Military, Politics, USA

Donald Trump’s Military Transgender Ban

I’m willing to entertain the idea that transgender people, as a group, face more challenges than cisgender people when it comes to being equipped to serve in the U.S. military.  Physically, although I’m pretty ignorant of what the transition process really entails, I’d imagine that there would be some challenges that could adversely affect a person’s ability to effectively serve in the field.  Psychologically, I could also imagine how transitioning could be an extremely taxing and difficult process, especially considering the unsupportive-to-hateful attitudes that trans people often encounter in their day-to-day lives.

If a transgender person were deemed unfit for military service due to concerns about their physical and psychological ability, I would have no problem with denying that person the opportunity to serve.  The problem with Donald Trump’s policy, however, is that not all transgender people possess cause for such concerns.

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Donald Trump’s policy is a blanket statement.  It assumes that all transgender people are unfit to serve in the military because of the sole fact that they are a member of that group.  The evidence tells a different story.

Estimates vary, but most agree that there are currently thousands of transgender troops serving in the U.S. military both in active duty and the reserves.  Of this group, there is no shortage of examples to demonstrate the capacity of transgender people to effectively protect and serve their country.   Perhaps the most notable in the aftermath of yesterday is the service of Kristin Beck, a former member of the elite Navy Seal Team 6 who publicly challenged Donald Trump to “tell me to my face why I’m not worthy.”   And while it may be tough to find a lot of people, trans or cisgender, as decorated as Beck, there are plenty of other stories of transgender soldiers who have performed their duty adequately and honorably (i.e. Minnesota natives Capt. Tarrence Robertson and Air Force Maj. Bryan Bree Fram.)

Trump’s policy is hateful and discriminatory, but it is also insulting to the intelligence of the American public.  The series of tweets released yesterday by the president are only the latest blatant attempt to distract the public from the constant shitstorm that is his presidency.  It’s the equivalent of waving something shiny in front of us with his right hand in hopes that we won’t pay attention to what he’s doing with his left.  One day of debating the merits of Trump’s transgender tweets is one day that we are not talking about the Russia investigation.  It’s also an ill-concealed attempt to win back a lot of the conservative base that he had begun to alienate after his attacks on Attorney General and conservative stalwart Jeff Sessions—the story that had been dominating the news cycle before Trump woke up Wednesday and again turned his Twitter account into a Molotov cocktail.

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Trump’s strategy seems to be working.  The country has spent the last two days debating an issue that is not even regarded as official policy by the Pentagon, nor by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain.  Nevertheless, it’s probably a debate that we should be having, because no matter what the policy was or is in regards to this specific issue, it is clear that we as a country (myself included) have a long way to go in accepting and understanding transgender people.

It’s okay to question policy in regards to transgender people serving in the military.  I think it is fair to debate when and if taxpayer dollars should go towards the healthcare costs of transitioning, and how a culture of political correctness could adversely affect the functioning of our military.  What I do not think is fair, however, is turning the T in LGBT into an automatically disqualifying factor when it comes to military service in the United States.  There are too many examples of transgender people who have served successfully and honorably to lend this proposed policy any credibility.

To an extent, the U.S. military can and should discriminate.  People who are not fit to serve for various physical and psychological reasons should not be permitted to do so.  Some transgender people may fall in to this category, but many do not.  That’s why if we Americans are serious about the ideals that our country is founded on, when a transgender person arrives at the recruitment office with the ability to serve, we will give them the opportunity.

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Military, Music

Songs w/ Substance #1: Pink Floyd – “A Gunner’s Dream”

“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” – Joseph Stalin

Everybody knows a Pink Floyd song even if they don’t know that they know one. Hits like “Another Brick in the Wall” and “Wish You Were Here” are universally recognizable even to those who rarely venture beyond the comfortable, unthinking realms of mainstream pop and bro country. But “A Gunner’s Dream” is a song that is perhaps even unknown to many people who would fancy themselves as Pink Floyd fanatics. And for a snobby, self-proclaimed rock-n-roll connoisseur like myself, that alone makes it the perfect selection to be my favorite Pink Floyd song of all-time.

Like all of Pink Floyd’s music, “A Gunner’s Dream” is a pretty thought provoking track. The lyrics offer a unique perspective on warfare by exploring what Floyd frontman Roger Waters imagines to be a fallen soldier’s final dream. The song focuses on the thoughts that are running through that soldier’s head as he floats down through the “space between the heavens and the corner of some foreign field,” descending into what will assuredly be his final battle. While a few of the lyrics require some historical context (such as the real life London “bandsmen” blown-up by the IRA), most of this song is metaphorical—a representation of a fictionalized “gunner” that could be applicable to any war in any era.

The soldier’s dream begins with his own funeral—the “tolling bell,” his saddened mother…but in the second verse, the dream moves beyond himself. He dreams of a world in which everyone has “a place to stay” and “enough to eat”—“where you can speak out loud about your doubts and fears,” and where people “on both sides of the tracks” live peacefully and comfortably.   Perhaps most notably, he dreams of a world in which “no one kills the children anymore,” a world that, considering this young man’s fate, currently ceases to exist.

I love protest songs, but this one stands out to me among many of the rest. That’s because “A Gunner’s Dream” attempts to lend war a face. So often when we talk about war, we reduce it to death tolls and generalizations—names of countries and competing factions. This song, on the other hand, focuses on the experience of a single soldier—his final thoughts, his final dream. Surely, to every soldier, this is what war is. It is not some objective phenomenon to be rationalized or philosophized or strategized or detested—it is their experience.

I also appreciate the ending of the song and the onus it puts on the listener. The soldier is gone; “what’s done is done.” But “we cannot just write off his final scene.”

Soldiers sacrifice. Throughout history, millions of soldiers have given their lives for what most would consider noble causes—surrendering what is left of their existence so that those who remain may inherit a better place. But in order for that better place to become a reality, those who remain need to build it. The soldier is gone. He has given everything that he has to make that better world a possibility, and now it is our job to make it happen. We must “take heed” of his dream.

That is one of the things that a song with substance does. It gives the listener something to think about. It challenges the listener to be better. But even if, in “A Gunner’s Dream,” all of that is lost on the listener, at the very least, we can all still appreciate the moment when Water’s bone-chilling scream damn-near seamlessly fades into a saxophone solo. Substance aside, that part is fucking awesome.

Official Video Linked Here

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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Immigration, Military, Politics, Race, Religion, USA, World

Thinking through Paris

Paris fucked me up. It was one of those events that seemed to have me reconsidering nearly everything I thought I believed—what I believed about people, what I believed about politics…It threw me into a state of mental disequilibrium so profound that a week-and-change later, I still haven’t really settled back into the post-Paris me. In that sense, this post is a thinking-through, a consideration of the clusterfuck that was last week’s events and the tangled mess of causes and consequences that connect to it, in hopes of finding equilibrium again.

When I first caught wind of the attacks, the radio man was being very cautious about the details he was releasing, but I remember knowing one detail of the attacks right away without anyone needing to tell me: the attackers were radical Islamists.

I didn’t want to be right about that. Upon confirming what I already knew on the World Wide Web, I took to Twitter, and aside from the Parisians directly affected by the attacks, there isn’t any people for whom I felt more pity than the Muslims from around the world who felt compelled to tweet out their opposition to these atrocities lest they be labeled as terrorists themselves.

But the Islamic question is upon us again, and I don’t know where I stand. I know for sure that the vast, vast, vast majority of the world’s Muslims are peaceful people who should not have to explain themselves nor apologize for the actions of these crazy, ISIS assholes. But I also think that thinkers like Sam Harris have a point when they say things like the religion of Islam “has a unique problem at this moment in history.”

When I try to reconcile these ideas in my own head, I find myself trying to differentiate between Muslims as people and Islam as a set of ideas. I don’t agree with any sweeping generalizations that people make about Muslim people, but I do think that you can criticize the religion of Islam, and certain radical Muslims, without being a bigot. As an atheist, I criticize Christianity all the time, and no one ever bigotizes me for it. I also have a life crammed full of Christians who are way better people than I am, people that I love and adore, despite my opposition to the theology they subscribe to. And just like it’s unintellectual to suggest that all Muslims are terrorists, I also find it unintellectual when President Obama and other liberals go out of their way to avoid using the word Islamic to describe the self-described Islamic terrorists they are describing.

But as far as doctrine goes, is Islam really any more violent than a religion like Christianity? The Quran is certainly violent, and Jesus was a peaceful dude, but the god of the Old Testament was a homicidal maniac who indiscriminately killed all those who failed to appease his capricious demands. Furthermore, Christianity experienced millennia of war and violence before it found the relative peaceful epoch that many Christians experience today.

That’s why a big part of me also believes that the violence associated with Islam is less about the religion and more about the places where people who subscribe to that religion happen to live, places where people are generally much more politically and economically disempowered than their Christian brethren in the Western World. Any religion can be radicalized, but radicalization is more likely in certain places than in others, places like war-torn Syria and Iraq or occupied countries like Palestine and Afghanistan.

And then I ask myself what the world would look like if the tables were turned—if Muslims around the world experienced the relative prosperity and stability of Christians today, and Christians the impoverished and violent dystopias of so many Muslims. What it would look like if Islamic countries controlled the UN and the IMF and the Christians nations were still recovering from decades of colonialism and imperialism. How much more vulnerable would Christians be to the radical wings of their own religion, groups like the Westboro Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan? Certainly there’s no shortage of things like racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia in the Christian world as it is. How much worse would it be if they were thrown into the desperate and dire circumstances known by so many Muslims, if they really had something to be angry about?

Yet most Muslims aren’t angry. They’re just scared. Scared of the same lunatics that shot up the city of Paris ten days ago. And that’s why they’re running.

Which leads to the questions surrounding the world refugee crisis, questions about the number of refugees we in the United States should accept, questions about the vetting process refugees should be subjected to in order to gain admission.

While I’ve been appalled by many of the racist arguments equating refugees to terrorists, I have to admit that some of those arguments contain a small but significant dose of truth: the more refugees that the United States accepts and the more lenient the vetting process, the more likely it is that that process will be exploited by people who wish to do the United States harm.

I really think that’s undeniable. It doesn’t mean that refugees are terrorists. Refugees are refugees. It does mean, however, that terrorism is a problem in the world, a problem that often comes from the same places as the refugees do, and that those terrorists are not above the exploitation of humanitarian compassion. If you want to make an argument for refugee acceptance, I think that’s a reality that you have to come to terms with.

I do acknowledge that reality, but I also don’t think that it has to dictate our response to our fellow human beings in crisis. I whole-heartedly agree with the overused mantra that to deny refugees based on fears of terrorism would be letting the terrorists win. More importantly, it would be letting the refugees lose, and that would be unacceptable.

Sometimes in discussions like these, the tone seems to take an us-and-them mentality.  “It will put us in danger if we take them in.”  “How are we going to help their people if we can’t even help our own people?”   Fair points, but for me, those words carry little weight when I’m looking at images like these. When I look at these pictures, I don’t see Syrians. I don’t see Muslims. I don’t see us or them. I just see children—children who desperately need a world to do the right thing in spite of any potential consequences.

And while this decision should not be a political one, it does present the United States with a tremendous opportunity to begin reforming its image in the Muslim world. By taking in tens-of-thousands of Muslims (and many non-Muslims) in need, the United States not only provides an essential service to humanity, it also simultaneously delivers a big “fuck you” to radical Islamists everywhere, demonstrating our unwillingness to let their terroristic threats dictate the way that we care for our Muslim brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings in need.

And after the Paris attacks, it is clear that we in the Western World need a reminder of who our fellow human beings are. The outpouring of sympathy for Paris was, in my opinion, beautiful. Changing your Facebook profile picture or retweeting #PrayForParis could be seen as pretty meaningless gestures, but I love the idea of the world coming together across borders and oceans to show support and offer hope, to send prayers and positive energy to a city and a people who desperately need them. No one should be made to feel bad for clicking with their hearts.

But there is something that we should feel bad about, and that is what Paris revealed about who we choose to grieve for.

I remember having this thought while watching the news coverage of Paris two Friday’s ago, but in hindsight, I didn’t know shit about Beirut or Baghdad either, and a week-and-a-half later, it’s still not those attacks that I’m “thinking through.” Black Lives Matter is usually something discussed in relation to domestic issues inside the United States, but Paris made it clear that there is a definite discrepancy in the way that we values the lives of white people compared with those of black and brown people in the rest of the world as well.

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And what about the response? What does France and its allies do to “strike back” at ISIS? It scared me when my gut-reaction to this question was eerily similar to Trump’s idea of “bomb the shit out of them,” the kind of balls-over-brains thinking that helped to create ISIS in the first place. Looking at recent history, military intervention seems to do way more to create terrorism than it ever does to eliminate it. That being said, while I hope our world leaders won’t be making such decisions with their collective gut, I can see why military intervention, in this case, might be called for.

What I know I don’t want is to see some sort of unilateral Western intervention composed of France, the States, and other Western allies. I think critics of intervention are right when they say that this is exactly what ISIS wants, a war on Islam by the West, the ultimate tool to galvanize support among the enlisted and provide additional propaganda for recruitment to ensure that their fucked-up brand of backwards hate will only continue to grow. The West can’t solve this problem alone, no matter how many bombs or drones they drop. This is a worldwide problem, and it needs a worldwide solution.

Perhaps most important to this worldwide solution is the support needed from the Muslim world, the collaborative effort from countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to take out a group that should be considered an enemy to all Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, and any other group that considers themselves a part of humanity. Furthermore, it will take cooperation between West and East, between Western Europe and North America and China and Russia, and a dramatic departure from the Machiavellian, balance-of-power bullshit that has defined the conflict thus far. And while a united effort of this magnitude could easily wipe the wanna-be caliphate off the face of the fucking planet, history also tells us that this kind of humanitarian-driven, united effort has zero chance of happening.

And that’s what makes this situation so impossible. That’s why nearly two weeks removed from the Paris attacks I still have no idea what the fuck to think or what the fuck to do. It makes me want to eternally avoid the likes of MPR and CNN and forever hide within the comfortable confines of KFAN and the WWE.

But thinking about these things is the least we can do. Thinking about what we can do in our lives to fight back against ignorance and hatred. Thinking about those who are less fortunate than us, and what we can do to make their existence on this planet a little more tolerable. Thinking about how we can be the best human beings we are capable of being, and inspire others to realize their full human potential as well. And continuing to remember that it is easier to be the ones tasked with thinking about these horrible events, than it is to be the ones tasked with feeling them.

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Military, Politics, USA, World

Nuts Over Nukes

Nuclear weapons have been in the news a lot in recent weeks, but one story that has flown under the radar is the nearly trillion-dollar weapons upgrade to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This “modernization” has been proposed not by the hawkish Republicans of the House and Senate, but by Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning president Barack Obama.

The funding and carrying-out of the upgrade will not happen in one fell swoop. It is a process scheduled to take place over the next three decades, as the U.S. aims to convert its aging Cold War stockpile into a modern 21st century nuclear force. Nevertheless, the nearly trillion dollar price tag is a concerning one, especially for those of us already frustrated with the amount of money our government currently spends every year protecting our “freedom” and promoting “democracy” in the world.

The U.S. spends more on defense than any other country, and it’s not even close. In fact, in 2014, the U.S. spent more money on defense than the next seven highest spenders combined. Yes, that means that if you add up the total defense spending of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the UK, India, and Germany, it still falls $9 billion short of the guns, bombs, planes, and tanks built and bought by the U.S.

Domestically, this adds up to 18% of total spending, that is, if you solely focus on mandatory spending. If you focus on discretionary spending, which more truly reflects how our government spends its money, the total rises to 57%. That means that the United States spends nearly 33% more dollars on its military than it spends on EVERYTHING ELSE.

But we are talking about nuclear weapons here, an area that even with a trillion dollar increase will not exceed 5% of total U.S. defense spending in the coming decades. And perhaps this is what is most concerning of all: the fact that even as we dump another trillion dollars into a weapons system whose only function is massive annihilation of humanity, it will barely manage to register a blip on the defensive-spending radar.

It is also important to note the political and historic backdrop in which this proposed upgrade is taking place. The United States along with several other nations just put the finishing touches on what’s being heralded as a historic “peace” deal with Iran, a deal that aims to prevent Iran from even having the technological capability to develop a nuclear weapon. Nevertheless, most Congressional Republicans, and even some Democrats, still view the agreement as far too weak, and want to see language that cripples and controls Iran even further. I wonder what Iranians think about the U.S.’s expansion of it’s own already gigantic nuclear weapons program while simultaneously limiting the comparatively tiny program of Iran, a program that explicitly has never had a motive other than energy production?

Of course, the fear is that should Iran have the ability to develop such a weapon, the crazy, Islamic bastards would probably use the bomb to rain fire on all their sworn enemies. However, if history were to have its say, which it should, it would tell us that if anyone were crazy enough to use such a devastating weapon, it would most likely be the only country that has ever used it before. Of course that country is the United States of America, a nation who exactly 70 years ago last week, dropped two atomic bombs on the country of Japan killing more than 200,000 people (the vast majority of whom were civilians.)

Mixed international signals aside, the spending part of this issue is a domestic one, and while a trillion dollars is a lot of money, the fact that it fails to make up even 5% of total military spending has left lawmakers searching for other options when seeking to cut costs. This is a stupid way to think.

A trillion dollars is a trillion dollars no matter what percent it is of a whole. Maybe a few cuts here and there won’t make much of a difference in the overall numbers, but that won’t lessen the impact it could have for the communities whose families it could feed, whose sick it could heal, and for whose roads and schools it could build.

Furthermore, the idea that we need to further invest in the modernization of a program in which the only scenario where those dollars come to fruition is a nuclear war that severely compromises the ability of humans to even exist on this planet is completely and totally idiotic. Any competitive edge the United States is gaining in such a scenario is a million times mitigated by the devastating effect such a war would have on human life.

So fuck bombs. Let’s put those dollars towards people. Let’s make a real statement that we are committed to international peace and not upgrade but dismantle our nuclear weapons arsenal. Let’s show Iran that we mean business. Let’s show Japan that we are sorry. A trillion dollars worth of nuclear bombs is a trillion dollars wasted, no matter what kind of deterrent it may or may not provide. And if that deterrent is really that necessary, if the only thing that is preventing us all from blowing each other up is the fact that we might get blown up too, well then I don’t want to live in that kind of world anyway.

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