Peaceful Resolutions

It came as a shock.  Raised as I was in a nation enamored of weaponry, I did not realize that many countries in the world do not have armies.  In some places, such as Israel, service in the military is compulsory.  In approximately twenty nations, however, people are secure enough not to require armies.  It’s probably symptomatic that such nations are fairly small in land area.  The more you’ve got, the more you want to protect.  Without materialism would we even need militaries?  Yes, we fight over different religious beliefs, but those conflicts are tied to a sense of ownership as well.  This is “our land” and don’t “you” tell us what to do in it!  I can imagine a world where armies need not exist.  The key, it seems to me, is love.

In a Simpsonesque way, of course, hostile aliens might invade.  Could we not try to come to a peaceful resolution?  Or could we not learn to protect ourselves without having to be in a position to destroy those who might prefer a more socialistic lifestyle?  Those who might look different?  Those whose moral standards push us to think more broadly?  Like many people I’m dismayed at the unconscionable size of our military budget.  Killing the world once over is no longer enough.  Now we have to try to pollute space as well.  Where are those aliens when we need them?

The fact is nations exist on this earth without standing armies.  They don’t cause trouble and some of them are extremely bookish (no surprise there).  Can we imagine what our world would look like with an education budget swapping places with the military one?  Do we dare even think such dangerous thoughts as peace and mutual goodwill?  Is no-one big enough to stand up to Adam Smith (with kudos to Thomas Piketty for trying!)?  The wealth of nations could be applied to make well-fed security mostly a reality.  We lack the will.  Well, most of us do.  I draw comfort knowing that several small nations around the world feel no need to waste their budgets on weaponry.  Their rich may not own dozens of houses fit for dozens of kings, but they have perhaps a peace of mind that no amount of military might can give.  We don’t seem to understand that weapons cater to fear, and that, as one religious text says, “perfect love casts out fear.”   

In Our Own Backyard

That monk walking towards me looks a little suspicious. Perhaps it’s that guy with a top hat and weird gun strolling next to him with a waxed mustache and carefully sculpted beard. Like a page ripped from ComicCon, the Steampunk World’s Fair draws people from all across the east coast (perhaps even further afield) to Piscataway, New Jersey, or some venue near Rutgers, every spring. In a world where work routinely stifles creativity, a weekend of subculture is about as good as it gets. As a veteran of over two decades of Society of Biblical Literature meetings, I’m used to large conferences. Only this is much more fun. The Steampunk World’s Fair draws some 4,000 people, most of them baroquely costumed, to a sleepy corner of an overly developed industrial corridor, courtesy of Jeff Mach and Widdershins LLC. I met Jeff Mach at Steampunk City last October. A natural promoter, he has a way of getting events noticed.

Steampunk is more than a literary genre. It has become an eclectic mix of the technical and supernatural, the scientific and the absinthe-laced dreams of fantasy. An element of H. P. Lovecraft fandom is clearly present at the World’s Fair, as is an interest in Victorian spiritualism. Indeed, it would not be difficult to concoct a religion out of this heady brew. Like most human cultures, there is no pure form here. Vendors will be glad to accept your money, but true artists put great effort into unique pieces of creativity and style. I’m here, not feeling entirely safe surrounded by such strangeness, wondering if this isn’t a natural outgrowth of what happens when a technically oriented society too long denies its emotional subtext.

Role-playing is catharsis. Many of us spend our days feeling relatively powerless in a capitalistic system that is overwhelming and stifling. Thomas Piketty meanwhile suggests that extreme economic inequality leads to a breakdown of a system that favors too few. Although restraining himself from the economic implications, Frans de Waal notes the same phenomenon among primates that we insist on calling lower than ourselves. Bread and circuses, we know, only kept imperial Rome going for so long before it collapsed under the weight of inherited greed. Under great pressure, the people will play. This feels a bit heavy for the Steampunk World’s Fair, however. I can’t recall the last time I saw robots rubbing elbows with bearded, cross-dressing nuns, and nobody thought any of this was out of the ordinary. Or maybe it’s just the absinthe-flavored truffles talking. I know where I will be, in any case, come next May.

A typical sight.

A typical sight.