An Origin Story


In 2001 I was a senior at the University of Oregon.  I had been slowly radicalizing in my personal approach to politics over the last few years as I gravitated towards a major in Political Science.  I had become very interested in US foreign policy, Marxism, Anarchism, and to a certain extent, radical Green politics.  I was most inspired by Ghandi, Eugene Debbs, Thoreau, MLK, and Malcom X, and I wanted to find a way to apply what I found so inspiring in their words and thoughts.  I studied under Michael Sonnleitner at PCC who had most reinforced my interest in Ghandi and Green politics, as well as some then active associates of the Earth Liberation Front in Portland such as Craig Rosebraugh.  I was radically non-violent, a vegetarian, and generally anti-authoritarian.  I did some canvassing and took part in some direct action while in Eugene, but was not particularly inspired by the WTO protests nor the tree sitting which were the bulk of what was going on at the time.

9/11 happened in my senior year.  I think this was a particularly important issue for me because I saw 9/11 as a kind of vindication of my views about the wrongheadedness of imperial US foreign policy and probably general concerns about globalized capitalism.  I think I felt at that time, and really still do, that globalized capitalism tends to create a kind of false consciousness on the part of its adherents and those who benefit from it and who are, or at least were, largely insulated from the real consequences of the system.  We seem to believe in a sort of ephemeral notion of infinite progress, and endless growth, the unlimited perfection of mankind as we become ever more powerful through knowledge and technology, as we extend our life expectancies, and as we become more and more happy through our increasing civilization.  At the core there is this essential notion of ever more, and ever better, with little concern or lasting awareness of the people and places that must give up that which we will tomorrow consume.  In short, this cultural mindset seems unsustainable because it is predicated on all sorts of endless oppression and appropriation of what are ultimately finite resources often rightfully owned by hungry others.

I saw in 9/11 what I would today call a positive check.  I saw 9/11 as, in the words of Malcolm X, chickens coming home to roost, and as a terrible, but increasingly inevitable consequence of a kind of callous imperial overreach I saw in US foreign policy.  9/11 seemed to be a chance to really learn a certain kind of lesson about the unsustainability of oppressive and exploitative policies.  But, what I saw in the preparations for an invasion of Iraq was not an internalization of this vital message but rather a kind of doubling down on the catastrophic approaches of the past.  This was all the more upsetting because I and so many hundreds of thousands of other people were taking to the streets to say these things, to try to resist the run up to war, and it seemed to be all for naught.  It really seemed hopeless because if not now, if not under these conditions, what possible hope could there be for any kind of turn into a more intelligent, wise, and sustainable path of US foreign policy?  It was around this time that I really started to consider this idea that the empire had already won, that the overwhelming power of global capital, of status quo culture, of an easy life of endless consumption was simply so entrenched, had so much momentum, and was so perfectly matched with the weakness of the modern human spirit, that there was really no hope for any kind of substantive change.  In a kind of Camusian absurdist way there really is nothing to be done but hopelessly throw oneself against the rolling stone despite the certain knowledge that the entire weight and consequence of your one and only life will not even be registered as the stone rolls inevitably down, down, down.

I decided then that what I really wanted to do was to have a voice that could participate in the kinds of debates that were curiously absent from popular media in the run up to the Iraq war, and though I had gained this kind of fatalistic view of the chances to have any real impact, I retained the idea that it was important nonetheless to advocate for the right, to quote Thoreau, “come what may,” and that in some sense the highest thing that a person can do is to embrace one’s Sisyphean condition and push against the stone’s inevitable progress nonetheless.  There was then two sides two my decision to join the US military in 2003.  On the one hand I wanted to develop a voice that might be taken more seriously and I saw the ‘credentialing’ of military service and graduate education as the way toward credibility.  But there was also a certain aspect that I tend to see as kind of symbolically self destructive, in that the self I had long been constructing was abandoned in the turn and somewhere in Portland, on those grey spring days of 2003 I quit my bands, my job, packed my things, and left everything I knew in hopes of somehow getting involved.

And I did get involved.  I joined the Air Force, was stationed in Phoenix, AZ, and immediately started graduate school at Arizona State studying political theory and international relations.  In 2007 I volunteered to deploy and spent four months in Iraq supporting airscanstrikes  as part of the so-called “surge” against the then rampant insurgency.  I spent countless hours hunkered in small concrete bunkers during rocket attacks, reading feminist and post-structural theories of international relations while we waited for the all clear.  I had a lot of time, in Iraq and stateside, to reflect on what it meant for me to serve in a military that was engaged in a foreign policy that I believed to be deeply, deeply wrong.  I think I found consolation in the hope that I was becoming someone who would be able to make a difference some day in the future.  I returned home and went back to school full time as a PhD candidate while serving in the USAF one weekend a month.  As a PhD candidate I began teaching my own undergraduate classes on the War on Terrorism where I was able to encourage hundreds of undergraduates each year to think critically about the US approach to the War on Terrorism and particularly, the invasion of Iraq.  I started to think that maybe teaching undergraduates is the best path to creating a positive change in the world, and that maybe I could contribute to many more young people taking an active role and resisting the worst tendencies of the darkest sides of an increasingly globalized world.  I finished a dissertation on the laws of war in the War on Terrorism and completed my PhD in 2014.  I flew directly from my dissertation defense in Phoenix to Salt Lake City where I prepared to deploy again.

By 2014 the enemies in Iraq had shifted to a new kind of militants spilling across the border from Syria and bringing with them approaches to warfare that made the perpetrators of 9/11 seem almost principled in comparison.  I had also assumed a leadership role within my community in the Air Force.  The result is that I was again engaged in supporting air strikes in Iraq but this time I was leading the teams controlling the strikes, I was delivering the orders to drop bombs and kill people, and I was earnestly striving to do it all as efficiently and effectively as possible.  Again I had a lot of time to reflect on how I joined the USAF in response to my opposition to one war, and here I was, ten years later, functioning as an integral part of the machinery of a continued war effort in that country.  What had changed in the ensuing ten years as that my understanding of politics and military service became much more complex.  Much of what we were doing in late 2014 was arguably humanitarian work as we tried to stop pretty horrific slaughter then ongoing in Iraq and Syria, and some of what I got to do was air drops of humanitarian aid to besieged minorities and Iraqi military forces.  At the same time this all takes place in the larger context of geopolitics where we are in some sense responsible for some of what is taking place and from which we now struggle to rescue victims.  So, what is the right thing to do?

So I guess the question is, I started on this journey for a reason, to accomplish something, and I think that now, in 2015, with a PhD and a commission in the USAF I have probably accomplished it.  So what do I do with it?  How do I prevent the means from becoming the end?  What difference would I make, and how do I make it?

Is this the equivalence you are talking about?


Lately there has been a lot of talk about how Republican and Democrats both refuse to play nice, get along, and do their jobs.  Recent articles in the Washington Post (In shutdown blame game, Democrats and Republicans united: It’s the other side’s fault), Time (Shutdown: Obama and Republicans Trade Blame as Deadline is Crossed), Fox (Partial shutdown begins: Can Congress, White House Compromise?),
and USAToday (House, Senate parry on “Obamacare” as shutdown imminent) illustrate the “balanced” notion that there is an equivalence between the behavior and politics of Democrats and Republican on Capitol Hill and in the White House.  Calls to “throw all the bums out” have increased and according to a recent NBC/WSJ poll six out of ten voters support doing just that.

Anyone who has spent time reading political comments by users in social media might, after loosing what remaining faith in humanity they had left, be suspicious that the problem is limited to Congress or that there is any kind of equivalence at all between current right and left wing politics in the United States.  On the far “radical” left one is likely to encounter advocacy of fringe, radical suggestions such as single payer health care, European/Canadian style gun control, significant environmental regulations, possibly open borders, steeply increased taxes on the wealthy, and so on.  Shocking and scary indeed.  But, on the far right, one will find repeated, frequent open advocacy of physical violence against national leaders.  Stuff like “Bullets change government far surer than votes…” and   the right to bear arms, it’s in the Constitution. We need a coup, there needs to be a coup and if the United States military won’t do it, we’ll do it.”  Also there is an ample dose of violence overtly cast in racist language: “He needs his brown shirts to kill Americans and these come with matching skin tones.” You’ll also find lots of TREASON and DEATH in all caps.

Apparently this stuff isn’t limited to mainstream conservative outlets such as Breitbart, I am the 53%, or any number of conservative news sites.  According to the Secret Service President Obama is the most threatened president in history.  Obama receives an average of 30 death threats a day, more than four times the number of threats made against his predecessor.  In fact the Secret Service is having trouble keeping pace with sheer volume of death threats against the President.  This increased agitation for violence on the right wing has been written about here, here, here.  Peter Bergen has argued that right wing extremism poses as great or greater danger than al Qaeda and the West Point Combating Terrorism Center has issued a 150 page report on the growing danger of the far right.

Where is the equivalence between advocating the policies one believes in and advocating assassination?  Where is the equivalence between political speech and hate speech?  And what’s worse by claiming this equivalence we do nothing to discredit or discourage inciting violence.  When you look at some of the outrageous, violent things that are being said on these mainstream websites also take a minute to look for anyone objecting to such language and comments.  You won’t find it.

Sons of Mayham


I saw a biker guy today in leathers with “Sons of Mayham” emblazoned across the back of his jacket. Seeing this made me think about how world views and prejudices get reinforced in subtle and unappreciated ways. For example, I could read this emblem in the easiest way possible, the most comfortable way for me, that confirms what I already, secretly think, or want to think, to wit, bikers are brutish, dimwitted people who can’t even get the spelling of their logo right. But this isn’t the only way to read it. It could just as well be that the guy at the clubhouse who runs their patch machine doesn’t spell well and the club, with tongue in cheek, adopted this misspelling as a kind of mascot, a good humored play on the supposed brutishness of motorcycle gangs. Or: maybe they adopt such a spelling specifically to mock all the rest of us who are so ignorant about the realities of motorcycle clubs that we really think that none of the people in the club would catch a simple spelling mistake; to encourage us to reinforce our own prejudices and ignorance, to unknowingly revel in the limits of our horizon as we laugh about it around our dinner tables; and to cause us, who are so insufferably self-content, to just leave them alone.

Why I hope that my daughter continues to use the men’s room as she gets older.

IT’S A GOOD THING that the symbol below is universally understood to mean ‘male’.


Think of the staggering scale of human embarrassment that is prevented every day, in millions of locations, all hinging on nothing more than a common understanding that the above symbol means ‘male’.  It seems strange though.  What about this image is so specifically male?  It’s a silhouette of a human being and has no specific identifiable gender markers whatsoever.  Its just a human form.

The sign of female, however, does have a marker, the dress, which sets it apart from the male sign.


So it seems like we could never know that the ‘male’ sign means ‘male’ without also seeing the ‘female’ sign.  Its like the meaning of the two signs only come from their relation to each other, not the picture itself.  This is at least true for the ‘male’ sign since there is no way of knowing that it is a gendered figure without having another picture showing the alternative.

Is there any significance to the fact that only one sex has an explicitly gendered symbol?  I think there is.  By presenting the symbols this way there might be an underlying assumption that ‘male’ is the normal human mode and that female must be marked to indicate their difference from normal.  If you say human the assumption is male unless specified otherwise.  And if a message like that is unconsciously internalized then traits associated with ‘female’ become defined as different.  Its a slippery slope from different to inferior when a society itself assumes the perspective of one particular element.  We then find ourselves asking why they can’t just act like us.

When you hear words like this coming out of your mouth you might forget whether you were just talking about sex, or sexuality, or race, or ethnicity, or any other marker of difference that, in being defined (usually unacknowledged) as different from the norm, provides the foundation for unethical discrimination.  This is the problem with “not being able to see color;” it conflates the speaker’s perspective with the norm and provides no excuse for anyone to behave in a way that is different from whatever position is assumed as the standard.  But, if you question the assumption that we are anointed by history as the normal you might think that its not their difference that provides the raw material of discrimination but our assumptions about our place at the center.

In conclusion I offer a warning: stop telling me to get a shotgun because I don’t need it.  Tell that to the parents of all the little  boys out there because my daughter is nobody’s victim.  She’s the predator, she’s the defiler.  She’s not the helpless object of history, she’s the agent.  She doesn’t live inside a blue circle or a blue triangle.  Hopefully she will see those lines and all the little figures they imprison as relics of a backwards society and live a life unrepresentable in the language of antiquated gender conventions.

How to Empathize with your Adversary in the Gay Marriage Debate

Some people think of the issue in these terms: If two people you won’t ever know in some town you will never hear of on the other side of the state or the other side of the country want to get married it can’t possibly hurt you. If you will never know of them then they are outside your event horizon of sorts and whether or not they get married just can’t have any direct effect on you. So who cares if two men or two women want to get married?

But what if they live in your town, or on your block?  Then its not some far off possibility but right in front of you.  Hopefully, many would say, you practice what you probably teach your children; if someone is doing something that you don’t like and it isn’t hurting you then you just need to look the other direction and ignore it.  Here many liberals end the debate: it doesn’t hurt you and if you don’t like it you can just look the other way.

But what if you can’t look the other way?

What if its forbidden, and terrifying, yet you simply can’t look away?  What if you don’t have the willpower to stop yourself from looking?  What if you look and you aren’t repulsed?  Maybe some people look to the government to protect them from open homosexuality because they know they can’t protect themselves.  Maybe it is not that homosexuality is repulsive to them but something closer to the opposite; maybe its not even homophobia but a fear of their own reaction to the sight and thought of it?

At any rate we might have more empathy for our adversary and recalibrate how we approach the issue if we think of their reaction to homosexuality not as a choice, and not as a fear of gay people per se, but a fear of an inability to look away.

Stitches of Charity

In Its a Wonderful Life George Bailey, wearied by outrageous fortune and the corruption of others crashes his car in a Christmas eve snowstorm and decides to commit suicide. Before he can follow through an Angel appears and shows George what his town would be were it not for him: “main street is a red-light district, crime is rampant, and life there is coarsened.” It seems that the tireless efforts by George to do the right thing over the years have saved the soul of Bedford Falls while taking a considerable toll on his own. Without George, darkness reigns.

Larry Alex Taunton recently argued that Its a Wonderful Life is an apt metaphor for modern society without Christian belief. As the town hangs in the balance between good and evil so do we, as humans, find ourselves pulled between the good and the evil inherent in human nature. Taunton argues that Americans depend on our political and social institutions to restrain the darkness and encourage us to embrace the good. The thought of our modern world without Christianity presents a vision to Taunton like that of Bedford Falls without George Bailey. The crux of his argument is that Christianity is a critical element for a good society: “as a man or woman’s evil nature is gentled and restrained by the grace of God, there is a corresponding outward transformation of society.” Taunton points to data which shows that Christians are the most charitable element of the population by a wide margin.

However, Taunton’s argument that people are charitable because they are Christian seems to confuse correlation with causation. He assumes because so many people are both charitable and Christian that they are charitable because they are Christian.  However, Taunton doesn’t provide any support for this leap.  It seems that he just assumes it.  One might just as well assume that individuals become or stay Christian because they are charitable.

It seems that lots of people are charitable and the message of Christianity appeals to them because it is consistent with their charitable inclinations. Some people who are charitably inclined express this inclination through their church. They might also participate in non-profit organizations. Those non-profits would not claim to produce charitable inclination but rather that they harness and encourage this good in people. In fact the striking increase of non-profit organizations around the world in recent years supports the idea that the church has no special claim to charitable inclinations in people.

Taunton seems to say, or assume, that charity is a special property of the church, to give the church a kind of power and ownership over charity, an appropriation that is exactly what many skeptics would expect from organized religions.   A church might aspire to such a claim, as if the good part of man is prized real estate which can be fenced and mined.  In fact, Taunton’s piece is exactly the kind of work we would expect from a church trying to do just that. This kind of tactic, an appropriation of the good in the hearts of individuals, seems more akin to political and business operations than to the selfless service of mankind. It seems like a kind of turf warfare over what is best in people.  It seems like the colors of a self interested, power seeking organization vying for influence and control.

Churches have much reason to worry over possibly waning influence in a modern liberal society. They have cause to fight for an enduring relevance and influence lest thousands of years of human spiritual tradition be lost. But, planting a flag in what is very best about man is not the right way to do it. Goodness arises within people.  Though it may be encouraged, it is not put there by God or church. To say that it is is to strip individuals of their capacity for good. It is to say that man is only what the church makes him.

If people are corrupt then the church is also corrupt because the church is made of people. The church, like people, is hanging in the balance between light and dark. And if the church, which would make people better, itself depends on the goodness of people for its right function then we remain ultimately dependent on the goodness of individuals, not the church, to “restrain our evil nature” and transform society.  The church has no special claim to the best in people as it has no special claim to the spiritual paths open to individuals.  As frightening as it may be to have light and dark hanging in the balance of individual hearts it is a far better thing than surrendering our human agency, both good and bad, to an earthly human organization.

See Taunton’s article:


I think the people doing the “occupying” are mostly hippies, hobos, and disaffected college students who I have little in common with personally. But, the people doing the “governing” are mostly millionaires, and career politicians, who I have even less in common with personally. In either case they can afford to do it full time when I can’t. I guess that’s the thing about representation: they deliver the message for you and, in that case, it’s the message that’s important not the messenger.