that once implemented, renewable energy is cheap and limitless. Hopefully typing in bold letters will have some kind of positive effect.

But despite my best efforts, it seems reasons not to make that switch are also limitless. Let’s see what’s another one.

 

Invisible Doom

 

This past winter, North America saw one of the coldest winters on record. Temperatures dropped to double digits and snow buried entire towns. Like clockwork, climate-change deniers immediately jumped up at the chance to prove us all wrong and tell us just how much of an illusion GW is by… holding up snowballs. If this isn’t the pinnacle of stupidity, I don’t know what is. The least he could’ve done is start a snow-ball fight in the middle of the senate floor… it would at least make C-SPAN more interesting.

I remember a few weeks ago I saw something on the magical gem that is the Internet that got me laughing and thinking at the same time. The joke was in response to people who say that global warming must not be real if it still snows on winters, and I should have saved the exact quote or taken a picture of it, but here’s a funny approximation: “I got cold today, yeah, global warming must not be real.”

It must be tiring for scientists to have to repeat themselves over and over again- sorry Neil Degrasse Tyson. Yes, it’s cold during winter. Yes, climate change is still happening! And yes, there is a scientific explanation for it, that we fortunately do have.

However, scientists understand that your mind gets easily distracted every ten seconds, so for the sake of hope that it might stick one day, they are happy to repeat the statement: GW is indeed still on.

The fact that most people don’t believe that fossil fuels can have such an impact on global warming is due to two reasons: the change- although extremely fast in geological timelines- seems slow-to-a-crawl for us humans and therefore unnoticeable- at least until the planet hits two degrees, then everything will start going downhill real fast; and the second reason is that most of the people with the luxury of denying a changing climate already live in urban areas, which let’s face it, have problems of their own.

In the span of a person’s life (roughly 80 years in developed countries), climate will have barely warmed one degree, maybe two. Again, us humans are very resilient creatures and though one degree of difference is nothing to be alarmed over, the planet sees it differently; and people living in poor areas see it even more!

One degree of difference in global temperatures in New York City might mean warmer Texas-like summers. In Texas- where I pitch my tent- it hardly matters because the weather just does what it wants over here anyways, but even here the heat waves will become extreme. But other places in the world are not so lucky. California is experiencing some of the worst droughts in recordable history, and Australian wildfires are out of control. Elsewhere it might mean disappearing coast lines as temperatures rise thus melting the polar ice-caps and glaciers that sustain local ecosystems.

You have the luxury of messing with your thermostat when you don’t like what the weather is doing. Other people are not so fortunate and they experience the effects of a changing climate in a more direct and terrifying way.

The fact that the planet is slowly warming (in our terms) has little to do with the fact that this is the fastest warming the world has ever naturally experienced. In other words, it is unnatural the pace at which the Earth’s climate is changing. But you wouldn’t feel much of a difference if you were not looking for clear signs, as scientists do.

Some years ago British scientists discovered– through a lot of research- that there was a hole in ozone layer over Antarctica. You might have heard about this or you might not. Ozone is a poisonous gas at ground-level but in the stratosphere where it resides, it protects us against harmful ultra-violet (UV) rays from the sun. Without it we are toast… quite literally.

The normal person wouldn’t have known this hole even existed had it not been for the research presented. Hell most people before then probably knew very little about the Ozone layer itself. But it was this research that showed how the ozone hole was not created due to natural causes but rather the direct cause of human-made ozone-depleting pollutants. And where do most of these pollutants come from? Take a wild guess.

Living in the city, or near an urban area, might make you a little less adept at noticing changes that happen to other species because of climate change. The reasoning behind it is simple: there just isn’t a whole lot of nature to observe, therefore it’s easier to miss. Even the lush local vegetation of clean cities doesn’t compare to the vast expanse of a rain forest or a tropical area. But take a trip to what’s left of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia (still one of the most breathtaking places on Earth) and even the locals will tell you how much of it is gone- a lot of that to ocean acidity, which is a product of rising temperatures. But this isn’t exclusive to oceans- which bear some of the heaviest burden due to pollutants like oil spills as well as heat entrapment– but also rainforests affected by deforestation, tropical areas, the tundra, and even deserts.

Eventually the changes, even in your city, will become so pronounced that there will be no denying it, climate change is happening and it’s happening because of what we are doing. And because of the concentration of humans in cities, high-rises, mountains, local ozone-layer depletion, metal and asphalt, and very little vegetation, heat will not be able to disperse as easily.

The fact that global warming is invisible like the wind, doesn’t mean that it’s not there. And what’s more, the fact that you don’t think you’re contributing to it means nothing to the generations who will curse you for not acting because you felt like it wasn’t your job.

 

Why Deny it?

 

If it sounds scary it’s only because it should be. The reality is that painting that scary picture is the only way to get people to act. It’s really sad that scientists have to almost resort to scare-tactics to get our politicians to act and for normal people to force them to act.

It seems like such a waste of precious time and resources for scientists to have to prove to the layman what has already been debated among themselves for decades with people smarter than you and I. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ask questions. But when the evidence is overwhelmingly against your favor, maybe it’s time to pay attention.

A lot of people who deny climate change say something along the lines of “but how can humans change the planet’s climate? That sounds far-fetched!”

Well, not if you look at the massive damage that we have done to the planet, and that we keep doing. Current climate change stems from a combination of many events, both natural and man-made. It stems from the detonation of thousands of nuclear weapons over the years, to the razing of rainforests, to the spilling of oil and chemicals into the water (oceans and freshwater), to the modification of local climates; all, and more, of this combined with the Earth’s natural heating and cooling cycles.

Again, I will not discuss the reason for why the current warming is not just the Earth being… melodramatic as in past times. You can find that information in the bottom section under “Interesting Reads”. Today I am discussing some of the [unusual] reasons for why I believe people don’t believe current climate-change is man-made or anything to take seriously. I don’t want to step on any toes here, but I think these reasons are valid given proper study. But even if I’m wrong, that doesn’t mean that the experts are. You should at least listen to what they say and act accordingly.

 

What’s the problem?

 

The problem we have in Texas is the same problem we have throughout the United States and indeed throughout the world. It’s not a shortness of resources, how could we, every single minute we are bathed in the byproduct of the most resourceful element in our galaxy- the sun. Wind power is virtually limitless, unless one day the wind stopped blowing. Nuclear energy, although still harmful to a certain degree is also basically limitless and thousandfold times less harmful than fossil fuels. Motion energy is, again, endless. So what is the problem then?

In many ways the problem is the most serious and dire one we have. The resource that we lack does not belong to the physical world and yet, it is the thing we lack the most: will. It is the will to change that’s carving one of two paths for the future history of our world and our species and all the species in it. Notice how I put “the world” ahead of everything else? That’s because whether we make this place a shithole or a paradise, the world survives without us- it’s impossible for the inverse scenario to happen. We cannot survive without the world. Our greed and insatiable appetite for quick profits and “act-later” attitudes is fast outpacing our very own survival. I think it’s obvious to see why, after all we don’t have a colony in the moon to go to, or space cities we can take refuge in. This is all we have… well, this is all we have, our generation of humans. But what about the next generation or the next or the one after that- what will they have? Or actually more like, what will they have left?

And this brings me to the stupidest reason we can possibly find to not act.

 

When That Happens I Will Be Long Dead

 

This is perhaps the more irresponsible position to take. Whether you have kids or not, being a responsible human being means looking out for the world of the future, for the generations that will come after you.

If you live in what’s called a “first-world” country (a term I despise), then you were born with the luxury of not having to fight for food every day of your life- hopefully. Imagine a world where every single day your biggest fear is to find food only to have to kill for it, even if it’s from your own family members. If we continue on the path we’re on, eventually that is what will happen in a 3-4 degree world. It will not happen overnight, but each barrel of oil more that we burn will inexorably lead us to the collapse of modern civilization. And those who live in the cusp of 2-3 degree change, or 3-4, or 5-6 (if there are any people left in the planet), will undoubtedly curse us all. But what does it matter, we’ll be dead, right?

The point is to take a responsible approach. In the same manner that we resent past generations for past atrocities, future generations have one of two paths carved out for them: they will either be part a futuristic, sustainable global civilization that will do great things, far greater than we can ever imagine; or they will dwell in an uninhabitable lawless wasteland where there will be no more future for the human race. And one of those futures will happen by how we act today.

Can we possibly hope to change?

 

Cool It!

 

If you’re anything like me, you probably freak out when you spill juice on your carpet (I do it all the time) or when your bathroom looks like Gollum made it his lair, or when the dishes pile up everywhere. You set a day to just clean and you do it. And again, if you’re anything like me, you probably feel amazing once everything is nice and clean and sparkling. Okay I pay for people to do it, but the whole point is that you like your environment clean. So why is it such a crazy idea to want an extended part of your environment, mainly the environment, as clean as you’d want your house?

I see the whole environmental issue effectively as a non-issue, but rather a matter of commmon sense. When non-environmentalists grill people for being whiny about wanting to have a clean world, basically what they’re saying is “Why the hell woudn’t you want a big oil spill in that water you drink, are you against progress or what?” At least that’s what I hear.

Chances are you will read this blog, just as you have done with many others, be concerned for about 10 seconds, maybe even donate $5 to a local group and brush it off thinking you did your part. Throwing money at the problem will not fix it. But it just so happens that there is something you can do that is effective and inexpensive, and it all starts with how you live.

You don’t need to go out there and try to change governments and destroy oil rigs. By doing simple non-intrusive things at home, you can do your part. Here are some you can try:

  • Conserve water whenever possible by taking shorter showers, watering your lawn a bit less and recycling water.
  • Recycling. Using less plastics and more organic stuff can make a great impact!
  • If possible, change your energy demands. If it’s within your means, install solar panels in your home and/or switch to alternative methods of energy: wind or solar. If not, then even changing the light-bulbs at home to more energy-efficient ones can make a big difference and it’s relatively cheap.
  • Tough it out a bit during the summer and winter. Keep your thermostat a bit cooler in the winter and a bit warmer in the summer at home and not only will you be helping the environment but also your pocket.
  • Think green! Get plants a lot of plants for your home. It’ll look nice and it will oxygenate your house. And if you can, plant trees! Maybe one or two will not make much a difference, but it does make a difference.
  • Reduce the fuel you burn. Buy more energy-efficient vehicles and try to stay away from big gas-guzzlers. Explore your city more instead of traveling by car or plane. Or try to save fuel whenever possible.
  • Talk about it. You’re bound to catch someone’s attention. Tell people the good things our planet is losing to burning fossil fuels. And scare them with the possible future realities if necessary. But overall spread the word.

Right now it’s too late to reverse the course of a one-degree increase. But it’s not too late to stave off disaster. All it takes is a little will. If you love your state like I do, if you love your country like I do, if you love this world like I do, I urge you to show it. Change the culture. Maybe it’s time for a new slogan: Don’t Mess With Planet Earth!

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And as always I leave you with this little gem… enjoy 😀

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Interesting Reads:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/21/us/politics/obama-administration-unveils-federal-fracking-regulations.html?_r=0

http://www.iflscience.com/environment/gulf-stream-weakening-bad-news-north-atlantic

http://www.dangersoffracking.com/

http://www.livescience.com/27692-deforestation.html

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-determine-the-scientific-consensus-on-global-warming/

http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/wycd/home.html

For a chilling description of degree-by-degree destruction check this out:

http://globalwarming.berrens.nl/globalwarming.htm

Old Hot Tensions or New Cold War: How World War 3 With Russia Will (Probably) Never Happen

Every now and then my dad and I engage in lively, and sometimes fierce, debate regarding the state of affairs in the world. We discuss our ideas and points of view as if by talking about it we could somehow dissolve the animosity that seems to be so commonplace nowadays. My father not only very knowledgeable but also one of the most interesting people I know, makes those little conversations quite fun and challenging. Most often than not we agree on many things, but every now and then there are inevitable crossroads where neither will make it easy for the other to get his point across. Just as he does, I too try to inform myself about what’s happening in the world when it comes to politics and things of that nature and just like him I am happy to learn new things that I didn’t know before. Some of these talks will stretch on for hours and even continue on in other phone conversations and unfortunately sometimes we will not concede to each other’s points no matter what the other person says. But when we do, we both agree that the other had the better argument.

One of those highly polarizing subjects that we often touch on is U.S.-Russia relations where I will usually side with the U.S. in mostly every aspect and where he always sides with Russia. It comes as no surprise to either one when during the natural course of a phone call the subject will “casually” come up with one or the other asking, “Hey, did you hear about what’s going on in ____?” And that’s when we both know it’s game on.

While the conversations might seem redundant at times, the news (and the growing divide between countries) will always provide new material for us to toss back and forth. My father’s view is usually that America’s “imperialism” and meddling is growing out of control and will eventually start a war that we will not be able to contain- among other things. In calm contrast, mine is that while the U.S. has committed barbaric acts of violence and does meddle in world affairs to a degree, that in many cases Russia is no better, at in most cases is worse. I typically refrain from using the phrase “the better of two evils” because I have such a loathing for it, but I wouldn’t be completely wrong in saying it.

During our exchanges we will both accuse each other of blind allegiance and of only considering information from biased sources; as if a third party was completely impartial and objective- something which is becoming increasingly difficult to find. Among the other charges, he will usually accuse me of either blowing up the subject out of proportion and I of him undermining it, or vice-versa. He will usually say that China and Korea are still Russia’s allies and that in the inevitable war that is to come they will side with the Russians. I, on the other hand, will usually concede the point that while China is still Russia’s biggest ally, before a war breaks out they will do everything earthly possible to avoid one. But our biggest disagreement lies in the assumption that a war between the U.S. and Russia (which is starting to look more and more like the old Soviet state it once was) is not only near but inevitable.

While these debates are lighthearted and many “facts” will be tossed around in the heat of the moment, at times I am left thinking of the very real possibility that it might actually happen. I analyze as many factual things as my limited knowledge permits me and I come to conclusions. Of course I am not 100% sure of my prognosis, and should a war ever break out between the U.S. and Russia, I’ll be the first to apologize provided I’m not ash by that time- not that it would matter any.

But while a war with Russia seems unlikely, it’s worth going into detail about why that is. And more importantly, why the peculiar behavior from Russia’s side if they don’t intend to start a war with the West. China, which would also be a serious contender in a war and a country that has been racking up its military over these past several decades, is even less likely to enter into a war with the U.S., although tensions still run high in that front too. This is not to say that a third world war still couldn’t happen. But I believe our priorities need to match our reality. Before the conflict in Ukraine, there was a considerably higher possibility to enter into a direct armed conflict with North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and even Saudi Arabia than there was with Russia. Things change quickly, I know, and although none of these countries possess anywhere near the military power that China and Russia have, some of them do enjoy their support which complicates things a bit. However, I have come up with five reasons of why I believe that a direct war with Russia is nothing more than a dangerous dick-measuring contest between two countries with a historical tendency to fuck with each other.

 

1. The Semblance of Democracy

 

I heard somewhere that even the semblance of democracy is important because that means that a country is ready to embrace it, even if it’s in its most basic form. I really wish I could remember where I heard or read that particular quote because I’m sure the person who said it probably had something else interesting to say, so again I apologize. But it is true that the semblance of democracy is the first step towards a stable community run by the desires of those governed and not who govern.

In the most recent survey by Transparency.org, an organization which measures the index of transparency in countries around the world reported that Russia currently occupies number 136 out of 175 countries in the index of corruption. That’s really bad considering that only 175 countries were surveyed. The United States comes in at 17, Germany at number 12, France at 26, with Ukraine being the most corrupt country in Europe with a rating of 142.  At this, there is still a fundamental disparity between the styles of government between the West and the East, something that no doubt causes waves in geopolitics. It almost seems as if shifting from the reigns of a Communist vanguard, Putin has found in a democratic Russia the room he needed to implement his desired policies with little or no opposition. Whether his aim is to defy the west and reposition Russia to a top place in world politics or to completely turn back to Soviet-style politics is speculation, but there is no doubt that his defiance put us at a very uncomfortable position, that of knowing what we’ve always known, that we’re not the only players around.

I could go into detail about Putin’s puppet government, but in this section we’re just trying to see why even the semblance of democracy in an obviously not-so-democratic nation can help thwart a war between the East and the West.

It makes you wonder what would happen if Putin blatantly announced that Russia would be going back to Communism. Surely a lot of partnerships would collapse, economically, militarily, politically, and even its closest-trading partners in that side of the world would start to get nervous at the prospect, China for one. Having that kind regressive sentiment still carries a lot of stigma. The question then is not how many partners is Russia willing to lose to go head-to-head with the West in a war, but rather who of the partners it’s loosing. There’s no doubt that Putin would be applauded by leftist nations all over the world. The man is already popular with Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, but now he’s also warming up to other South American nations that have historically or currently politically have gripes with the United States. Could these nations, plus some Asian and African nations, garner enough support for another Cold War siding with Russia? There is no coincidence here, most of these nations, including some factions in Mexico that were quickly disbanded due to Mexico’s proximity to the U.S., were openly Marxist Socialist or otherwise Communist and sided with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But could we go as far as saying that a new Cold War would begin? This is an interesting but fearful answer to contemplate.

My honest answer is I don’t know, but I also believe that it would be highly unlikely seeing how the prosperity of this country, and this one and this other one, not to mention Russia’s economy– countries where the Soviet Union had a strong grip- has dramatically improved since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is highly unlikely that any of those now-sovereign independent states, many of which now enjoy the protection of NATO, would ever support a regression. Let’s go so far as to say that only Russia becomes openly Communist again without invading countries or meddling in the affairs of other nations, it’s possible even its closest allies like China- which whom Russia enjoys a privileged position- would be wary of doing business with them due to the complexity of Communism in politics in today’s world.

This is good for the rest of the world, because even if Russia doesn’t truly belong in the circles that the West has created for itself, it belongs to that trading partnership and is welcome to receive its benefits. A war with Russia will never start as long as it enjoys the strong concessions provided by democracy, or by Brittish-American-style Capitalism. Does that mean that trying to improve its influential position, especially in the case of Ukraine, will not lead it to start a war? No, it doesn’t mean that, but again, Soviet-style imperialism is hard to hide nowadays.

 

2. Economics: China’s Growing Influence

 

Today, Russia and China enjoy a cozy relationship that was almost non-existent in the last years of Communism in Russia during the Sino-Soviet split. However, it seems that through calculated partnerships and strategic alliances, China’s sphere of influence has spread to cover now much of Asia and even the Latin American world as well. Here in the United States the insatiable craze for  Chinese trade that we have- which is also starting to wear thin- has allowed our country as well as theirs to prosper through mutual agreements and indeed also disagreements.

At the beginning of last century and during the start of the Cold War, Russian-style Communism was the perfect blend of social, political and economic elements to create the perfect alternative to the capitalistic democracy of the United States and similar sociopolitical systems of Europe. But as the years and leaders came and went and that romantic spirit of revolution waned, an almost antagonistic sentiment began to settle not just within the Politburo but also in the population of the Soviet Union itself. It was then that China took the torch and became the new model to follow. Chairman Mao Zedong and his “Cultural Revolution“, which was a brutal revival of the Chinese revolutionary sentiment that rebranded Communism and begun a new era of industrialism in the Eastern world. China quickly changed from being just a satellite state for the Soviet Union to becoming a top player in its own right.

Of course we know now that China is not the Communist nation that a young- or even an old- Mao aspired to build, but that in essence it is sort of like a hermit crab, a Capitalist hermit crab wearing a Communist shell. During the massive economic expansion that China went through in the 70s and 80s by opening up more to the West (something that Russia missed out on for obvious reasons), the Chinese grew their economy exponentially by more than 20% in some cases, quickly turning the country into a military and economic power.

USA and China.

Obvious disparities between the U.S. and China still exist, many based on culture differences, historical events, current alliances, economic models and, indeed, show of force; but overall, the business partnership that has allowed China to quickly become the second largest economy in the world after the U.S. while keeping the stability of the region fairly calm, has allowed both countries (China and us) to assert a major influence in that side of the world. This complex business partnership that begun some decades ago allowed a somewhat disenfranchised Asia to gravitate more towards China’s sphere of influence rather than Russia’s. And while the Western world seemed, for the most part, united against Eastern Communism, the East began to appear fractured as many Communist factions started to implement their own versions of the socio-economic and political system. In a word, China became somewhat of a good friend to the U.S., which was of course what the United States wanted and needed.

By the 1980s it was becoming more and more apparent that the partnership between China and the West would give the U.S. an important foothold in the East. Today, although tensions grow and diminish in Asia, China is still a good mediator between Western powers and hostile states such as North Korea and at times even between Russia and the United States. Even though the American dollar still dominates world markets, something that China’s powerful economy is working hard to change, with trillions of dollars at stake, it seems both countries would rather trade money than bullets. It’s also important to note that the massive purchase of American debt by China binds them in a strange way to us- if we can only hope they don’t ask for all their money all at once. There are problems that arise from this sort of mildly dangerous trade, one of those being that China might see the rift between U.S.-Russia relations as an opportunity for economic supremacy in a vie of military conquest towards eradicating the West. This is a real possibility, but until now it hasn’t had significant gravity to warrant hostile action on our part.

But to be honest, it is hard to imagine which side China would take if a war between the U.S. and Russia were to break out, after all China has been Russia’s trading partner for much longer than it has been America’s and what’s more, they share a border. We should also consider the recent developments in geopolitical events mainly the island disputes between China and Japan, of which the U.S. is a staunch ally. But I believe that if tensions start becoming unmanageable, China will use every resource available to resolve whatever differences diplomatically rather than militarily.

 

3. Isolationism

 

Think of the world as it is today. With the invention, or rather commercialization, of the internet, the world is now more connected than it has ever been before. I wouldn’t be surprised if a study produced results pointing out that the world is a little bit more peaceful, in part, to this collective thing that humanity has invented for itself. Today the power to speak to any human being on the planet (or even outside of it) in real time can be handled by any six year old with a mobile device and connection to the internet. The planet is quickly and willingly becoming more connected in mostly every aspect and the old policies of self-isolationism can no longer protect countries from the influence of the outside world. Take for example self-isolated countries such as Cuba and North Korea. These countries probably have the natural resources to survive independently of any other nation, unfortunately for them they only posses these resources and none other. In times of distress they can only depend on their own ingenuity to resolve their own problems and when those natural resources they depend on diminish, they have no outside help.

This wouldn’t be so bad of course if the leadership guiding these nations was disinterested in power and wealth. Unfortunately that’s not the case and as a result, their populations suffer immensely, in most cases lacking even basic human resources. It’s evident then that in this modern age we live in, isolationism for any country, whether self-imposed or as punishment by the conglomerate of nations that surround it (speaking in a political context), is in effect the kiss of death. In fact, no country in the world can now survive without the help of another. At this moment, Cuba is aided by many nations around the world and with the policy change under President Obama, the old embargo is expected to be fully lifted and a new partnership will begin between Cuba and the United States. But even North Korea, also known as the “Hermit Kingdom” for its aggressive self-imposed isolation, enjoys a military and economic alliance from one of its biggest sponsors- China.

Berlin Wall Credit: "Berlinermauer" by Noir at the German language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Berlinermauer.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Berlinermauer.jpg

Berlin Wall
Credit: “Berlinermauer” by Noir at the German language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Berlinermauer.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Berlinermauer.jpg

During the years of the Cold War when no trade agreements were allowed between Western countries (mostly Capitalist) and Eastern countries (mostly Communist), even isolated Russia traded with its satellite states and other neutral countries. There are many here in the United States that call for the self-isolation of our country and to stop meddling in other nations’ affairs. While I partially agree with the second part, I don’t think the first is a realistic goal at all.

According to our Republican politicians, and Conservatives throughout, Putin has made all the right moves in this political chess game being played at the global level. But as near-history has proven, Obama’s bloodless policy has not only worked better than military action, but it has repaired the somewhat damaged relationship between the U.S. and Germany over allegations that the N.S.A. had tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone. This is a very good thing since Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande are some of our closer allies in that side of the world, and the people who are willing to stick our their necks so close to the Middle East and to Russia for us.

This strengthening relationship with the Europeans means that we are united against Putin’s shenanigans where it pertains to Ukraine and Georgia. It almost seems like deja vu what’s happening in Ukraine after the events of 2008 when Russia invaded another sovereign country in its backyard, Georgia. But the NATO alliance of which the U.S. and several European countries are members of, will not allow another invasion to go unresolved. But rather than fighting the Russians with conventional wars in their own turf (of which even a united Europe is incapable of doing), instead they turn to economics as way of fighting the Russians.

Last year, the meeting of the G7, formerly the G8, rejected to be held in Russia as a protest for the blatant act of invasion on Ukraine. And just a month ago Angela Merkel said with confidence that if Russia continues on this path with Ukraine, it will not be invited to the next G7 summit hosted by the German chancellor.  Take into account that the G8, now the G7, is not your typical college club. The G7 is a group of the seven most powerful nations in the world in terms of economy, military, and influence, and being shunned by the group can not only cost a country a lot of money, but also influence. When all G7 countries forcibly removed Russia from membership, that act sent a message that they will not tolerate one of their industrialized partners to behave like bullies.

With an already shrinking economy, the combination of sanctions imposed on Russia by Europe and the U.S. and the low price of oil will further drive down their economy, and with no way for foreign investors to take a stake in Russian goods, the Russians are quickly being isolated from the world stage. There’s only so much a country can do by itself. Even the very charitable IMF (International Monetary Fund) could not rescue Russian banks from the economic crisis of last year. These effects are being felt by the Russian people who, while at first supported the campaign in Crimea, now support instead a balance in Russian economics, and more importantly a drop in food prices.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia has retreated into a capitalism-style economy that is self supporting. But this strategy is not free. There is already an ongoing effort that’s gaining momentum to curb Russia’s energy supplies on Eastern Europe. The natural gas demands are to be supplanted by American natural gas reserves as a counter-measure to Russia’s Gazprom, the company that supplies Ukraine at steep prices that the current government is unable to pay up front.

By reading this you might think that it is a dangerous thing to bully Russia into isolation, but an isolated Russia, although still powerful and influential, is less likely to start a war with the United States- and NATO for that matter- without first having the support of more powerful allies. Agreed, economics alone perhaps will not stop Russia from starting a war, but it certainly does help. Hopefully, Russia will choose to go the diplomatic route instead of going to blows with the world.

 

4. Global Terrorism

 

After the Cold War ended, conventional wars quickly become obsolete in light that there were very few worthy contenders to fight with. Even the American military campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan were little more than invasions. While one could make the case that these military campaigns were nothing more than an oil-grab or legitimate defensible invasions to depose a dictator, is up for individual debate. What we can be sure of is that global terrorism has changed the way the world conducts military operations, and the renewed involvement of intelligence services is reminiscent to the age of espionage during the Cold War.

Aided by one side or another (the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan to fight the Russians, or the North Vietnamese to fight the Americans), these groups, some of which are now players in today’s conflicts, mainly in the Middle East, now wage a different type of war against the West; this is not a war of allegiances or for territory, it is a war of ideas- holy war. Jihad, or holy war, against the “West”- a term not indicative of a region of the globe but an umbrella word to cover all of the oppressors of the Middle East and basically anyone who is an infidel, or an enemy of Islam- is indiscriminate of anyone. Even Muslims fall prey to the brutal tactics now in full effect by terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS. And unlike the conventional enemies of before, up until a couple of years ago the enemy was invisible.

If we remember Russian imperialism during the Cold War, there is no way we can dismiss the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 80s. Could it be that the freedom fighters of yesterday (or the terrorists of today) realized that Soviet Russia was just America’s counterpart in the East? Perhaps. What we know for sure is that in this fight no one is safe, least of all civilians.

A few weeks ago, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, a pair of Japanese journalists were captured by the Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL) and were executed after the group failed to collect a hefty ransom that in all probability they knew they wouldn’t get. Now, Japan is considering amending their constitution, which expressly forbids Japan from building an offensive military, to aid in the “war against terror.” In similar situations other civilians of different nationalities have also been captured by the terrorist group and executed violently.

It is, to a certain degree, understandable why IS would have a deep hatred for the U.S., but to vow the destruction of Japan is something that falls a bit off the realm of reason. Not only is Japan a peaceful nation, but it doesn’t even have an offensive military. This just comes to show that the irrationality of these terrorist factions, not just Islamic but all terrorist factions around the world, is causing the world to unite against them. The effectiveness of these groups is rooted in three things: one is that they are totally and completely devoted to their beliefs and they are incredibly organized to carry them out; the second reason of why they are effective at what they do is that they take advantage of the goodwill of democratic nations and their tolerance; and the third thing is that they take advantage of the disagreements between these nations.

Russia must be united in this goal to eradicate global terrorism so that conventional wars with serious adversaries can resume. I obviously joke in that last part. But what is true is that it is easier to divide and conquer than to conquer. Of this I am obviously speaking of the visible divide that exists between industrialized nations such as the U.S. and Russia which makes it easier for these other players to take advantage of the situation and benefit from it for their own purposes. A divided world is exactly what they want.

The political games played for the supremacy of the region could be an indication as to what sort of plans one country or another has for that region of the world. I speak of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, the arming of Syria and the support to Iraq by Russia, the thousand alliances that are made and broken in the region and the million of details that go with them. Let’s not forget that although the Middle East is a patch of desert in the middle of nowhere, it’s also a gold mine with  seemingly inexhaustible oil reserves that the world wants a part of. Again, nothing in this life is free. With that oil comes something even more polluting, a slew of complications that are born out of the interests of all these different groups vying for what little natural resources this tiny part of the world has.

These tensions arising from warnings between the two powers exacerbate the dire situation that we find ourselves in. Where Russia doesn’t belong, perhaps the U.S. doesn’t belong either. But in protecting the interests of the United States (I will not say “protecting democracy or the free peoples or the Middle East” or any other such nonsense), it is unlikely that the U.S. will leave the region alone anytime soon. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that just because U.S. boots are on the ground close to Russia that the Russians will just walk away. It’s not gonna happen. But is that enough to spark a war between the two countries? I am very skeptical that it will. Russia, like the United States, will protect its interests wherever it sees fit, interests that everyday are threatened more and more with the looming shadow of the Islamic State. If Russia vows to drive away these terrorists, you can be sure that its actions will also turn it into a target for ISIS, just like anyone else.

Although the situation that we find ourselves in is infinitely more complex than it was during the Cold War, I believe that through cooperation the enemy can be defeated. I do not forget that Russian authorities warned the F.B.I. about Tamerlan Tsarnaev (one of the Boston Marathon bombers) before he entered the U.S.- and the United States and its allies shouldn’t forget either. Admittedly, we dropped the ball on that one and civilians were murdered. But the cooperation was there.

If there’s anything that we should be thankful for now is that ISIS has grown to be big enough to spot. However, as big and mighty as the U.S. military is, if we want to deal effectively with global terrorism we will need all the help we can get. That’s a little hard to do when you are fighting wars all over with the people having the same problem as you. Not only must we appear united against terrorism but we must actually be united.

 

5. Common Sense: The Worst Is Over

 

Back in the 60s, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the U.S. and Russia to the brink of destruction. The world watched nail-bitingly as President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev faced off in the highest tensions the world had seen since the Iron Curtain came down over Europe.

Before the United States unveiled humanity’s deadliest weapon by dropping it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and thus evaporating more than 200,000 people, the world was a bit more ballsy, going in and out of conflicts without much care for the people that fought them. But when the mushroom cloud rose high in the sky, it was obvious that this new weapon was a game changer in many ways. The Russians feared that the delicate balance of power had shifted dramatically and they worked arduously to produce an atom bomb of their own to counter the threat that they faced from the West.

By the time the Cuban Missile Crisis came around nearly 20 years after the invention of the atom bomb, both the United States and the U.S.S.R. were siting on a pile of about 20,000 nuclear and hydrogen bombs (an even more powerful weapon) and ICBMs*. [1] Although more than 18,000 of those were owned by the U.S., the other 2,000 that Soviet Russia owned was still a large enough stockpile to pulverize everything on the planet.

Fortunately for mankind none of those nukes were ever launched. It was then that humanity realized that the huge boulder hanging over their heads was held by nothing more than a thin thread with two men holding the scissors. During these early years of the Cold War, there was a very serious probability that by the end of the decade the world would be in ashes. Even after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the proliferation of nuclear weapons continued to massive levels peaking at 62,000 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the entire planet many times over.

The scary thing is that while the C.M.C. was probably the closest we ever came to annihilation, it was not the only close call. There are at least five others, not one but two of them involving serious computer malfunctions that nearly caused us to bomb the shit out of each other, situations only averted by the good reasoning of soldiers from both sides that no doubt did not wish their two countries go to war. This mutual sentiment of coexistence surely contributed to the dismantling of nuclear weapons and the beginning of cooperation between the two countries with programs like SALT, after a tired and scared world counted the days until one leader or the other decided to end countless lives and kill every living thing at the push of a button.

To many it might seem like an ironic and dark twist of fate that during the Cold War the world was probably due to the very delicate balance of power protected by nuclear deterrence from both sides. However, this illusion of balance was maintained solely through fear. The M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction) protocol dictated as much, and both countries were well aware of the kind of mayhem that they would be causing should a real war between them would ever happen. Although proxy wars of more conventional fare were fought and many people did die, at the very least we can say that the world did not disappear in the blink of an eye.

Even before the end of the Cold War, both the Americans and the Soviets began making progress to reduce the amount of W.M.D.s each possessed and continued working together well after it. One of the strongest indications that peace between the two countries will remain, at least at the non-nuclear level, is that we’ve been through it before and both nations know of each other’s capabilities to wage a war with the capacity to destroy everything and everyone on the planet.

Today many protocols and organizations exist solely to avoid the doomsday clock from ever reaching midnight. For fear that the 20,000 nuclear weapons that the U.S. and Russia still have might spark a nuclear war that most likely will drag most other countries in, these organizations and even the leaderships of our countries, I believe will work to eliminate every option before going to blows with each other.

 

The Importance of ‘Probably’

 

Although the Ruso-Ukrainian situation is severely hindering any effort for Russia to regain its seat as part of the G8, and exacerbating a terrible situation that is starting to turn our worst nightmares into realities, I believe there is still hope that a war can be averted.

This past Sunday a ceasefire devised by Germany’s Merkel and France’s Hollande and agreed upon by Russia’s Putin and Ukraine’s Poroshenko began between the Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military. Until now the truce has held sporadically, and some fighting still continues, some say at the behest of Putin who doesn’t seem to be all that serious about keeping the truce. Where the West is concerned, most of Ukraine would rather belong to the European union rather than form part of the Russian bloc that seems to be resurging. The Russians are well aware of this, but fearing that Ukraine will join NATO, Putin seems to be utterly prepared to hold the country at ransom to prevent that from ever happening. Crimea and now other parts of Ukraine under the control of the separatists are that leverage.

ukraine russia and europe

 

This all sounds very grave, but it seems that neither side is 100% ready to officially christen the follow-up to the first Cold War by starting a proxy war. If my dad were to tell me that he believes that another Cold War already broke out, to a certain degree I would feel inclined to agree with him, all the symptoms are there after all. But just as the United States feels that arming Kiev, secretly or openly, is the first step to a war, Russia also knows the consequences of arming the rebels. And each knows that what both are doing is just pushing that clock closer and closer to midnight.

While I base my opinion on what I observe, my entire argument also rests on something that is completely beyond my control, on the hope that both countries maintain some sort of civility and clear headedness through every step that as nations of power have to forcibly and inevitably engage in to resolve this.

To bet against this is stupid to the point of irrationality. People need to remember just how incredibly frail is this relative peace we have today, and how much we have to work to improve it. You must make the effort to see the reasons I’ve listed as the only barriers against global war and be alarmed at the fact that these things are what’s keeping the world “safe”, as if we had nothing else to base peace on but threats. It’s shameful that it is a sad reality to consider the new normal. Again.

Reality proves that there are those who are more right than others, but the United States as well as Russia need to engage in honest, purposeful diplomatic conversation to avert another major political and military disaster a mere 15 years into this new century.

Hopefully, the next time I talk with my dad, this reality I speak of will not be so grim.  Hopefully the talk will remain hypothetical and nothing else. Hopefully neither one will ever have to find out which side would win because make no mistake, no one will win, least of all the people who have little or no say in their country’s policy. Hopefully “probably” is enough to stop the world from tearing itself apart. Hopefully.

 

Bibliography

 

[1] “Historical Nuclear Weapons Stockpiles and Nuclear Tests By Country.” Wikipedia.com. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Last modified 8 January 2015, at 11:26. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_nuclear_weapons_stockpiles_and_nuclear_tests_by_country. Accessed 18 February, 2015.

 

Definitions

 

*Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles allows for a cross-continent payload delivery, which is a missile with several warheads that has the capacity to reach targets across the world.

**G7- The group of seven allied economic powers which include the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, the United States, Canada, and Japan.

*** North Korea’s official name is DPRK or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

 

Interesting Articles to Read

http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/dec/16/falling-rouble-all-you-need-to-know

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/13/world/europe/imf-approves-17-5-billion-bailout-for-ukraine.html?_r=0

http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/71413/s-walter-washington/mexican-resistance-to-communism

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/peace-agreement-proves-putin-lying-221700335.html

http://www.thecommonsenseshow.com/2014/03/21/will-china-choose-russia-or-america-in-the-coming-war/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_arms_race

http://www.historytoday.com/vladimir-batyuk/end-cold-war-russian-view

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2014/03/timeline-ukraine-political-crisis-201431143722854652.html

http://news.yahoo.com/cold-war-us-russia-fight-191709484.html

http://news.yahoo.com/rebels-ukrainian-forces-agree-humanitarian-corridor-082121426.html

http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelpeck/2014/03/05/7-reasons-why-america-will-never-go-to-war-over-ukraine/

http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/02/16/ukraines-military-is-stronger-than-believed-heres-what-it-needs-to-win/?utm_source=Facebook

Religio Ad Verbum: How Literal Interpretations of Holy Books are Destroying Our World, Pt. 2

Churches and religions pride themselves in having compiled in volumes all the rules by which humanity is supposed to live by and what our roles in society should be. However, what little morality can be found in the Quran can also be found in the cheapest crime novel you can find at your local gas station. The rest of it can be derived simply from common sense and from the connection people form with their fellow human beings. Unless a serious mental illness is preventing someone from acting rationally, there is no way to miss simple moral acts that enrich human experience, i.e. being kind to others, helping those in need, minding others’ fears and feelings, etc. Why? Because we can relate to all these things solely by our own experience of being alive.

Unfortunately, there are those who don’t see it this way and for them, their own interpretation of things is the only interpretation. Belief, based on these interpretations, becomes a dangerous tool to wield. Ideas can be molded into anything, and detrimentally to everyone, in the minds of those whom religion already provides a preemptive answer to everything, interpretation is not born out of logic of differentiating patterns, but rather it is the mental equivalent of muscle memory, a learned behavior with only one intended consequence- hegemony.

In religion, mainly the monotheistic Abrahamic religions, when a bad idea is sanctioned by the text from which it comes from, it is standard procedure not to question it or its origin, but rather accept it and love it as having providence in the mysteriousness of a deity almost as obscure and unknown as the people who claim to have been the messengers of it. When does it become inconvenient for us to question it or outright reject it? How far must things go before we realize that the things we are made to believe really cause pain to people? Certainly not far enough if people truly believe in this day and age that the actions of Abraham were appropriate and warranted simply because it was god’s word. How far can we go if people will be made to believe that subservience is the way to heaven? After all, not more than half a century ago people still believed that the separation between races was divinely mandated. This is an example of how diluted our common sense can become when we are made to believe things that many generations before us could not concretely explain. Must we destroy the entire world before we start to question things?

Christianity has “evolved” over thousands of years from a small insignificant rebellion to the leading form of organized “consciousness” (for lack of a better word in this context) that humanity has ever participated in. It is essentially the most deadly self-imposed psychological experiment that in one way or another has changed the world, sometimes for the worse. In its infancy Christianity was harmless, just another cult, but as its numbers inflated violently for the very first centuries, Christians were known as terrorists, rebels, and racially inferior beings (sound familiar?). They were despised, persecuted, tortured and executed. It should be funny to note that during those first centuries, the desperation of pagans seeing their gods being replaced by a foreign one must have been quite a culture shock.

Following the Constantine decree that Christianity was to become the official religion of the Roman Empire, the cult then sought to infect nations and radicalize them either by “the word” or by the sword. Early Christians experienced a sort of either-you’re-with-us-or-against-us attitude and committed atrocities in the name of unreason. Of course I can’t say this is exclusive to Christians, for earlier religions much did the same, imposing their own mythologies onto other groups of people. This new mythical thing of incredible proportions became faith. Faith then turned out to be the invisible lighthouse in the shores of reason, a place where all sailors wanted to be drawn to but that clad in obscurity it took an enormous amount of effort to find. Not surprisingly, over the centuries many ships have capsized in this place.

Star and crescent icon

Much in the same way that Christianity spread its message by blood, and occasionally by peace, Islam and radicalized Muslims do the same today. Historically speaking, the spread of Islamism was much quicker and much more brutal than Christianity ever was, at least in the first centuries of its creation. Compared within the same time period, no doubt Islam would have been far more effective at indoctrinating the masses. But that is only possible admitting that Islam was born out of the sword of an illiterate warlord who sought to conquer over his oppressors come what may.

The thought that Islam under the caliphates was at one point the better of all evils, and that it advanced mathematical and scientific advancement, is one of the most recycled untruths (not lies) that we tell ourselves during our time. It is no more true than saying that we now have a deep knowledge of the universe because of Christianity. People of science and logic can be found anywhere and everywhere, it only takes the right incentive to provoke them to share their curiosity with the world. However, I cannot overlook the fact that indeed thinkers under ancient Islam were not as restricted under the banner as Christians were under Christianity. Sadly, I can’t say that about “modern” Islam. The brutality with which purely Muslim governments enforce Shari’a Law is the same with which Inquisitors enforced the canon of the Catholic church, and as a result what we have is a new inquisition period, the new Dark Ages. What’s so surprising is that heads are still rolling for imaginary crimes in an age when we can peer into the darkest spots of the known universe. Seeing the events unfold, we have the responsibility to ask ourselves and each other, “How can this possibly still be going on?”

Under the current modus operandi of Islamic nations it seems that the Quran is not taken out of context, as some might believe, but something much worse, it is understood by the most literal interpretation it can be given. If at some point we thought it was a hypocritical thing to cherry-pick the Bible to find passages that conveniently suited our moral needs, then I suggest we go back to that and try to convince our Muslim brethren to do the same. At our demise, the phrase “Beware what you wish for” comes to mind. Then again wishing that it wasn’t so is basically the secular equivalent to praying it wasn’t so.

Islam it seems has inherited the proverbial scepter of unreason. But let me clarify before I start receiving hate-mail. It is not Islam that I have a problem with, but rather literal Islam that I hate. Before we begin to convince ourselves of the fairy-tale illusion that there are many moral passages in the Quran to constitute a moral rule-book to follow, let me tell you that often in the same passages of the hadith where a moral passage can be found, an equally immoral one can also be found. The greatest problem we come across it seems is recognizing what is moral?

As if it wasn’t enough to see women clad in black and knowing that they have been genitally mutilated as children (prominent practice in some Muslim countries and also in some Christian ones), it has become the job of some cynics to declare that the people doing this sort of thing are just radicals and misunderstand and twist the word of the Quran and the Bible. What they continually fail to realize is that these “radicals” are not a band of illiterate sheepherders as they sued to be, or warriors as Mohammad himself was, but rather people of broad-reaching influence such as heads of state and religious leaders. It is not the ignorant who dictate policy, it is the learned. The radicals that we mention command armies and lead nations, these are not gangs, these are people who truly believe every word they read down to the last punctuation mark and they use it to maintain a strict control upon their populations. Whether or not this oppression exists solely for the purpose of near-total hegemonic social control, such as in the case of societies like Saudi Arabia, is something that changes from country to country, from tribe to tribe, and even within the same religion (i.e. Shia Muslims vs. Sunni Muslims, Catholics vs. Protestants, etc.) The fear that we have is not with moderate Muslims, although we should be cautious of their beliefs much in the same way that we are cautious of the beliefs of others such as Christians, Jews, and indeed my fellow atheists- our fear should be grounded in the radicalizing of these moderates as ISIL and other warring factions have effectively managed to do by spreading propaganda with the message that to wage holy war against infidels (everyone who is not a Muslim) is glorious. And what’s more, that to die is immensely better than to live. This is a highly dangerous position to take and defend. As philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris has said, “These people love death more than we love life.”

 

And if none of this convinces you of the severity of the problem then perhaps you will be more sympathetic when you realize that ISIS tortures and kills children, and all we can do is impotently watch in our computer and television screens as it happens. Does any reasonable person dare say that this is not the work of Muslims but rather the work of psychopaths misled to think this is the path to heaven?

This oppression that exists, not only of the body but mainly of the mind then becomes like a poison that kills the fertile ground of thought, and lets nothing grow. The most passive verses of the Quran are continually ignored while those which spell out in detail how to punish and control people are followed to the letter, and they work very effectively. If you thought Communism was bad, theocracy is much worse. Children are brought up thinking that this sort of behavior should be tolerated, celebrated, and repeated. In consequence we have generations upon generations and waves upon waves of faith-fighters willing to die as martyrs in defense of their twisted ideals. Teaching kids that infidels are only good for killing, or that the opinion of a woman is only half of that of a man, does not make children moral, it makes them immoral, or if anything it makes them amoral. To push the envelope a little bit further (perhaps not exaggerating), whole generations are being indoctrinated and groomed as reserves for some future holy war that some are praying, and praying hard, that will one day come. How can we hope to win a war against those who willingly walk to their deaths to defend nothing more than the right to die gloriously as we fight to defend life? It seems almost impossible. Within those circles, the interpretation that is given for men to follow has perpetuated an endless war with the perfect breed of warriors willing to die happily.

Much like the Roman Catholic Church in the Dark Ages, these Muslim theocracies appear to be highly organized even in the face of auto-radicalism. Is there a shred of doubt that they would all wish to see Israel, or the U.S., or the E.U. in ashes rather than form a peaceful world? Of course not. And it seems that money is basically the only thing keeping some of these societies at bay from erupting into war. But how long will this strategy of showering these countries with gold last? When the oil dries up and there is nothing more to sell, what will happen then? If greed fails, what other cards do we have to play?

Even within our nations it seems that the squalling within misinformed liberal groups is giving the enemy the advantage of ideological warfare. While we question what constitutes criticism of religion and indeed freedom of speech, radical Muslims have no problem using social platforms created by Western countries such as Facebook and Twitter to shamelessly (and cowardly) recruit among our own populations. For now it seems their strength lies solely in pushing propaganda, not in their numbers or even in the hope to fight established nation. But for how long? Can we allow this to change? These are questions that must be asked now.

Morality is a tricky thing sometimes. Occasionally it’s difficult to assert correctly what is moral, after all not all moral decisions are good and not all good decisions are moral. But in order to enjoy the benefits of living in a society where its citizens are happy, the freedom to speak one’s mind is paramount to the contribution of that happiness and the cornerstone in building that type of nation. Although I believe that morality is rooted in what we find pleasurable and good without the need to affect others, I also believe that it is corruptible. Some moral things that were considered good and moral before are not any longer and so we have to be able to make that distinction correctly. In that sense, morality has to derive at least in part to the freedom to let your mind be known, for only then can people be aware of other people’s true intentions. And when that right is infringed upon, it creates a domino effect that is very hard to get away from unscathed.

Before the European Enlightenment brought reason back into the minds of people, awakening them from a long slumber, nations had to fight each other for ideological supremacy but also for freedom from oppression which they themselves created. History became a vicious cycle hard to break away from, and men perpetuated this cycle by fueling it with ideas that did not benefit the group en masse, but that only satisfied their own desires. It would be unfair to say that collective reason was completely absent during these times, for even during the Dark Ages there were people who dared to think. If that sounds surprising to read it’s because it is. Yet, from the heap of garbage that myth and unreason originate, sometimes we can find something of great value there.

But while we waste our time looking for these scattered moral passages, ISIL (or ISIS or IS) will have already executed several thousand people, most of them innocent, most of them Muslim, and some of them foreign nationals. ISIS will have also brutally  killed thousands of children and tortured many more people for crimes that should only be judged in an Inquisition court. All of it done in the name of Islam and to defend the honor of a “prophet” long gone. We can go on and on how Islam is a religion of peace, but until we get our hands dirty and dig into these passages ourselves will we know just what exactly is being taken out, or read into, context. And if you are religious, I urge that you do not make comparisons between your religion and Islam, for if taken literally, the Bible is just as violent and damaging as the Quran, and perhaps even more.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking at a conference.  photo credit: RA_Sun_286 via photopin (license)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking at a conference.
photo credit: RA_Sun_286 via photopin (license)

It is true enough that we must not blame the wrong people for these atrocities, and it is equally true that only those who commit these crimes must be held accountable. I believe we can all understand that no person wants to be blamed for the crimes of another- even if they subscribe to remotely the same beliefs. But what is imperative for us to realize is that these crimes are not perpetuated in defense of reasons that are beyond their control (race, nationality), instead they are the deliberate result of manufactured beliefs that unfortunately are also shared by those whom are affected most by them, innocent people who also read the Quran or the Bible whose innate morality leads them to reject the obvious immoral passages of these books. The most effective way for moderate Muslims to distance themselves from those who use their religion as a scaffold to greater crimes is simply to weed them out. I admit, it is only simple in theory. The responsibility falls on the moderates to reform Islam, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has declared, or to edit the Koran itself to reflect 21st century views. Muslims should not fear for that portion of history to be lost, like the Magna Carta- another very important ancient text, and one of the many documents from which the Constitution is based on- the original Quran will never be lost, but it can be updated.

And it is the job of reasonable people to collectively denounce injustice wherever we see it. We should speak out the truth in defense of reason and common sense and be fearless in our resolute goal of condemning censorship of any kind. Admittedly, there will be times when there is little we can do in the adversity, but when we prove to them and ourselves that we are united in this goal, we can surely make some kind of change, even if it’s in our own communities.

Like Christianity, Islam will eventually be reformed. One should hope that it happens by “the word” and not by “the sword,” as religions have done to spread their message. But that, it seems, for now at least, that is our of our control.

Personal interpretation based on our own understanding of the contents of whatever it is we’re reading sometimes is not much more dangerous than blindly following someone else’s interpretation of it. But it is a good place to start. It’s possible we will never rid the world of unreason, of violence and fear, of injustice. But if we shake the foundations of everything we know- or rather everything we think we know- perhaps we can make this one world we have a better place. To question everything should be a mantra to follow.

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In Memory of the victims of Charlie Hebdo and the victims of radicalism.

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For more information please check out the following interesting links:

http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/02/islam-will-not-have-its-own-reformation/

http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/fgm_reinfibulation_central_Sudan/en/

http://nation.com.pk/blogs/28-Dec-2014/jack-in-a-box

http://www.pewglobal.org/2010/12/02/muslims-around-the-world-divided-on-hamas-and-hezbollah/

The Mexican Revolution (Part II)

Mexico Burning Fire Flag War Conflict Night 3D

 

Hello my little padawans!

Today, I make good on my promise to keep following the events surrounding the disappearance of the 43 Mexican Normalistas (teaching students) who were taken nearly three months ago in Iguala, Mexico. If you haven’t been reading too much into what’s already being labelled as a global movement, you can read about it in my last post here.

Last time around, I talked about the unavoidable similarities between the Massacre of Tlatelolco (1968) and the kidnapping and disappearance of the 43. But today we are going to take a look at other elements and go far beyond the borders of Mexico to see what the global response has been to this national crisis. And to prepare you for this, I warn you that although I will try to remain as objective as I possibly can when it comes to facts, I will also be expressing my personal opinion on some other matters. And yes, there will be a lot of quotations flowing around, because I just love quotations. Enjoy!

 

Within a Breath of Revolution

 

Nearly a month after my post about the “progress” on the investigation of the 43 normalistas who “suspiciously””vanished” in Mexico at hands of “unknown” armed men, the authorities of Mexico are no closer to finding the 43 normalistas- or their bodies for that matter- and appeasing an increasingly frustrated population who want them back alive. As a consequence, what was expected to be a routine “investigation”, has turned into what we can only be described as a cluster-fuck of epic proportions. Beginning with the rumors that the government was directly involved in the kidnapping of these 43 student-teachers of radical-leftist leanings, to the famous “Ya me canse” (I’ve had enough) of the Attorney General heading the investigation, to the recent scandals involving the president’s wife, the Mexican people are banding together closer than ever to oust the current administration. What we are witnesses to is  is one of the largest social movements of my lifetime. If before we were astounded at the high level of animosity and resentment towards the government, today, not just Mexico, but the entire world is astounded at the level of organization, largely- if not entirely- with the help of social media, not seen since the Spring Revolution (or Arab Spring) that started in Tunisia in 2010.

Artists, intellectuals, heads of state, common citizens, and politicians from all over the world that at first were just third-party observers are now involved in the fight, taking a more direct role in condemning the injustices of the government and calling for a complete overhaul of the judicial system and of the people writing the laws. Basically what the majority of Mexicans want is to strip the government of the current cabinet and replace it with a new one. Whether you think that’s a realistic goal remains to be seen, but what is evident is that the rallying mobs are now beginning to influence policy. And yet, the government doesn’t seem to get the hint that it’s fighting a growing monster. However, like any cornered creature would, it’s expected that the government will fight back. And facing the growing pressure from an international community, we’ll see just how civil this beast behaves. Then again, we are talking about the PRI who ruled Mexico in a successful one-party system for 71 years straight. And if you know anything about those guys, is that they don’t disappoint when it comes to fucking things up.

photo credit: sofíagonzález via photopin cc

Girl holds up sign at a protest which reads “We are missing 43”. Photo credit: sofíagonzález via photopin cc

Although the current cabinet is in a sort of damage control at the moment, the people aren’t having it, and what at first was calls for justice has slowly grown into the shouts of warning that if they don’t change the music, the party is going to end, and it’s going to end bad. These warning signs that a revolution is brewing are pretty evident when you see public officials nervously trying to pick up the pieces of a few (or lots) of miscreants who fucked up one too many times. And when the president goes on national television to announce change in reform, that’s when you know that the people are doing something right. And also that the situation is getting bad- or interesting, depending on how you look at it.

It seems that that semblance of inaction by government officials is just that, a semblance, for they have been plenty busy since the last update a few weeks ago.

But before we get down to the nitty-gritty of the details let me explain why I think this is a very exciting (perhaps not the right word) time to live in.

If you live in a country as fucked up as most Latin American nations- in this case Mexico- then at least once every few generations the people have the chance to change their government for better or for worse. The true sentiment of revolution resides in the ability for people to assimilate their realities with their hopes for how that reality should be. What we have in Mexico is not unprecedented in any way, but the calling of millions of Mexicans, and millions more around the world supporting them to change that government is unprecedented, or at the very least surprising. And THAT is what’s exciting.

In a talk I was having with my dad the other day (he lives in Mexico City), he brought up a very good point that I think is applying more and more at a global level, and that is that people, especially students and younger people, are becoming more and more politicized and more involved in the inner-workings of their governments. Long gone are the days when elected officials relied on a blanket of ignorance to continue ruling nations as if they were serfdoms. Nope, the 60s are coming back with a kick, combining classic insurgent techniques for protests and strikes with the efficacy and modernity of social media to drive and organize all these little movements to make it a global one. But a great thing to recognize here, is that although these demonstrations are peaceful for the most part, they are by no means lacking in power. Let no man tell you that the power and rage of the people is not scratching at the surface of restraint that is within a needle’s poke of a nuclear explosion.

 

Progress?

 

And now, let’s catch up with what’s been happening lately. And more importantly, what’s going to happen.

Ever since the chant for “Vivos se los llevaron, y vivos los queremos” (Alive you took them and alive we want them back), there’s been a few scandalous events shaking up the establishment starting with the “white house”. This is obviously not in reference to the American White House (although there is a bit of involvement there too- another story), but rather the mansion that Angelica Rivera- the president’s wife- “bought” with her salary as a soap-opera actress. Many people call foul claiming that it’s very improbable that she could have bought a $7 million house with the kind of salary she “earned” as a soap opera actress in Mexico, and that the house, along with many other gifts, were actually concessions as a result of a very lucrative contract the president arranged with a transnational company to build a high speed train in Mexico, something highly illegal under fair-competition-rules. That’s one.

Another one is the events that happened during the massive demonstration in the Zocalo area of Mexico City. While thousands of protesters gathered peacefully on the square, a few black sheep among them that are believed to be government agitators a la Tlatelolco ’68, started bursts of violence that led to 20 people getting arrested and 11 of them being taken to maximum security prisons where they were interrogated and beaten. I will admit that I was not there, therefore I do not know what exactly happened at the Zocalo square. It could’ve been that a few people were being unruly and violent, but by logical conclusions, if only 20 out of thousands were arrested, then you know there’s a piece of the story that doesn’t quite fit the puzzle.

Following the insurmountable pressure on the government, all 11 of the protesters were released alive, but not exactly well. Besides their own testimonies of the beatings they received in prison for crimes that the government has not been able to stick on them, it’s sort of hard to convince an entire population whom you’ve already managed to piss off that they tripped and fell on their way home. Yup, the credibility of the government is so tarnished now that not even El Presidente himself could fix things with his 10 commandments against injustice and corruption or by the implementation of the new anti-corruption telephone number (911- oh irony) that many are mocking as a direct line to denounce corruption to corrupt police. And then there’s the little hide-and-seek game that plainclothes agents of the police played with UNAM student Sandino Bucio. Snatched in plain daylight, Sandino was basically kidnapped, tortured, and threatened by the police who claimed that he was one of the agitators in the November 20th protests. According to the statement Mr. Bucio gave to TV cameras, the police told him that they would disappear him like the 43 of Ayotzinapa, that they would rape him and that they forced him to give up his passwords to his profiles on various social networking sites. He also said in front of cameras that they would pick up more people. But after charges that he was carrying explosives in his backpack didn’t stick, he was released and now his testimony is all we have to prove that individuals who self-identified as members of the police are in the business of hunting down students. Now if it looks like I am adding one trickle of fuel to the fire, then good, I wish to dump the whole fucking can of fuel and burn the whole thing down.

Sandino Bucio Credit: amqueretaro.com

UNAM student Sandino Bucio
Credit: amqueretaro.com

After these succeeding scandals, you would think that the government would be a tiny bit more cautious in the way they conduct business and would let the waters quiet down before resuming their usual games… you would think. However, the reality tells a different tale.

It’s difficult to know just high up this all goes, although it wouldn’t be completely off the mark to say that it goes all the way to the top. And I don’t mean just the top of the Mexican political circles, I mean the top top, meaning ex-presidents, like the Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Mexican ex-president accused of stealing not only the elections back in 1991 but also billions as he fled the country. Some even go as far as to say that the American government might once again be involved in foreign affairs of civil unrest. It would make sense if they were, you know with Mexico being just across the border and all. I don’t suppose Obama would want a destabilized country as his neighbor even if America claims to be pro-human rights, anti-corruption, anti-dictatorships, blah blah blah. All this bullshit doesn’t matter in the end if American interests are threatened, and how could they not be when Mexico exports a huge amount of oil back to the U.S. and abroad and the newly-privatized oil companies are now in the reins of foreign investors with a pretty big interest in what is happening there now.

Woman holding up sign that reads "The real terrorists are those who kill, not those who protest".  photo credit: Gatifoto via photopin cc

Woman holding up sign that reads “The real terrorists are those who kill, not those who protest”.
photo credit: Gatifoto via photopin cc

It also doesn’t help when the head of the government is seen on very friendly terms with the owner of the biggest television company in Latin America, and the president’s wife’s former employer- Televisa. This is the very same corporation that out of the kindness of their hearts, “gifted” the president’s wife one of the adjacent houses to the “white house” as a retirement present. What would a communications and television corporation want with the government? If you are naive enough, nothing. If you know what the fuck’s up, then a lot. But it’s not entirely news that in Mexico, the news are just a tool for the government to use at their pleasure rather than being a source of information. I suppose you could say that about all governments, but Mexico is slowly going the ways of China in regards to freedom of the press– or lack thereof. So much so that many Mexicans now prefer to get their news through social media channels rather than the evening news. Part of that mistrust lies also in the cozy relationship the media has, or has had in the past, with the government. In turn, many are now turning to social media for its flowing ability to disseminate information quicker and more effectively, not to mention that is a little bit harder to censure than the news the government paid for, and it has the added benefit that these unadulterated news come from an objective third-party perspective, usually from other countries looking from the outside-in. But if we are to guess what’s going to happen next, I would put my money on Mexico starting to censure social media to quell the protests. Already there’s a bill being introduced in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate to make it illegal for protesters to go out into the street.

It is usually said that in Mexico the most dangerous profession to be is a journalist. It’s true. More of them have died covering Felipe Calderon’s War on Drugs than they have at any other time in history. Similarly, it is also said that it is just as dangerous to be a student, than to be a narco. Objectively I couldn’t say that that is true, but it does make a strong statement. It seems that at the moment being a radical left-leaning student in Mexico is more of a gamble than being a drug trafficker. Again, this is only my opinion and I could not sanction that from an objective point of view, but it is starting to seem that way. What is true is that the number one threat to any nascent dictatorship is an informed public, and the people of Mexico are starting to get informed.

 

Worldwide Support

 

It seems that for the time being, the president and his cabinet are toeing the line very carefully making sure that no other fuck-ups, ahem, excuse me, mistakes aren’t made to anger the people even more, you know since they rile up together and stuff. But as we read everyday in the news (those of us that still can), it seems that the beast is fighting back. And with every baton that comes down on another student, and with each video uploaded to YouTube, a deeper grave is dug for the machine of repression in a situation that is increasingly FUBAR. You’re going to have to look that one up on your own.

The only upside to all of this is that while cops and soldiers are out there busting heads, the real revolutionaries (if they can be called that at this stage), are documenting every single instance of violence to add to the already overwhelming PR campaign battle that is being waged not just inside the country but outside its borders. This push to publicly condemn and embarrass the president, his cabinet, and in effect the entire government structure has worked wonders so far.

Among one of the most high-profile call-outs has been that of the universally-loved Uruguayan President José Mujica who has called Mexico a failed state after the disappearance of the 43. My dad and I, as no doubt most Mexicans would, agree that the man is right! President Mujica is not saying that Mexicans are failures, he was merely pointing out an uncomfortable truth to fathom (for civil functionaries at least) that Mexico is indeed becoming a failed state. Of course soon after, he was pressured into recanting his statement, but in the hearts and minds of all Mexicans it stands as nothing but truth what this beloved head of state has said.

In the age of the Internet, thousands of groups in cities around the world support those in Ayotzinapa, and indeed all the Mexicans who scream for change. For me, it’s the pleasure of seeing the people finally wake up, or rather I should say come together to unite under one banner to fight against a regime wearing the mask of a constitutional democracy. And it seems like it’s going to be a long fight, but as they threw the first punch, the people of Mexico cannot back down any longer and now what they are shouting is no longer a call for justice, but a call for honest change.

 

What’s Next?

 

No one can accurately predict what’s going to happen next, as another major protest is already taking place today. But when major news sources, especially outside the country of unrest, start speculating about the what ifs, that is a good time to start paying attention. Usually there is something on TV to distract the people while the government continues doing its shenanigans, but as we have all seen, after three months of protests, a massive awareness campaign, and amounting failures on the side of the Mexican government, the sentiment for change in Mexico has spread worldwide, and there is hardly any other issue that takes precedence in the country.

It is no secret that people love revolutions, and this is a noble revolution. People love to rage against the machine, they love to speak out when their rights and the rights of others are in danger of being suppressed and stripped away. And although a lot of times their voices are scattered, the few times when their voices come together, that single, unified voice echoes not only across the world, but throughout the ages of time. Perhaps this is the time for Mexicans to unite their voices and let people know that this is our revolution, and that the fight for our future begins now.

And now I leave you with this video from Mexican rock-hip/hop group Molotov and their song “Gimme Tha Power” from back in 1997, words that to this day still speak of the sad reality of a country on the brink of civil war. Enjoy!

(Visit here if you wish to see the video with English subtitles)

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Interesting Articles to Read

Reporters Sans Frontieres, 2014 (http://en.rsf.org/71-journalists-were-killed-in-2013-18-12-2013,45634.html)