Fri, Sep

What Do Cell Phones, the Military Draft and Taylor Swift have in Common?

GELFAND’S WORLD--It’s sobering to consider that we’ve now reached a milestone in this twenty-first century. We are at the one-fifth point of the 2000s.

This fact reminds me of an organization that announces facts about the newly entering college class each year -- they will never have been without cell phones,  they’ve never experienced the military draft, and for more than half of their lives, they’ve been exposed to Taylor Swift. 

I would add that for many of them, they’ve never experienced so much as a day of the twentieth century. They’ve never lived during the time of the Soviet Union and they’ve never been aware of a time when we are not threatened with political terrorism or, more recently, random mass gun violence. 

At a more specific level, as one pundit recently pointed out, our war in Afghanistan has been going on for this entire time. This raises another issue that we ought to at least contemplate. The United States has been carrying on a series of foreign wars using an entirely volunteer army. The net effect is that a small number of young Americans have carried the brunt in terms of lost limbs and post-traumatic stress syndrome. It is only recently that PTSD is starting to be recognized for how widespread it is and how devastating it can be to its victims. 

The U.S. is caught in a political and military Catch 22 here: There is no significant movement to return to a military draft, and a significant fraction of the Viet Nam era citizenry are in active opposition, yet the current foreign situation results in a paradox. We spend trillions of dollars on machinery, but compared to other nations, we don’t field very large armies. Politically, we are stuck in that condition unless some major international upheaval should result in a change. And I’m guessing that even if there were some necessity, it wouldn’t be possible to go back to the old days of massive armies until the baby boomers (i.e.: the Viet Nam War generation) have left us. 

So, one observation at this, the one-fifth point of the new century, is that we have become trapped in endless wars that are fought by a smaller and smaller group of Americans, and that group gets exhausted – physically and emotionally – from doing multiple tours overseas. Our society ought to be willing to consider the wisdom of continuing like this, and we ought to avoid calling each other traitors just for raising the issue. 

The Local Economy and a need for a Swerve 

In reviewing where we have been these past twenty years and where we are going for the next couple of decades, we should review the major themes. In Los Angeles, they will continue to be transportation, the development of an industrial sector to provide employment, and to a certain extent, housing. 

I won’t go into housing and the issue of homelessness, as it is being discussed at exhaustive levels all over the state. But we need to remind ourselves that southern California supported several well-paying major industries going into the 1960s, and we have to concern ourselves with their potential loss. In the early and mid-20th century, southern California built airplanes, grew crops, and pumped oil. We had a fairly robust furniture manufacturing sector. We still have an entertainment industry. All of the above have suffered losses and they all worry about the competition. 

We have replaced some of those industries with the import business, but at one level, we are making a little money shipping stuff because this country is buying it from foreign sources, as opposed to manufacturing it and distributing the profits among a well paid work force. 

The Possible Remedy 

Will the solar power industry take the place of these other sectors for the southern California work force? It’s certainly not clear, but it ought to be right up atop our priorities. 

Los Angeles could, if it were sufficiently motivated and had adequate political leadership, become a center for development of all the infrastructure involved in solar electric sustainable power. It’s not just metal towers carrying high voltage wires. It’s all the computational power that will run the system, the storage devices that will hold the potential energy, and a subset of manufacturers who will create machinery that will be used to install solar-electric and wind devices on peoples’ homes and on their farms. It would be the solar equivalent of the machine tool industry that is a central part of contemporary manufacturing. 

The sustainable solar industry is, to a certain extent, a yet-to-exist sector that would combine the power of robust capitalism and the benefits of the sustainability movement. It might even fit in with the concept of resilience being pushed by our city government. 

A Host of Troubles 

We are not doing very well in terms of reducing the number of gunshot attacks, either at the individual and family level, or at the mass-carnage-suicide level. I suspect that we could do something about the former, which is the greater source of deaths. My thought – not intended to be paradoxical – is that teaching gun safety via hands-on instruction (and at a young age) might be the best available approach. It’s what the NRA used to do. The message should be that if you plan to own a weapon for self defense, you at least need to learn to handle it properly and – importantly – how to control your own impulses. I’ve seen this kind of training done, and I’ve seen it work. 

Lots to Talk About 

Yes, there’s lots to talk about as we transition into the next roaring twenties. I want to ask what has happened to Saturday Night Live. It’s just not funny. Is this the curse of the Trump years? Are we (and the writers) all so depressed that we can’t find anything lovably humorous about any part of society and government? Or are they just not funny any longer? 

I will want to continue to talk about the city’s approach to our neighborhood council system. At the moment, the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners is contemplating instituting even more regulations that could result in mandatory training for our elected board members. It’s time for a real grass-roots revolution over this approach, and that perhaps includes a petition campaign to remove BONC board members who continue to push the authoritarian approach. 

At a lighter level, there’s athletics. At one time, an offensive line in the NFL averaged in the mid-200 pound range. In one recent college game, the television announcers pointed out that the entire interior line were – every one of them – in excess of 315 pounds. 

At one time, just being 300 pounds was considered a sign of likely bad health, but now it’s considered to be a requirement to play at the major level. I want to ask whether they are all on steroids (at least during the off season) and were they all on human growth hormone during their high school years? What other explanation could there be? 

I don’t think that increased levels of weight training are an explanation. This necessity to bulk up in order to compete is evident in baseball and basketball too. Should we be having a societal conversation about this trend, and whether it is going to have long term trends on adult health as these athletes get into their later years? 

We should remember that only recently are we beginning to recognize that professional football is damaging the brains of a significant fraction of all its players. As suburban families no longer send their sons to play high school football, will the entire structure begin to dwindle, just as the audience for boxing has declined?


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)