Archive for August, 2016

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Do you remember the first time you watched Star Wars? I’m sure that after watching the light saber duels, the stormtrooper battles and the X-Wing fighter dog fights, you probably wished that you were Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia or Chewbacca fighting the evil Galactic Empire.  You probably grew up to develop a vision that America was a lot like the Rebel Alliance, with its quest for defeating the “dark side” and bringing freedom to the universe. We had the most diverse beings and the most powerful sense of spirituality. The force was with us all.

However, when I watched the latest Star Wars movie, the story made me think twice about my idea of the Alliance and the Force. The thought that an entire star system of beings would want to resurrect something as evil as the Empire and build the “First Order” was intriguing. And the idea that they would build a new Death Star the size of a planet to completely annihilate the Republic in a purely emotionless strike gave me some emotion of my own. How would anyone pledge their loyalties to an ideology that committed genocide across the galaxy?

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Taking a deeper, more critical look into the direction in which our country is moving, the vision of the Rebel Alliance is not as clear as it used to be.  As we move further and further through time and certain people become more and more powerful, it is my belief that we are beginning to resemble more characteristics of the entity we focused so hard not to be: the Empire. No, we are not at the extremity of the Emperor or a starfleet just yet, Snoke or the First Order, but certain major trends indicate that such a reality is not far away. There are three areas that are currently becoming dominant in our society that are contributing to this destiny.

The Embracement of Hate

The Jedi taught us not to give into our hate. They taught us not to be swayed by the dark side and bring order to the galaxy.  However, in the current state of affairs the expressions of anger and hate are looked at with honor and pride by Americans everywhere.  From angry political rhetoric to extreme acts of civil disobedience, the act of dominating and infuriating people who disagree with an ideology is applauded and waved through the air like the star spangled banner. Good an honorable deeds are looked at as weakness, while hateful acts are the fuel that gives people strength. The Emperor knew this, as he encouraged Anakin and Luke to give into their hate, for it made them powerful. Americans are accepting this as a way to become powerful.

The Proliferation of Arms

There is nowhere in the world where it is easier to obtain arms than in America. Background checks, legislation, training…nothing will stop a motivated individual from getting their hands on weapons. Interest groups have a grip on Washington to ensure these restrictions are kept at a minimum.  And I’m not just talking about guns. Guns are the least of my worries, because pretty soon America will get bored of the power struggle over guns.  They will want something more.  Artillery systems, multiple launch rocket systems, gunships, laser-guided bombs…is it too far of a stretch that Americans will want laser guns?  Ones that are powerful enough to destroy a planet?  The motivation to obtain more and more arms is what an Empire needs to build its Army.  Put enough weapons in the hands of citizens and build their ideology towards the growth of a supreme power, and you have an Imperial Force that is to be reckoned with.

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Dependence on Technology

We depend on technology more than ever before. Communication, information, entertainment. Our entire lives are hooked into technological devices in one way or another. Very similar is the Star Wars universe, where droids are more than just phones – they are walking/rolling beings that interact with humans. And in the case of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, technology was what enabled them to reconstruct themselves. Technology will without a doubt increase its influence over human civilization, which might even lead to advancements in space travel, allowing humans to travel more freely into space, and subsequently dominate it. An Imperial Starfleet is not far fetched. But it was in that moment that Luke saw the wiring and hydraulics of his father’s robotic hand that he realized that he had to turn away from the Dark Side…

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The Empire thrives on rage and domination, giving it its power to rule the galaxy. My concern is that America, on multiple corners has accepted this ideology as the only way. Is there a way to reverse the tide?  I don’t think it will be easy.  After Darth Vader betrayed the Jedi, he essentially reached a point of no return in which he realized that he alone could not turn against the emperor but instead acquiesced to the Dark Side.  In my opinion, much of America has reached that point of no return, where to speak out against the majority will mean annihilation.  But it doesn’t mean that it is impossible.  It will just take an intervention with enough Force to bring good to the nation once again.

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One of my favorite standup comics, Aziz Ansari said during one of his monologues circa 2013 that a lot of people asked him if South Carolina was racist. He explained that in the South, no matter a person’s race someone of a different race will think that the person is racist. White people, black people, Indian people, it doesn’t matter. But then he responded that people only think South Carolina is racist until they try the food. One bite of Southern fried chicken, and people are like, “Mmm this is good. What kind of spice do you put on this?” And immediately the conversation is changed to a common ground of human necessity: the food that gives us all life.

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If there is one thing in life that is the lifeblood of all humans, it is food. Food is what enables us to grow, it enhances our worldly experiences, it cleanses feelings of anxiety and frustration, and it is ultimately a necessity for survival. When you go to a different country and learn a new language, the first words that you learn are the ones you will need to order food. When you meet with an official, a business partner, or a potential date, the activity you usually engage in is sharing a meal together.  People and places are defined by their food. Fort Collins, a town that I love was defined by its food culture; so many places to eat, and so many varieties of food. Plus you can take a simple kind of food and spice it up with some ingredients to make it a brand new creation.  Food is without a doubt a universal language. And by reading this far, you are probably getting hungry…

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In the most dire of circumstances, food can play a role in conflict resolution and nation building. While writing my thesis in grad school on the Occupy Movement, I had the opportunity to interview Corey Donahue, one of the first Occupiers from Denver.  He had been jailed at least four times while dedicating his life to social justice for impoverished populations worldwide. Some people loved him, while others hated him.  As I talked with him on Skype, he shared one of his initiatives in Denver, which was the creation of the “Thunderdome” in the center of downtown. This was a place where Occupiers donated food from around the state and gathered for a potluck dinner that culminated into an open forum discussing socioeconomic issues.  At the end of the interview, although I disagreed with 70% of his politics, I did dig the idea of bringing people together over food to solve problems.  He explained it,”Everyone deserves to have a meal, because if you’re on an empty stomach, there’s no way that you can intelligently talk about politics and those issues.”

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Why am I talking about food right now?  I’m talking about it because our world is in trouble. People are waging war with each other over their petty differences, when in fact many of these problems that degenerate into violence could be solved over a home-cooked dinner.  And it’s not just having a meal together.  There are the “haves” taking food away from the “have-nots” in order to amplify their power over the world. First world populations stuff their faces while indigenous tribes starve to death. It is not a matter of there not being enough food in the world, but hunger is being used as a weapon everywhere to commit genocide.  The principles that Ansari and Donahue speak about are indeed valid: people change for the better when they have a meal in their stomach. To put it humorously, like they say on the Snickers commercials you are not yourself when you’re hungry. So imagine if more people in the world had the food they needed and did not suffer from hunger. How would our world look?  What would we be able to accomplish?  Would we look at food as simply fuel or an extension of our existence?

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How can you use food to make the world a better place?  It’s really not that hard. Take anyone in your life and invite them over for dinner. Or suggest to try a new restaurant in town.  Start out with people you know well.  Then very soon afterwards, expand your invitation list to include people that you don’t know well, and even people that you don’t get along with.  You’d be surprised that with a few bites of delicious food, everything gets better. The problems that you thought were a big deal become smaller and more rational to tackle.  In a world on the brink of collapse, food might be the only chance for humanity to not only survive but to unite.

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The current generation of veterans who are leaving the service and reentering civilian society are undoubtedly a “scene.” Like the Brit punk scene and the skinhead reggae scene before it, the veterans are now forming cliques based on common interest and are repping their hoods across America. And like most scenes, these common interest groups usually become rivals amongst each other. Here are the most prominent groups that currently saturate the veteran scene:

The Legacy Legion

This is the most traditional group of veterans among the pack.  They hold memberships in long-renowned Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) such as The American Legion, The Military Order of the Purple Heart, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. They stand for veterans rights on may occasions, often taking a conservative approach towards peaceful assembly and lobbying by gathering on the Capitol steps.  While they have made great strides in some areas, they are often criticized by the current generation of veterans as being “behind the times” and often too indulgent in the old ways of drinking with the old boys clubs.  Innovative thinkers often have a hard time breaking into these camps, and female veterans are often placed in the Women’s Auxillary with the spouses, even though they are actually veterans.  And there is corruption among a select few, with some Vietnam era veterans spending donation money on personal rent payments. Those who continue to try to keep the legacy intact often become forgotten by time and are in danger of dying out, just the same way that the grunge scene did in ’98.

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The Rockstars

This clique is a diverse one, full of independent entrepreneurs, actors, musicians and politicians. They often have a cult following among them who wears velcro hats with IR flags, with social media being much of their method of engaging with the world.  Veterans clothing and arts are seen far and wide thanks to this group, which include organizations such as RangerUp, Nine Line Apparel, Veterans in Film and Television, and Sword and Plough. One of the most notorious of the veteran rockstars is the tongue-in-cheek humored Mat Best, the former Army Ranger turned DIY actor/director and CEO of Article 15 Clothing. The rockstars are by no means perfect.  They have their tendencies to show their aggressive, alpha stereotype by sporting overly proud apparel proclaiming their veteran-ness and sometimes end up saying things that should just be left unsaid.  At times they become the target of other less-successful veterans who accuse them of “selling out,” just like Blink 182 and Green Day.

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The Freedom Fighters

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Even more aggressive than the Rockstars are the often contested collection of freedom fighters.  Depending on who you talk to and what side of the political spectrum they are on, they will tell you that in one way or another your freedom is under attack by the corrupt system of corporate-owned politicians in Washington.  They will march in the streets of New York and at Walmart protesting for veterans rights to benefits, waging war on the Islamic State, or defending everyone’s entitlement to bear arms.  They will even tell average joes that they [veterans] are in the best position to talk about freedom because they spent their “whole lives” defending it and that the average joe who works at McDonalds is worthless. Despite their passion to stand up to the “Man,” these veterans are for the most part a confused bunch, who often become divided while trying to get everyone united. When asked to describe the issues they are protesting against in detail, they often need to turn to Google on the spot to do their research. Their emotions degenerate into violence, which leads to jail time. Sounds a lot like the crust/street/hardcore punk scene to me, all of which eventually ended up dying after the kids graduated from college.

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A smaller, more daring clique among the crowd includes a few warriors taking their military tactical skills into post-military life and looking to change the world. Unlike most other veterans who just talk about it on Youtube, these veterans take dangerous steps into the worst parts of the world in order to liberate indigenous populations and bring order to war-torn communities. Although some Americans might gawk at them as being crazy, the work that these veterans are doing is very bold in many aspects. Kinessa Johnson has been leading an armed rebellion against animal poachers in Africa for a few years now.  And Peter Kassig took a very brave journey into an expedition to bring peace to the Middle East, converting to Islam and building communities among Muslim populations. Tragically, it cost him his life at the hands of Daesh. No matter what the cost, these veterans continue their oath towards bringing peace to America and the Earth. Unfortunately, very few normal people have the same kind of courage these veterans have, which is the same reason why the xCourageCrewx Brotherhood is such a small community.

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The Transformers

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A newer group that has emerged from the shadows in recent years, these veterans are breaking boundaries of what we as society know as the norm. They may have lived their lives in a traditional way in the former, but they are now stepping out and showing their true colors among a majority who must learn to accept them. Of all the veteran cliques in the scene, they perhaps face the most hostility from within the veteran community, let alone society as a whole given that “transition” is an uncomfortable subject for so many normal people. However, a deeper look into the service records of these veterans reveals that many of them served honorably, some of which came from the Special Operations Forces community, and many continue to serve. They didn’t transition to make a statement or rebel against society; they made the transition because that’s who they really were inside, and by fully becoming themselves they could serve their country with greater integrity. Like Laura Jane Grace (formerly Thomas James Gabel) of Against Me! put it, “The cliché is that you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body, but it’s not that simple. It’s a feeling of detachment from your body and from yourself. And it’s shitty, man.”

So what’s the point?

If you’ve made it all the way down to this paragraph, you are probably wondering why I am calling out all of these different cliques and why I am making references to all of these obscure punk scene personalities. My point with this is that yes, today’s veterans are all unique and have their differences, some of which are more drastic than others.  However, it doesn’t mean that all veterans need to stay among only one group that looks, talks and acts all the same way and doesn’t associate with other veterans not the same as them. That’s how the punk scene ended up, and let’s face it: the punk scene is dead. We as veterans, on the other hand, don’t have to let our scene die the same way over petty differences. Instead of criticizing those who still take part in VSOs, why not find ways to inject new characteristics into those organizations, kind of like how VFW Post 1 in Denver is leading the way in innovative things for veterans to do?  How about invite the protestors to a fundraiser dinner where they can talk intelligently about politics while giving proceeds to homeless veterans who could actually benefit from it?  What about using your skills in the arts to make a documentary about LGBTQ veterans for the world to see, and invite former members of the SOF community to be in it?  After all, hanging out with a bunch of guys who all wear the same ballcaps all the time gets a little boring after a while. There are so many ways we can accept our differences and engage in healthy debate and fellowship so that the veteran scene doesn’t go away.  We all have the same values and share a common thread of service to our nation. Now more than ever, we need to bring that same spirit to the larger American community.