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Quaker Theology #15

Reviews

Hideous Dream. Stan Goff. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2000.
Full Spectrum Disorder: the Military in the New American Century. Stan Goff.
     Soft Skull Press, 2003.
"Hold On to Your Humanity: An Open Letter to GI’s in Iraq", Stan Goff. Posted online
     November 14/23 2003 at: counterpunch.com

Reviewed by David Gosling -- continued

"Overdevelopment (as in capitalist core-infrastructure) and underdevelopment (as in lack of autonomous infrastructure in the exploited global periphery) are interdependent polarities on a shared social axis, where value is drained from the latter into the former for the purpose of maintaining a ceaselessly expanding accumulation regime." (FSD, p. 194).

Segments like this are not without merit – Goff eventually makes correlations between capitalistic demands on the environment, the growing global energy crisis, and the historic precedent of capitalistic societies to rely on military domination for access to natural resources; all to make the point that a socialist agenda centered on utility is the best hope of a sustainable future. He also inadvertently makes a strong case against the naysayer of Global Warming by linking cumulative, high-entropy production (like that of industrial capitalistic markets) to a breakdown of the ecosystem and the Earth.

The problem is the jump Goff attempts from specific, personal examples and informed accounts of military and government inadequacies, to an overarching leftist apocalyptic prophecy of the impending doom of capitalism, with its top-heavy reliance on fossil fuels. He is right in saying economics drives politics and politics drives war, but with no transition from the personal perspective to the conceptual, he blindsides the reader, who is left sitting on the ground trying to untangle the cobwebs in her head.

Another limitation in Full Spectrum is the carryover of invective used by Goff in Dream. Although a memoir is by its nature a subjective, personalized account and therefore reflective of its author’s personality, a book like Spectrum – where Goff is trying to reach an audience based on documented missteps in U.S. foreign policy – needs more objectivity and less defamation (remember the "unreliable first person"). Just like Rush Limbaugh’s overweening personality may push moderates away on one side, Goff’s repeated description of President George W. Bush as some variation of a "spoiled preppy frat-fuck" (FSD, p. 76), will push them away on the other.

Goff says several times he wants soldiers to read his book. The majority of soldiers I know and work with would not read that description without second-guessing the validity of the entire argument or simply throwing the book away in disgust.

The language Goff employs is indicative of a larger problem in the book, namely his inability to produce an avenue for discourse among scholars, intellectuals, or anyone else interested in the application of change. He offers no substantial solution to the numerous problems he points out in U.S. foreign policy or capitalism in general except his abstract thoughts on socialism and low-entropy systems. English author Ashleigh Brilliant could have been speaking for Goff when he said, "I don’t have any solution, but I certainly admire the problem."

Equally distressing is Spectrum’s lack of documentation, which hurts the credibility of Goff’s message. In Chapter 11 alone, there are only two works cited, leaving statements like this unsupported:

"Then 9/11 gave the Bush administration the pretext to launch a bold venture to restructure the entire global architecture by arms. The gamble was that the seizure of Iraqi (then Saudi if necessary) oil would create the conditions for a fresh upwave of imperial accumulation… and the leverage to eventually strangle China." (FSD, p. 157).

Those are dangerous words without backing to prove their validity. The entire book can be seen as no more than an opinion piece without legitimate documentation and research. Goff may very well be right in his assumptions, as he was with Iraq and Afghanistan, but something beyond his own opinion is needed to bring a wider audience to the table. In one of the more poignant chapters of Spectrum Goff says he is writing the book "both for the left and for soldiers." (FSD, p. 165). Again, if he wants soldiers or anyone outside his inner circle of friends to listen, he needs documentation to back his claims.

The third and final piece I reviewed was the pamphlet entitled, "Hold On to Your Humanity: An Open Letter to GI’s in Iraq", and it reveals Stan Goff at his best.

The blunt delivery of his message, coupled with valuable insights from his own experience in Vietnam, gave me the impression – as an Iraqi Vet – that he was speaking directly to me. The essence of that message is for soldiers to come back as whole beings, to not let the war take something sacred from them in its meaninglessness, hatred, and violence. Something called the soul.

Goff learned about soul-pain in Binh Dinh Province, Vietnam. I learned about it in Sadr Al Yusifiyah, Iraq. There are many, many young men and women learning about it overseas right now.

In "Hold On" we find the essence of Goff’s writing. Beyond the cynicism, the intellectual posturing, the heavily political agenda; there is Stan Goff the man, who has a sincere desire to see the world taken to a better place, and to see the men and women fighting for our country back home from the senseless violence we have created in the Middle East. It’s peculiar that in the 750 pages of Goff’s material I read it was in the last sentence that he revealed the most about his personal beliefs: "Don’t leave your souls in the dust there like another corpse" ("Humanity", p. 6).

Goff claims no place for religion or spirituality, despite his belief in the soul, and sees both as part of the preoccupation with individualism and materialism at the root of our modern day problems. He calls religion "a persistent force not because human beings are spiritual, but because they are material. They fear individual extinction" (Dream, p. 480).

In this way he attempts to link religion to some kind of rampant desire on the part of the individual to obtain immortality. There is some truth in that statement, but Goff underestimates the complexity of the human spirit, the yearning in many people for something sacred not only beyond themselves, but in themselves and around themselves as well. Religious belief is much more than an obsession with our own finite existence: it is a celebration of all the wonderful and dreadful facets of life; intertwined, irrepressible, and Divine. A poem by Mary Oliver expresses this very well for me:

    "Every day I see or hear something that more or less
    Kills me with delight, that leaves me like a needle
    In the haystack of light. It is what I was born for – to look, to listen,
    To lose myself inside this soft world – to instruct myself over
        and over
    In joy, and acclamation. Nor am I talking about the exceptional,
    The fearful, the dreadful, the very extravagant –
            but of the ordinary, the common, the very drab
    The daily presentations. Oh, good scholar, I say to myself, how can you help
    But grow wise with such teachings as these – the untrimmable light
    Of the world, the ocean’s shine, the prayers that are made out of grass?"

        (Mindful, from Why I Wake Early, 2004)

It is no blind faith in an afterlife that spawned those words, but rather an earthbound understanding and appreciation of the small, holy things, each special in their own way: interconnected and beautiful.

Goff goes on to say: "our species must shed the doctrine of individualism that cuts us off from one another and from community…it is a total reorientation of values, and one that renders moot the question of individual death" (Dream, p. 481).

Aside from the point that no social or individual shift in value judgment short of court-ordered lobotomies can take away the human preoccupation with death, it is worth noting that in modern religion our western culture has one of the very last bastions of community available to a population more and more separated by technology, wealth, and education.

If religion were nothing more than the individual preoccupation of which Goff speaks, how is it possible for Quaker Meetings to exist, where the entire premise of worship is based on community-shared experience, insight, and revelation? Why would my mother, an Episcopalian Priest, make daily rounds at the hospital to visit her elderly and sick parishioners if not for the legitimate bond of community formed at her Church?

Why do our Jewish friends celebrate Passover every spring – the communal uprising and escape of an entire people from the bonds of slavery in Egypt? All of these point to the vital role of community in religion and spirituality, not to a self-absorbed, unhealthy preoccupation with our own mortality.

We must meet Stan Goff at the most basic, human level. Before he begins to speak about socialism, capitalistic greed, or religion, he is a man deeply affected by his own experiences in the military and the pain he has endured on behalf of our country. He has the desire to undo some of what he has been a part of in the past, and to warn us of similar mistakes in the future. He cares about the injustices many peasant communities have suffered at the hands of our government and those governments being supported by our own.

He also cares about our men and women in uniform; about the racial and sexual relations in their ranks, the unnecessary dangers they are exposed to at the behest of Washington, the dire consequences of their continued exposure to violence, and the consequences of that exposure back in the "real" world. He is worried about the future and the sustainability of our planet’s resources.

This is the most important aspect to his writing – his own humanity – and it has served him well. The rest of us can learn from his example. We may not get the subject matter just right, but the very reason for writing can be the best point to make of all.

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