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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Jerome Phillips


THIS IS NOT A TEST, with your pal and confidant Michael Jerome Phillips

God bless our troops – THIS IS NOT A TEST #19 (transcript)

Published May 2, 2015 [Podcast link]

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My work calendar told me the other day that I’ve been at the company for nine years. That might not sound like much, but it’s about three lifetimes in Internet years. I’ve never put in nine years with one company before in any industry, and I’m old. You’d think I would have, but it hasn’t turned out that way. Mainly because I started working for Internet companies 20 years ago, and Internet companies are notoriously fickle and fragile, so you find yourself being sold off or otherwise made redundant pretty often.

Things have flipped in the business world. It used to be that a long stint at a company made you valuable somewhere else, because it proved you were stable and you probably learned a lot of valuable shit that the new company could benefit from. Now it’s the opposite. People look at someone like me and think I couldn’t have possibly learned anything being “stagnant” for as long as I have. Staying in one place like a fool. I used to do a lot of hiring and some of these kids would bring in resumes that show a new job every 10 months. I’d look at that and think, “What the hell is wrong with you?” but it’s becoming normal now. I guess I understand how that could be fun if you’re 22 years old, bouncing around from tech job to tech job, but I don’t think you learn anything working in a different place every year. What can you possibly learn? How to work a wide variety of office chairs? Didn’t Malcolm Gladwell teach us that it takes 10,000 hours to become expert at something? That’s some bullshit by the way. I like Gladwell’s Tipping Point, but he can say some ridiculous shit in his books and because he’s famous now, people take it as gospel. But I’m getting off-track. God damn you Gladwell!

Anyway, here I am, going into my 10th year on the job and I can promise you that I have to learn new things all the time. Disturbingly frequently. Problem is a lot of it is very specific to the industry I’m in, and that industry is shrinking. So my value out there in the world is shrinking. But I’m still pretty good at talking my way into stuff, and the heart of my job isn’t technical anyway, it’s writing and communications. That’s why I’m the Communications Director, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s my job to make the rest of the people in the company seem literate and human. Not that they are illiterate – well, a couple of them may be – but they are technical people, and technical people aren’t traditionally great communicators. So I suppose what I really am is a translator. Ha – I never thought of it that way, but it’s true. So as long as there are technical people who need to communicate with mere mortals, I guess I’ll be employable.

What’s really funny is there was no job for me at my current company when they hired me. I just met with a couple of them a few times – for dinner, never in their office – and they must have liked me, because they said they wanted me to come work with them and we would figure out what I would do. So you see, the world is crazy, and I’m proof of that. An uneducated printer who grew up in the woods is doing communications for an Internet company in Los Angeles. If that’s not proof that anything is possible, I don’t know what is.

Okay. Well, I should start in on this week’s topic by saying right up front that despite my seeming luck where work is concerned, I don’t believe in a god, or even the concept of a god or gods. I believe in nature and science and logic. So everything I say here is going to be filtered through that particular bias. But it’s going to be a friendly ride, don’t worry. I’m not sure why so many people can no longer be friends with someone if they disagree with them. Granted, it is difficult to be around a fundamentalist that doesn’t have anything else going on and can only talk about their god. But I imagine it’s just as difficult to be around someone who doesn’t talk about anything but skateboards or cars or politics or baking pies. Single-minded people can be tiresome and hard to take. And a lot of people seem to have become pretty single minded lately. Whatever subject you care to bring up, they’ll steer it back to their obsession.

But the other day I saw a bumper sticker that said “God bless our troops,” and it made me wonder about some things. I mean I’ve seen those before, I’ve been seeing them forever, and so have you. It’s nothing new. But sometimes you can see the same old thing but for some reason it makes you wonder about things like it hasn’t before.

I think I understand religious people. Regular-style religious people, anyway, not the aforementioned fundamentalists. And I think that they mean well, or at least I give them the benefit of the doubt where intention is concerned. But I have to wonder about these gods supposedly blessing these troops. Or sports teams or people playing the lottery. If there is a god, it would seem to me that it would be scratching its head and wondering why the hell we have troops in the first place, rather than rooting for one group of troops over another. So when I see an American proclaiming “God bless our troops,” all I can think is, “Yeah, the families of those ISIS guys are probably saying the same thing.” All that beheading and stoning and burning alive they do, they do in their god’s name. To them, chopping of someone’s head with a dull knife is something they do with the blessing of their god, and it pleases him.

Now I know if you’re someone here in America with a “God bless our troops” bumper sticker on your jacked up truck or Prius you’re probably thinking, “Hey man, you’re crazy, it’s not the same thing!” But how isn’t it the same thing?

When I was 9 years old the draft started here in America for the Vietnam war. Now I wasn’t exactly a radical or a hippie when I was 9 years old. I lived in a very small Midwestern town, and my father and stepfather had both been in the army, and all of my many uncles had been in the army or the Marine Corps. But I can tell you that even as a 9 year old I knew that was not for me. And the thought of being forced into the military and then forced to go fight in a war was terrifying. But I also knew that I was only 9 years old, so it wasn’t really my problem. But the war in Vietnam had already been going on for 5 years when the draft started, and it kept going on and on and on there really didn’t seem to be an end in sight, so when my friends and I were 13, 14 years old, we started to think, “Shit, we’re next.” You know? We’re going to be one of those guys we see on the news with a big bloody bandage over our heads, or in one of those bags.

And the news – man, it was raw and brutal and unrelenting. Every night with the body counts and more film of carnage and horror. Year after year it went on. So war was a very real – if distant – thing, and the idea that I could be caught up in it eventually when I didn’t even understand why it was going on didn’t exactly fill me with joy. What it did is give me a pretty constant and unrelenting fear of what might be. It did that. But that war also taught me something important. because everyone knew someone who was over there. Or you knew the family. And I knew those guys, the guys from my little town, weren’t bloodthirsty lunatics, they were just regular people. So it occurred to me that the rest of those troops on the news, no matter which side they were on, were probably also just regular people, and a lot of them probably didn’t know why they were there or didn’t have any say in the matter. Of course every branch of the military, and the government itself, and the media all do their best to convince everyone that “the enemy” are bloodthirsty lunatics, and we’re right to be gunning down as many as we possibly can. But I couldn’t really swallow that. If our guys were just regular kids who were sent over there whether they wanted to go or not, it seemed reasonable to believe it was the same situation on the other side.

And that isn’t me thinking in retrospect and with age. Well, it is a little bit, but it seemed like a lot of people thought that way back then. There was so much discontent and protest around that war, and if I’d been born a few years earlier and been closer to draft age, trust me, I would have been protesting along with them. Like I said, I knew I didn’t want to go do the whole war thing. But the way things were, you didn’t really have a choice. But if you can assume or believe or entertain the possibility that “the enemy” is more like you than you may realize, then you have to believe that “God bless our troops” means the same thing to them as it does to you. Their bumper stickers are just written in Arabic.

You know, I want to be clear that yes, I said I wasn’t into going off to war, but I never thought the people who did go off to war were stupid or evil. Going into the military was normal in my family and where I was from, and as far as being in the war, again, I don’t think 99% of those people had any choice. So I wouldn’t have been one of those mongrels spitting on returning soldiers. Even as a kid I could see how wrongheaded that was, and seeing that shit on the news would make me angry in ways I didn’t fully understand at the time. because the bottom line is I support our troops because I support everyone. All people. But as far as being in the military, I think you have to be pretty fucking brave to strap on all that gear and go someplace like the Middle East. That shit is dangerous. Those people over there – ours and theirs – didn’t start that war. They’re just the ones left holding the bag – and the rifles. Whether I believe we should be over there fighting a preposterous, unwinnable war isn’t the point. I’m sure a lot of our troops feel the same way. Just look at it from a human angle, man. And try to believe that we can be friends even if we don’t agree on everything. That’s important.

America is on the way out anyway. Well, white America. It has to be. The rule of the white man, the people of European descent, it lasted a good long while. They had a good run. They can’t complain, though something tells me they aren’t going to go quietly. But realistically, there’s no tragedy in stepping aside while the rest of the non-white world takes over. The population of the world moves through cycles, and the part of the population that’s in control goes through cycles. The Chinese had their time and the Egyptians, and the Europeans. Who’s next? I don’t know, but I don’t envy them their job. Civilizations come and go, species come and go. And you and I, we’re just part of a species that isn’t going to go on forever. I know some people don’t like to think about that, or think it would be horrible if humans died off, but would it be?

We’re pretty cool, us humans, we’re kind of a marvel of evolution, but we’re not as cool as, I don’t know, dinosaurs. I imagine dinosaurs though they were the shit for a long time too, and some kinds of dinosaurs oppressed and exploited others, and they laughed dinosaur laughs and just thought it was a sweet ride off into infinity. Well, they went of into infinity all right, and so will we. Americans, humans, all of us. Then all of our atoms and carbon will be recycled into whatever’s next. And that next thing won’t know anything about us and they won’t care. We won’t matter to them because we don’t matter. I’m not saying, “We don’t matter, go jump off a cliff,” I’m saying we don’t matter in the scheme of things. In the life of the universe. We’re just a blip, a cosmic sigh. Here, gone. So what?

I think it’s good to try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here. I wish we all could. I wish I could. But only a few of us really do. You know, really enjoy ourselves. We’ve created a world where it’s pretty hard to do that. That’s our fault. We’ll always have troops and we’ll always have huge corporations and nations and religious extremists, and whether we squabble over gods or oil or sand or water or nothing at all, we’ll still squabble and spill each other’s blood. And when we’re not doing that we’ll be working every day, until we’re no longer able to work. Not a lot of enjoyment to be found in most of that for most of us. Not enough, anyway. Not nearly enough.

Well, yeah, okay. I’ve been mostly talking about ancient history, when the “God bless our troops” sticker I saw the other day was probably stuck long after the 9/11 attacks. It was probably stuck in the last year. But I’m not sure that makes any difference. And as far as extremists or fundamentalists are concerned, I don’t think the Viet Cong or the Japanese or Germans in WWII were any less fundamentalist than the Taliban/ISIS crew. They were just patriotic fundamentalists rather than religious ones. There was no reasoning or befriending or negotiation, just like it seems with the modern extremists. But the funny thing is, if you talk to just about any Arab you’re likely to meet, they’re going to tell you that they think the Taliban and ISIS are crazy, and that they themselves are definitely not down with the same cause. So theoretically it should be easy to get rid of fringe groups like that, right? If most of their own people disagree with them.

But we’ve devolved into a state of extreme polarization that we all seem to accept as inevitable or normal. It’s become second nature for a lot of us to simply dismiss or ignore anyone who doesn’t think like we do. As long as we continue to do that, there’s never going to be any middle ground, any negotiation, any coming to terms. With anybody. How can the sane Arabs ever convince the Islamic extremists to stop running around creating chaos when neither side has one good thing to say about the other? How can sane Americans convince the lunatic fringe to stop murdering doctors, or cops to stop killing black men? How can you possibly believe or hope that American troops can somehow defeat those Islamic extremists when the two sides of our own government – who are supposedly supporting those troops – can’t agree on anything at all? And I mean nothing. If a Republican wants to put up a stop sign a Democrat is going to try to make sure it doesn’t happen. If a democrat wants to give you a band aid when you have a cut, a Republican will do their damndest to make sure you just continue to bleed. It doesn’t matter what the issue is, they just disagree because they’re on separate sides. Each side is as inflexible and idiotic as the other. They are both wrong and they are both broken. If you want your god to bless something, forget the troops, ask him to bless the fucking congress.

What’s really disheartening is how far gone we seem to be as a species, in spite of what seems to be overwhelming evidence that we really could all get along, just like Rodney King suggested those many years ago. When people meet and speak one on one, so much of the polarizing shit just disappears and we can spend our time talking about what we have in common. And if you’ve ever done that, you know that we all have a hell of a lot more in common – all of us – than we do differences. Go find someone who you think you hate or you think has foolish beliefs and talk to them for an hour. If you have any humanity left in you you’ll part as friends. Or at least not enemies. But being “not enemies” is whole lot better than what we have now.

It’s such a fundamental thing to me, the idea that we can be friends even if we don’t agree on everything. It’s obvious and logical and easy, but it doesn’t seem to be something most people believe anymore. The moment they disagree with someone about anything they put them into the “enemy” box and leave them in there forever. I suppose I’ve never had that luxury because I disagree with most people about most things. But if I went around dismissing everyone who didn’t agree with me about everything, I’d be all alone out in a cave in the desert somewhere. Which might actually suit me, but that’s not the point. The point is, when you think like that you nave to accept that no one is going to meet your unrealistic requirements for the perfect human – not even yourself – and so you have to just take people as they are. That’s my excuse anyway. But we shouldn’t need an excuse to see each other as human.

And I have to think, or I have to believe that most of us are not so different than I am in that respect. That we all have some things that we can’t agree with others about. The only way society works though, or the only way it will continue to work, is if we just relax and let a lot of that shit go. None of it really matters. But we seem to be headed in the opposite direction. We seem to be headed in to two or three or 500 different walled camps. It’s probably going to come to that eventually. We’ll end up like we started: in cities surrounded by moats and heads on pikes.

Or it will be like Mad Max. Which, incidentally, is coming out very soon, a new Mad Max movie, and that is blasphemy to me. I know, I don’t believe in god, but I believe in Max, so I can call blasphemy. And I believe that only Mel Gibson, as insane as he is in real life, should play Max. But again, we live in a culture that can’t think of anything new, so here we are with another Mad Max movie, 30 years after the final episode in the trilogy. 30 years! I need to write some movies for these fuckers. Not really. I’d rather eat a raw horse. But look around, man, look around Los Angeles, or anywhere, there are a million people writing. You telling me that between all of them there’s not one new idea to make a movie around? Are you telling me that we’re just out of ideas, so it’s going to be sequel sequel sequel sequel sequel sequel sequel from now until forever?

All right, I talked about that more than enough last week. But we’ll probably talk about it again one day, because there are apparently only a dozen different stories to tell. Didn’t Goethe say there were only 36 plots? These people clearly lack imagination. What do German poets know anyway. Imagine living at the same time as Mozart and making a preposterous claim like “there are only 36 stories.” Mozart wrote 626 pieces of music, there’s got to be a story to go with every one of those. Somebody should write them. I’m too busy with all of this, but someone out there must have the time. Maybe someone who’s retired or unemployed.

Actually that would be a great idea for a book. Start at K1 and work your way all the way to K626. A short story for each one. A very short story, like a few paragraphs. Maybe I will do that. I have to go Google that list in order. Let’s see…if I did two a week I should be finished in 5 or 6 years. Check back with me then. I’ll work on that for years and then when I finish someone will say, “Oh, cool. But you know that Dilbert Snerdly did that in the 1950s, right?” That’s the way it usually goes with me.

I’m not really going to do it, but I’m crazy, so as soon as I’m finished with this I’ll probably go find that list and start to figure out how I could do it. You know, make a database…like I said, I’m crazy. All right brothers and sisters – and you are all my brothers and sisters – I’ll talk to you soon. Be as good as you can be.

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