It’s really hard to tell whether there’s an actual crisis underway in the US federal government over sequestration. The original title of this post was going to be “Sequestration Now!” and it was going to be written as many as five months ago at various points in history. History cannot be undone, any more than money can be unspent or elections can be unwon. We have the government we have and most of us had about as much choice over that as we did about whether our neighbor bought a gun, about whether they or anyone else we know chose to use it. For all our talk about freedom in this country, a world of seven-billion does not afford us much actual discretion over how our lives go.
There is not a lot of discretion used in the so-called discretionary spending of the federal budget. Of the $1.277 trillion ($1,277,000,000,000.00) spent by this entity each year, $712 billion ($712,000,000,000.00), or 56%, is spent on “defense”. Defense being one of those euphemisms like “pro-choice” (there’s that choice issue again), “pro-life”, or even “fiscal cliff” being used to refer to the edge of something that would probably be great for America. In our language, we are so accustomed to embedding a viewpoint that we don’t even think of it cognitively anymore. We merely accept the nature of our slanted universe and try to amble awkwardly toward our destination without getting seasick. No wonder so many people choose to rebel against the order without words. They seem corrupted before we begin.
Given that there’s already a 56-44 split in discretionary spending toward guns and bombs, it actually seems rather unfair that only 50% of the sequestration cuts would be made toward defense. The cuts themselves are a mere 9% of the total budget, hardly a drastic reduction for a private spender to contemplate amidst a financial collapse. And despite the fact that they would heighten the split advantage for attacking people, I’m still in favor of the cuts going forward. Some reduction in death is probably favorable to no reduction in death, or so the media seems to represent that people believe these days.
The nature of the fiscal cliff and the allegedly radical sequestration cuts that were proposed to force compromise are reminiscent of what a parent does to an unruly child. If you can’t get along with each other, then both of you will lose something you dearly want. One could argue the cuts don’t go far enough, that all of the dessert should be taken away, at least for a while, but I suppose 9% is about as much as one could hope to take from those who have everything. It remains to be seen whether even this sort of third-grade punishment will work on a Congress so detached from the realities of everyday America that their approval rating is competitive with the percentage of those cuts they’re trying to impose on themselves. Maybe they should try grounding themselves next. It’s hard to take cuts seriously when your first stop after budget negotiations is a foreign island or a Swiss ski resort. After all, only the little people pay taxes, which is why we’re facing this kind of precipice in the first place. Cuts to other people’s livelihoods, salaries, and programs must still feel rather remote compared to the bottom-line of the account safely secured in the Caymans or Delaware.
Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that sequestration would have a significant impact on the American psyche, if not the actual numbers. Everything is always supposed to grow in this country, under this economic regime, making any sort of cut feel like a direct personal insult to our individual sense of entitlement. The notions of being responsible, of restraint, of imposing restrictions on oneself and then following them has very little to do with the American Dream. We’re supposed to be bigger, better, stronger, more reckless and ruthless. Tithing to the god of fiscal responsibility is a dramatic step back from such lofty goals. It might force people to recognize that zero-growth is the future, that living within our means is the metaphor for the twenty-first century, if there is to be a full century. It offers some hope that the only voluntary cuts we make will not be in the classroom and will not originate from the barrel of a gun.
No, it will not result in a change in elections. The approval rating of Americans for their Congress peaked at 21% in 2012, right before they elected 90% of incumbents who were running to return to their jobs in Congress. This is not cognitive dissonance so much as proof that the system is rigged to offer no choice, no discretion, no option for real or lasting change. There’s gerrymandering, the two-party system, cynicism and entrenchment, corporate sponsorship, the desire to vote for a winner, and a whole host of issues I rail about here from time to time. In sum, calling our elections a democracy is not, at this point, all that different than calling Mubarak’s Egypt a democracy. Elections are held, people vote, their votes are tallied, and none of this in any way resembles a process by which individual preferences would create some sort of government. The way an objective history or even a contemporary outside perspective would describe the status of the American experiment is so radically different from the way we see ourselves that it may actually defy gravity. Self-awareness is not really a featured highlight in American exceptionalism. It’s not something we compliment in our daily culture. We find the delusion of grandeur lovably entrepreneurial, while knowing one’s limits is somewhat trashy and banal. This is the culture that created the reality TV star while shunning those who urge caution and honesty.
A fitting mascot for the US’ current trajectory, in the context of the world, might be Don Quixote. But someone made the mistake of arming Quixote with nuclear weapons, armored vehicles, and the world’s largest military budget to throw at those windmills. The windmills are no more of a threat than whatever the US is fighting, but down they go all the same. It seems to be a time for attacking those most vulnerable, those least likely to pose a threat.
And I’m not really referring to the shooter in Connecticut who opened fire on an elementary school, though of course I’m referencing it indirectly. At least 176 children have been killed by drones alone in Pakistan alone since 2004. Is there a reason we find this less horrific than what happened in Sandy Hook? There’s racism, I suppose, since most of the Connecticut kids were white. There’s nationalism, for sure, since they were all Americans and most of us can’t place Pakistan on a map or name one fact about it other than some vague notion of it being Muslim and therefore an enemy. Religious prejudice then, too. And I guess some sort of institutional versus individual distinction. If one person comes up with the idea for slaughtering a school full of children, we’re horrified, as long as that person doesn’t serve in some sort of official role with the government or its “defense” wing. Slap a uniform on Adam Lanza and he becomes a real American hero.
Oh, I know, you’re saying there’s an intentionality issue too. Lanza meant to kill kids, while Obama only means to kill those that would somehow kill us. But doesn’t that miss the point? Isn’t it actually kind of worse to just happen to slaughter 200 children as a byproduct of some goal you assure us is lofty than to intentionally kill 20 of them? I’m not defending the shooter any more than I would defend any committer of violence, but if we’re making a comparative argument, at least he did precisely the damage he intended, which sort of recognizes a certain dignity to human life, however much he violated it. America is so indifferent to the wake of its damage that it assures us that 176 children couldn’t possibly matter, since they aren’t citizens of our country. We think, like imposing the fiscal cliff on ourselves, that grossly disproportionate response is the only response, which is how we justify causing hundreds of 9/11’s in other nations in response to the one we experienced.
The problem, in part, is that the US doesn’t know who its enemies are. We assume that they must live in foreign mountains, must sail from ports abroad. They are the expendable children we can send robots to exterminate before they even know that danger is pending. No time to hide or huddle or seek an adult for comfort before their body parts are scattered to the four winds. We do this. Our tax dollars. Your flag that you stand and salute represents the maiming and killing of hundreds of children. This is your contribution to the world.
And for what? So that we can tote our guns and feel superior. We are the best people in the world, we who turn the gun on ourselves. We are our own worst enemy, our only enemy, somehow, the only one who truly means us harm. It is our own children who grow up to pose the threat to America. And in some twisted self-referential vortex, maybe Adam Lanza knew that and took the drone strikes home to our own children, decided to be the robot and short-circuit the cycle against a future enemy within. And before you click the red X at the sickness of what I’m suggesting, you should know that I’m not defending or justifying his acts of “national defense”. That’s the whole point. There is no defense of this defense. There is only offense and offensiveness and horror. This is the end result of chasing enemies with firearms and firepower, of looking for the threats and wiping them out.
Life is a threat. Existence implies an end to that run. Chase the enemy long enough and you’ll shoot the mirror. The only one responsible for your own mortality is you, because you were born.
If Adam Lanza had been sitting in an Air Force office in Nevada and pressed a button that dropped a bomb on a Pakistani elementary school, killing 28, you would salute him in the airport as you both flew home to see your families. You would thank him for defending you against those horrible brown people who must be posing some sort of threat. You would honor and revere him, so grateful that he did what he did.
We are the bad guy. We are the world’s bogeyman. We are the ones who make it bad in the name of good.
Only when we stop being everyone else’s enemy can we begin to consider no longer being our own.