The Collected Thoughts and Musings of an Aspiring Political Philosopher

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Globalization (And Our Children's Future) Demands That We Restructure the Military

The United States military budget, just taking into account figures going back to 2002 (before the Iraq War), made up 45% of the entire WORLD'S military expenditures. Represented in cartographic form (mapped according to the proportion of military spending per nation) our world looks something like this:

© Copyright 2009 SASI Group (University of Sheffield)

In other words, our taxes (which conservatives are always so keen on lowering) largely go towards supporting nearly one-half of all the money spent worldwide on military expenditures (and with the Iraq War figures not being accounted for in this, perhaps much more). A good deal of this is spent on stuff that simply gets destroyed (and a good deal of that is NOT destroyed in acts of war, but in training exercises).

A huge portion of that money goes to supporting around 4700 military bases and installations both domestically and on foreign soil (see page 11 of the PDF in the link... and that was just 2004, prior to huge budget increases, and does not include secret sites).

Combine that last with the fact that the reasoning for keeping most of these military bases, as well as the hardware and personnel required to keep them operational, are based on projecting power for a now non-existent Cold War; some are even running on inertia left over from WWII.

So three questions based on the following postulate: if America makes up 4.5% of the world's population, occupies 2% of the world's landmass, is running neck and neck with China and the EU as one of the world's premier economic powers, and is still the undisputed superpower in military technology and delivery capabilities, then:

1. WHY DO WE NEED EVEN 10% OF THE BASES OUT THERE? Can't America "project its power" with 80 foreign bases, if we represent such a military superiority while at the same time having such a small population and proportion of land? We have already demonstrated that we can move personnel and hardware around the world in a matter of hours using only a handful of major bases; what is the purpose for the rest of them?

2. WHY DO AMERICANS FEEL THE NEED TO BE THE "WORLD'S POLICEMAN"? This did not exist until Pearl Harbor, except in our own "back yard" with Central and South America vis–à–vis the Monroe Doctrine. Could it be that we are so anxious and afraid of being attacked again (as in Pearl, and as in 9/11) that we feel the need to be the biggest, toughest “bully on the playground”, or is there something less archetypal and more rational about it? Could it instead be something as simple as a desire to protect our markets by planting military bases right on top of strategic resources?

3. IF CHINA AND THE EU ARE RAPIDLY EQUALING OR EXCEEDING OUR ECONOMIC POWER, SHOULDN'T WE LET THEM SHOULDER MORE OF THE BURDEN OF PROVIDING MILITARY SUPPORT IN TROUBLED REGIONS OF THE WORLD? If we accept the obvious (though morally dubious) fact that a semi-capitalistic country such as ours uses its military to protect its markets, but we are now a global marketplace as the "Friedman Flat-Earthers" like to promote, then would it not make sense for every nation with a stake in globalization also do their part to provide security for trouble spots around the globe?

The next time you have a conversation with a conservative who thinks globalization is a wonderful thing and advocates a strong military, and who blanches at the thought of cutting military spending (while touting our need to cut social programs as "unsustainable"), perhaps you could ask them to answer these three questions. While I am sure there are some rational arguments they could present to support our present military budget, I have a feeling that most other arguments will simply devolve into circular logic.

In my view, since we have dramatically reduced the chances of worldwide nuclear annihilation with the end of the Cold War over 20 years ago, and the chances of an old-style "invasion" of our country are virtually nil, then our military is no longer primarily protecting American SOIL: they are protecting the American ECONOMY. While this fundamental shift in our military's purpose is important in many ways, it came without a fundamental shift in overall mentality from the top to the bottom. We have a military that is still structured as though we are going to, any day now, fight yesterday's war. And that leaves it enormously bloated.

Now think about the logic of this huge military budget that is now primarily tasked with protecting our economic well-being around the world: we are spending trillions of dollars over many decades to protect our ability to generate trillions of dollars in a global economy that we ourselves created.

Isn't that kind of like hiring a full security team costing $50,000 per month to protect your corner store that produces $100,000 per month, when you could do just as well with an electronic security system (cameras, alarms, etc.) that has a one-time cost of $10,000 and perhaps one security guard costing $3,000 per month? Imagine what your store could do with that extra money. Why, you might think of investing it in growing your business!

Imagine what we could do in our own country and around the world if we restructured our military to meet the needs of the present and future instead of the past. What would you do differently in America with, say, an extra $300-$500 billion per year? Universal healthcare? Fully-funded education through college? Pay off the national debt and re-invest that interest money into domestic needs? Invest in infrastructure improvements and sustainable transportation? Pour money into researching ways to wean ourselves off of foreign oil and gas? Colonize the Moon and Mars and leave the cradle of Earth before an asteroid comes and wipes us all out?

Imagine a future where the greatest desires of both liberals and conservatives are met: a future in which our grandchildren are not paying off a huge debt burden left behind by previous generations, are able to drink safe and clean water and food, where taxes are lower but are still able to fund great social programs to meet the needs of the people, and peace in the world is possible because America is no longer seen as the "bully on the playground" but is instead a co-partner with the rest of the world. It won't be Utopia, and there will still be vast areas of improvement necessary in areas like income inequality and poverty, cleaning up the mess left from advancing climate change, and much more. But at least for America, NONE of this will be possible unless we cut back on spending.

And we have a choice: do we cut back on already-inadequate social safety nets upon which millions depend, or do we cut back on a bloated, inefficient, and antiquated military superstructure and redesign it for our modern age? And why do I even have to ask this question?

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Influences of Western Musical Culture in Iran, Post-1979

Iran has a long, rich cultural history of musical innovation stretching back to the earliest days of the Persian Empire. Iranian Classical music pins its beginnings to pre-Islamic days, and operatic forms were in vogue long before they became popular in Europe. More recently, the 20th Century C.E. saw the development of a thriving pop-music culture blending elements of both Western and Persian artistic styles to form a uniquely Iranian sound. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Beethoven and Bach were as often heard as Minbashian and Mahjoubi on Iranian radio stations and at concerts. Rock music using Western instruments (especially the electric guitar) also grew in popularity among Iran’s younger generations.

The Islamic Revolution and Repression of Western Influence

The musical scene in Iran took a sharp turn after 1979 following the Islamic Revolution. Seeking a fundamentalist Islamic society, the new regime outlawed all things Western, including Western influences in music. Rock music was banned, as was the use of Western instruments and musical styles. Only music which fit with the limited acceptability of Islam, as determined by the leaders of the Revolution, was allowed: traditional folk music, Revolutionary songs praising the regime and Islam, and religious music were allowed; all else was banned. The forms of this ban were haphazard and often confusing: sheets of music deemed unacceptable were confiscated and destroyed, while pianos (a Western musical instrument) were largely left alone; violins were prohibited, while trombones were not. These restrictions and their enforcement varied and shifted over the years, and for those who felt the sting of being unable to play the kind of music they cherished, helped to lead to a vast and thriving underground music culture in Tehran and other cities throughout the country.

The leaders of the Islamic Revolution sought to remove all aspects of Western culture and influence and create an ideal Islamic state. While they succeeded in many areas, when it came to the more esoteric arena of the arts, success has been fleeting at best; in fact, many of their efforts have been counter-productive, in no area more so than in music. With each new wave of repression, musicians simply took their music and their compositional efforts underground; in addition, the flow of Western musical influence continued unabated through such avenues as black-market recordings, Voice of America and other internationally-broadcast music sources, and of course the constant communication with expatriated friends and family around the world.

From Repression to Reform

In diplomatic circles, it is often said that music is the ultimate cultural exchange program. Even when political and cultural tensions are high, musical influences still seep through any barriers. Despite the tense relations between the West, especially the United States, and Iran following the 1979 ousting of the Shah, Western music has continued to influence artists within the Islamic Republic in remarkable ways. During the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose strict control forced many Western-influenced musicians to flee the country, harsh punishments were often handed out to violators of “Islamic sanctity”. This continued through a series of leaders, especially during the Iran-Iraq War when Western (especially American) backing of Iraq and Saddam Hussein resulted in further backlashes against Westernization, until the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami, who brought a reform-minded agenda and an easing of restrictions on Western influences. Khatami’s presidency was marked by a number of reforms, including those for women’s rights, democratic principles, the rule of law, and perhaps most importantly a greater freedom for the arts, including those with Western influences.

In the period of Khatami’s leadership from 1997 until 2005, despite ups and downs caused by restrictions on legislative and social actions by the conservative clerics making up the ruling Council of Guardians, Iranian music once again began to flourish with the addition of Western influences and new trends in the art. New instruments, including synthesizers and computerized composition, began to come into use in a uniquely Western-Persian mix, and entirely new genres of music gained popularity, including electronica, rock, heavy metal, rap, and hip-hop. Iranian rock bands gained ground, and performed both in Iran and Europe. It seemed for a time that Westernization, at least in music, was due for a comeback.

A New Crackdown, But a Different Iran

With the election of the ultra-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, however, the comeback was pushed back to the days of Khomeni. All Western-style music was banned from state-run radio and television, even as “background” music without lyrics. The playing of Western music, especially American, was once again outlawed and carried stiff penalties for those who violated the new bans. A return to Revolutionary styles and religious music was favored and pushed by the ruling elite. A number of things had changed, however, since the Islamic Revolution that made these new restrictions sit less well with Iran’s musicians and listeners.

The eight-year long Iran-Iraq War had devastated the country in many ways, not least of which was the decimation of a huge section of the population of fighting age. The war had left a large divide in generations between the old and the very young. As this younger generation grew up, they had far less connection to the original Islamic Revolution and its memes; in addition, they felt far less threat from, and in fact a greater attraction to, Western culture, including music. As these young people gained adulthood, their exposure to the freedoms of Khatami’s administration fed a musical culture that was both vibrant and innovative, adopting some of the newest trends from the West while fusing them with traditional musical styles and “officially acceptable” lyrics. This younger generation grew up being exposed to artistic styles that were exciting and provocative; thus, the failure of the reform movement with Ahmadinejad’s election and the subsequent restrictions and bans chafed these younger people greatly. A rebellious underground musical movement soon began, under threat of persecution by the state, and far more than in the past has grown extensively despite numerous crackdowns and arrests.

Some elements of this underground movement have used creative means to get their music out: one rock group, immensely popular in Iran, called “O-hum”, used the ruse of recording their music while outside the country and having it distributed hand-to-hand throughout the country. Others have used their respect and fame to leverage more flexibility for their music, such as Hafez Nazeri who has worked to combine Western and Persian symphonic styles into a unique fusion of “East meets West”. Despite harsh restrictions on lyrics (even including ancient poetry; some is considered too “worldly” despite being from famous and respected Persian poets), the rise of even hip-hop and rap groups in the underground music scene has been met with wide acclaim by Iranian youth.

An Iron Fist Spawns a Musical Flood

The current situation for music in Iran is especially exciting, and potentially explosive. The 2009 elections were widely panned both internationally and within Iran as fraudulent. The final ruling power in Iran, the Council of Guardians, decreed that Ahmadinejad had soundly beaten reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, despite claims of obvious election fraud and strong-arm tactics. This set off what many have called the “second Revolution”, usually called the Green Revolution after the color of Mr. Mousavi’s campaign flags (which by chance were the same light-green color symbolizing Islam and the Prophet). Hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters have taken to the streets since the elections to protest, but they have not stopped with mass demonstrations.

In the YouTube and Facebook world, audio and video spread messages that cannot easily be controlled by the ruling elite in Iran. A fantastic array of musicians, both inside and outside of Iran, have contributed protest songs and stirring “Green Music” in support of Mousavi and his supporters. Unlike previous songs, however, many of these do not take care to avoid criticism of the regime; on the contrary, they are resoundingly critical of Ahmadinejad, the Guardian Council, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and even the secret police. Many are angry, harsh rock or heavy metal in style, while others are simply singers lamenting what they see as the downfall of the Revolution. Many have compared Ahmadinejad to the deposed Shah Pahlavi or even to Hitler or Mussolini, while some have condemned the Supreme Leader of being anti-Islamic. The combination of anger at what is assumed to be a stolen election with modern telecommunications and social networking has had an enormous influence on Iranian music in a very short time, even including the addition of “death metal” and “rage” genres which had previously enjoyed little attention in Iran to that point.

Can't Stop The Music

The influence of Western culture in Iran since the Islamic Revolution has been greatly enhanced by the virtually non-stop reciprocal flow of music into and out of the country. Despite the best efforts of the ruling conservative elite to enforce “Islamic sanctity”, Western musical culture has continued to have a major influence on the Islamic Republic. With the advent of the Green Revolution and the dramatic inflow of new, Western-based music as well as a harder-edged, combative (and illegal, by current standards) lyrical style, it appears that the younger generation will, over time, win the fight with the old guard to ensure that they have a permanent voice in Iran’s culture and growth, including and perhaps especially in the area of music.

For more on Iran's music scene and the politics of music:

"Iran: More than 20 musicians banned from radio". (2009, November 30). FreeMuse.

"Iran president bans Western music". (2005, December 19). BBC News Online.

"Iran's underground music challenge". (2006, May 8). BBC News Online.

Levine, Mark. (2009, June 18). "Blog Posts From Iran's Metal and Hip Hop Artists: Is Music the Weapon of the Future in Iran?". Huffington Post.

Levine, Mark. "Heavy Metal Islam". Three Rivers Press: New York, NY. 2008.

Pellegrinelli, Lara. (2009, November 14). "Hafez Nazeri: From Iran, Music Beyond Politics". NPR: Music Interviews.

Sadighi, Ramin. (2009, February 19). "Iranian Music: An Unexplored Territory". PBS: Frontline.