I've been over this ground enough times that it starts to assume invariance, which to me is the only operational definition of truth. Thus, I'll try to recount here the trajectory of my political awareness. Much of this is taken from dialogs I've had with college classmates, and I apologize to them if their names inadvertently remain.
I am angry now with what the right and especially the fundamentalists have gotten away with, and without the slightest scrutiny by the media. The anger derives from the fact that I am frustrated by a sense of powerlessness. If I were smarter, I would probably articulate my thoughts with less anger and more thoughtfulness. This began when I was a graduate student in San Diego. I had been oblivious and amused by the student unrest at Yale my last two years, and one of the mainstays of my life has been my abject naivete in many areas. This actually is an inheritance from my father. There are both plusses and minuses.
I participate in a very active email listserve involving my Yale classmates. This has been a wonderful opportunity for me to express most of my thoughts, and to have feedback. Much of this is cribbed from an exchange I had a year or so ago with a very conservative democrat, who asked: how did I manage to cast away Conscience of a Conservative and Up From Liberalism, and embrace Chomsky, Zinn, and Albert.
I was once on the fast track to Eagle Scout as a boy scout until I became a Star and couldn't graduate to Life because I couldn't get even one of the "citizenship" merit badges. Not in the home, not in the community, not in the nation, not even world brotherhood. This has always struck me as a harbinger of my stubbornness and disdain for institutions, and for people who run them and with whom I cannot communicate one-on-one.
I. Phillips Exeter Academy
Looking for the seeds of my transformation from a quite conservative teenager to a very progressive pacifist and socialist, I think I would go back at least to my days at Exeter, and to a pivotal class in Modern European history which I took (along with Gregory Craig, who later worked for Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton and who now advises Barack Obama). This was a wonderful class in which my entire Republican, conservative moral framework was given a major shake-up. Among my classmates was Gabriel David Hillel Motzin, Gabriel is now a Professor at Hebrew University and I hope some day to take him up on his invitation to visit him. He became one of my fastest and most profound friends for the time that we knew each other at Exeter. He was from Los Angeles, a very slight fellow who seemed vastly better equipped intellectually than I. He was liberal and a Democrat. His gift to me was his patience with the absurdity of my positions in class and his desire to have me question them. Although he succeeded in getting my attention, he only began the process of getting me to question what I held sacred, which was Up From Liberalism and Conscience of a Conservative Goldwater conservatism. Although we disagreed profoundly, each sensed that we shared something else beneath our disagreements, which I've come to call friendship. I saw him again for the first time since graduation at our 40th reunion, and easily renewed that friendship. I think Gabriel was the foremost of several influences at Exeter that made me begin to be comfortable with intellectual doubt.
II. Yale and my Senior Society
Yale was almost a total vacuum politically and morally. I enjoyed myself and I enjoyed what singing offered - spring time road trips with a singing group called The Bachelors (with whom I was only marginally comfortable at the time).
Almost the sole exception to the vapidness of my Yale experience was my Senior Society, an underground society where I got to know fourteen wonderful people. That experience re-acquainted me with doubt. I made some serious mistakes in dealing with others, and began what was then known as "sensitivity training", which we embraced strongly as a group - in part because it was on fire across the campus, via Chris Argyris in the Yale Industrial Administration department. Those interactions have remained absolutely central to my life's journey.
III. Graduate School, the Biology of Aggression, and Pacifism
Then came the war. I went to graduate school at UCSD on a student, then a medical, and finally an occupational deferment. It all started coming together for me there. UCSD was a monument to the military industrial complex. Built by and to service Gulf General Atomic and other military contractors, they made the inconceivably provocative decision to hire marxist guru Herbert Marcuse to head their philosophy department. I was still firmly convinced of my conservative traditions, and a bit like Saul of Tarsus I baited the likes of Angela Davis and other student leaders at student rallies. (Angela Davis also belongs on my present pantheon - I thank her for being a role model for both my daughters.) I was, and likely remain, a naif. What turned the tables on me was an assignment to develop a three week course for undergraduates in biology. I decided to settle, once and for all, the biological basis of aggression, expecting to find solid biology supporting the Vietnam war. I did develop that course, and I taught it. But the impact on me was not what I expected. I read Ashley Montague and Konrad Lorentz without finding any justification for wanton intraspecies violence. In fact, I found that intraspecies injury was minimal and almost non-existent. Especially in mammals, the only instances of violence came in mating battles, which were resolved ultimately by submission and not by murder. The aggressive instinct, if it can be called that, vanished once a clear winner became evident. Research since then has modified these conclusions somewhat - there are signs of occasional wanton violence in primates. Overall, however, I remain convinced of the essential truth of my conclusion that there is a biological restraint built into all conflict that turns it off once the vanquished submits. This was my own conclusion; it wasn't openly stated in what I read, but was the only conclusion I could draw. I became a pacifist then and haven't budged since from that position. My mother's cousin was a pacifist during WWII, and I find much resonance in her stories about him. There is no such thing as a good, neceessary, or just war. Wars happen on us when we let them get the upper hand, and it is always wrong. One of the worst things we do as Americans is to maintain a standing army.
Protest against the Vietnam war was especially intense at UCSD, and peaked with the self-immolation of a student on the quad. The wife of one of my fellow students had charge of trying to save the suicide's life as she was a nurse. So I had occasion to hear graphic stories of the horrible damage done by incineration.
In time, other aspects of the marxist analysis of Marcuse became evident to me - what he described as "repressive tolerance" in his book by the same name, which I read long afterward. By the time I graduate with a PhD, Marcuse had been crucified by the US press, and Angela Davis was in prison. One other experience from those years is rivetted in my mind: I heard Eldridge Cleaver speak to a rapt and standing only audience in the UCSD gymnasium, which was the only place that could hold everybody. He was accompanied by six black panthers, all of whom carried semi-automatic weapons. Linus Pauling also spoke on the same platform. In retrospect, I was just beginning to change my mind, and I delighted for the first time in Pauling's accusation of the "milita...aaary industr....ial complex" (his speech was already faltering. Cleaver, however, astonished me. The man was so eloquent and intelligent and so in the right, I thought. I later read his Soul on Ice, and it confirmed that moment. Here was someone who cut through hypocrisy and identified real problems and did so in a totally moral and compassionate (for everyone, not only blacks) framework. He ascended to my pantheon.
IV. The Prickly Mountain Project
I remained confused about my political feelings because I retained a belief in Adam Smith and that wonderful mythical invisible hand. Overcoming that myth would take much longer, and I still have considerable resonance with libertarians on my Yale listserve, although some have followed a path similar to my own. From a summer job I took for two summers in the rolling hills of Vermont with two graduates of the Yale Architecture School as an undergraduate, I drew a second, important thread. This was the absolute height of innocence within the hippy movement, and the lifestyle and moral strength of the people I worked for taught me to embrace creativity and especially the freedom that nurtures it. It was called the Prickly Mountain Project. My boss was someone named David Sellers, Yale '62 or thereabouts. He had been rusticated from Saybrook College at Yale for a stunt he pulled that did no damage to the physical plant. He took a bucket of golf balls, opened all the windows on each floor of the southeast courtyard, took a 9-iron and one by one put a single ball, apparently without missing, into each room. Sellers is, himself, a product of the Chris Argyris/Pinhead Steele T-group movement. I do not remember Steele's actual name. I only remember his nickname, from the fact that one of Sellers's most interesting houses at Prickly Mountain was always known as "Pinhead's House".
Sellers's spiritual enthusiasm constitutes the second main pillar of my emotional framework. Once, while framing the house he lived in while he build vacation houses for sale at Prickly Mt, we raised a wall and he secured it with a single spike. I questioned the wisdom of this, as we were about to knock off for the day. "Carter," he said, "it's no big deal to build a house strong enough. The real challenge is building it just barely strong enough!" One other anecdote from those days - one of my early job assignments was to dig a foundation for the same house on which we had raised the wall. This came after they had finished and lived in the house for a month and Sellers realized that wintering over would be easier on a concrete foundation. Astonished, I watched as Sellers assembled four automobile jacks and some hefty boulders and I helped him jack the house up and stabilize it on some 12 x 12s. Then he handed me a shovel and I dug. This anecdote took on a new dimension fifteen years later when I took my young family down to Warren VT from Greensboro to see Prickly Mt. A brand new house five times the size stood right next to the Tack House (the house we had built in the summer of '64). It was late in the day and overcast. As we walked past, the house seemed empty. Then I heard a strange noise by my feet. I looked down and found a bald head surrounded by 2.5 in red fuzz. Digging for a foundation. Sellers had made the same mistake he had made fifteen years earlier, and was digging under his new house to extend the foundation! This taught me that a surprising number of things in life are ultimately forgiving, and not to dread failure. I generally recover pretty readily from mistakes.
Somehow, although Sellers is much more brilliant than I, I've always tried to live in search of such challenges. I had a wonderful accomplice in my father, who made his living diagnosing industrial manufacturing problems using statistically design experiments that he himself had pioneered as a young turk, whose contributions were suppressed because his partner insulted the intellectual towers (John Tukey at Princeton) at meetings. As such industrial experimentation is expensive, he confronted the problem of making his experimental designs "just sufficient" to do the job. I myself am best known professionally for my father's contribution, which is enshrined in my most cited publication, Carter & Carter. That paper led to a quite profitable biotech cottage industry making kits of semi-randomly designed cocktails for efficient searches for protein crystal growing conditions. The kits are really nothing like what we envisioned, but they do work and are universally recognized. I never wanted to move in that direction - I have next to no sense of making money. It means precious little to me, and I've been fortunate to have been provided for by my research and teaching, and by Valerie's career at Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC.
So, I celebrate deeply the energy that freedom releases for human creativity and accomplishment. I have few heros in the commercial world. Steve Wozniak and Stephen Jobs are exceptions, and I will invariably chose not to do something rather than use a microsoft operating system. It took a long time for me to question free trade because I always thought that comparative advantage was a sensible model for the world economy. In fact, however, I've not been especially sensitive to or interested in economics, except as a branch of mathematics.
V. Interlude on epistemology, spirituality, and happiness
Two intellectual experiences opened up serious new ground while I was just getting started as an Assistant Professor. The first were two book entitled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, a groupie at Princeton at the time and someone who as far as I can see has published nothing since, and Gödel Escher Bach, an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. The combination of these two astounding books opened up the world of how how language generated consciousness through cultural evolution, and that it happened very recently (ie., in the past 2-3 millennia) and more generally, that energy flux invariably generates complexity (the latter book). I found this realization quite radical, and yet immensely satisfying as a way of accepting who and why I am as a biological entity occupying the universe.
A second vital encounter came with Bertrand Russell via his book, The Conquest of Happiness. This came at a time when I was in the throes of a mild and recurring depressive illness. Valerie's uncle gave me the book, telling me that it had provided him with great wisdom about life, and I was just getting to know him better, so I began reading it, despite huge suspicions about Russell, who I felt was way too pink. What I found was a simplest work of pure genius: a straightforward examination of why most people get unhappy from time to time, the coping mechanisms that work most of the time, especially friendship, and above all, the deep connection that his prescription had with what I was beginning to realize is called wisdom.
These two sets of insight might seem unrelated. However, they are quite closely connected because they gave me an conceptual framework within which I came to realize that I had control over what mattered most in life, and the role unconditional acceptance played in taking advantage of what it all brought to the table. Stated another way, from Jaynes and Hofstadter I got a very workable model for how things really work in the universe (even on scales familiar to us humans) and from Russell, I learned that what other people thought or did need not influence my happiness.
VI. Iran Contra and the Reagan/Bush Years
I was appalled by the Reagan years. From the sabotage of Jimmy Carter's hostage rescue attempt and the Iran arms for hostages deals to the dangerous and unprovoked bombing of Libya, these were years in which I recognized what I had not recognized during the Vietnam war, that the US foreign policy was actually not just misguided; it was criminal. I was unaware of most of what had gone on in Vietnam. I didn't even know the name of David Halberstam. I had conflicted feelings about the Pentagon papers (still harboring a vestige of respect for secrecy) even while understanding that the Vietnam war was both folly and wrong. During the Reagan years, there was an active investigative journalism in thee US, and very good cases were built for prosecution of people like Oliver North. These were sabotaged by a series of suspicious coincidences, including the untimely demise of Noriega. I had begun to think of the heroin epidemic in US high schools that began in the second half of the '70s, and read several places that this was a direct result of negotiations between the CIA and various traffickers in Southeast Asia, notably the Hmong. It wasn't long before I realized that G H W Bush was head of the CIA during the relevant period, and to suspect that he was anything but a straightforward stumblebum, and to think of him as a starkly evil man. The exoneration of all of the Iran Contra criminals and the eventual revelation that Oliver North had masterminded the implementation of the sabotage of Carter's rescue attempt all led me to the very strong statements I made in the Y'67 25th reunion essay. As my paternal grandfather had been Skull and Bones in 1919 and best friends with Prescott Bush, this posed a serious threat to my relationship with my grandmother, for whom up till that time I had had the warmest affection. Stubborn, I had things out with her and essentially never spoke to her again for the next fifteen years.
Given this position, the first Iraq War struck me as an especially evil and contrived adventure. As a pacifist, I believed the war to be unnecessary and morally wrong. Beyond that, I believed then, and still do, that April Glasby's missteps in dealing with Saddam Hussein were not missteps at all, but policy; that she did what she had been told to do by Bush pere. The coverup of the hideous chemical warfare used in both Vietnam and in Iraq began to gall me as well at this time. I began to realize that almost nothing was what it appeared to be in the public media, and I began to seek out alternative spokespeople and sources of information. At about this time, NPR and PBS both began to evolve into large, corporate organizations, depriving the American people of valuable alternative sources of information. The round-the-clock coverage of the invasion was curiously one-sided and jingoistic.
At about that time, I began to read Chomsky seriously. In the middle of the 1990s, we drove across Canada from Chicago to Vermont and while in Canada, we picked up a public address by someone who was not identified until the end. It was about how corporate interests benefitted from encouraging South American farmers to grow Coca and to produce cocaine. At about this point, I had also read The Spirit Moves You and You Fall Down, a wonderful book by Ann Fadiman, about how the total incompatibility of the Hmong and US cultures led to the tragedy of a young Hmong woman afflicted with epilepsy - the book's title being a translation of the Hmong word for this disease. The book tangentially dealt in some detail with the CIA involvement in SE Asia and its relation to the drug trade. My sensibility was high to how drug addiction in the US was used cynically by corporations and by intelligence agencies for totally pathological purposes. I listened to Chomsky intently for two hours without knowing who it was. He was so soft-spoken, so absolutely right in what he said, that I was very surprised when the announcer gave his hame and position at MIT. (I knew about Chomsky as a good friend at Longmeadow High School wanted to go to graduate school to study linguistics with him, and my own epistemology is very compatible - ironically - with Chomsky's structuralist account of language.)
Eisenhower's phrase "military industrial complex" had come to subsume our most valuable social resource: where we got our information. The obvious consolidation that had begun sometime earlier now operated in full force on what had once been journalism. I think this may have been a turning point in my conversion from a pacifist with some remaining conservative values to a full-fledged marxist. Marxist in the sense that I realized that Marx had correctly identified the power associated with money. I began to question ownership at such levels and to doubt a legal foundation that allowed Disney to manage what ABC said in its news broadcasts. Bill Moyers last night (Wed, 25 April) presented a marvelous discussion of how the US media came to fail the citizenry by hyping the path to the second invasion of Iraq. His spokespeople added a notion that I had not concluded on my own: it is way cheaper to hire a bunch of pundits to fill the time than to pay to have a decent network of journalists. This, as much as anything else, captures the central truth that the free market (at some point, I hope to get into what that oxymoron actually means) does not serve public interests, and is increasingly undermining it. Moreover, during the course of Moyers's 90-minute program, there was ample first-hand testimony that the ratio of right-wing to progressive pundits on all networks was set at at least 2:1 by management! That, and the firing of Donahue by MSNBC because he questioned the war are signposts of where journalism has come in our time. It is not pretty. Dissent is no longer good for business! Yet, dissent is essentially the only way out of a quagmire.
VII. The persecution of Clinton.
From the beginning of the Clinton administration he was hounded mercilessly by very partisan Republicans, something that the Democrats have refused to do to junior bush. The hypocrisy of these efforts is highlighted by the cost of the prosecutions and by the utter absence of any indictments. The impeachment by the Congress for lawyerly evasion of what he had done with Monica Lewinsky (I still believe that he did not lie about his affair, but that is hardly worth going into. The dominant feature of the Clinton years was the utter lack of integrity in the Republican party and its rank and pervasive hypocrisy. I still feel that Bill Clinton's greatest gift to the US citizenry, and by a wide margin, was that he told the truth as nobody had done since Jimmy Carter.
At this point, I had occasion to touch base again with Gregory Craig, who addressed an Exeter class gathering with his recollections of the experience with the impeachment hearings and trial. He spoke of something that I can believe but cannot credit: he said that people for whose actions he had contempt (he mentioned Lindsay Graham) were nonetheless human beings, with whom he could have pleasant exchanges face to face. Graham has at least the one action in his favor that he criticized the interrogations at Abu Grahib and related matters. I still think he is despicable, and cannot imagine having a human to human conversation with him, so large the gap that has opened in my civic perspective.
There are numerous issues on which my perceptions began leading me to act decisively in almost trivial details. Because the Boy Scouts had been taken over by the Mormans who had made scouting hostile to gays, I began to scrutinize my annual United Fund contributions to exclude that organization. I found it was quite difficult to do that, so pervasive is the organization in the umbrella organizations. So I started to target my contributions to individual charities and to withhold support from the United Way and similar umbrellas.
What was taking place in my head was the wholesale dissolution of the entire civic edifice in which I had been schooled as a child by my schools and family. The consequent disillusionment made a curious contrast to the way I had navigated my religious journey. In contrast to many friends, who had experienced serious disillusionment as they learned that organized religion did not conform to what they had been taught, my religious evolution was continuous an natural, uninterrupted by disillusionment. I was and always had been a monotheistic atheist, and totally comfortable with all the inconsistency that entailed. With social institutions, however, my disappointment was palpable and extended somewhat painfully over perhaps twenty or twenty-five years. At the time of our 25th college reunion, I wrote to the Yale Corporation telling them I would no longer support the institution and urging my class to withdraw support as I had done. I got back a lovely, hand-typed note from Calvin Trillin, whose daughter was then an undergraduate at Yale. I don't remember if I replied to him. His eloquent defense of the institution remains the one document I have that links me to the institution itself. The great British Universities are also proud and filthy rich. However, Oxford University rebuffed the attempt by Margaret Thatcher to receive an honorary degree, to its eternal credit and in marked contrast to Yale's behavior in granting honorary degrees to the two bushes.
VIII. The 2000 and 2004 elections
Don't get me wrong. I do not consider junior bush to be worse than his father. In fact, I believe the father is a more heinous criminal than the son. He was Phi Beta Kappa at Yale, while junior bush was beneficiary of generous C grades. I was in the UK when the 2000 election was resolved by the Supreme Court, as I had been in France during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. Thus, I missed first-hand reporting and video footage from that time. Nonetheless, I am among those who firmly believe first, that the election itself was manipulated on many levels, almost exclusively by Republicans, and that if there were any way to produce the votes actually cast and to count them accurately, that history since 2001 would have been radically different with Albert Gore as presdient. Here, I should flash back to the 1960 election and to the theft of the Chicago vote for John Kennedy by Mayor Daley. As a Nixon supporter at the time, this galled me, and I have never to this day honestly resonated with the adulation many people have for Kennedy. (I did become an ardent supporter of Bobby Kennedy before he was shot; this was during my graduate days at UCSD.) Many important shifts in public policy attended the election of Kennedy and my assessment of them is almost entirely from my present perspective, as at the time I had very little awareness of these issues. However, the catastrophic changes that attended the theft of the 2000 (and 2004) elections dwarf those that attended the 1960 election. Nevertheless, these elections should speak to everybody about the tenuous grip we as a nation have on the concept of representative government.
There is no question in my mind that the RNC in Florida were guilty of serious crimes, and that as a participant, John Roberts is serving at the head of the Supreme Court as an unindicted felon. The Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore ended my dwindling respect for the Supreme Court, which had slowly ebbed during the Rehnquist years. Rehnquist summered in Greensboro, VT where my great grandfather had built a cottage. When Rehnquist bought his property, there was a clause in his deed that was intensely racist (it may also have precluded selling the property to Jews). That he did nothing to have this clause removed permanently erased any respect I might have had for him. Although he was popular with the Greensboro population, and circulated socially, my parents carefully assured that I never was present in the same room with him; they knew my feelings and that I am a loose cannon. I have always been embarrassed by the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the high court, and the hypocrisy of Antonin Scalia not recusing himself in a case involving his travels with Cheney defines him, as well in my mind, irrespective of his intellectual eloquence. Basically, since Bush V. Gore, I no longer respect the Supreme Court as an institution. That decision was so blatantly wrongly reasoned and hypocritical that there is little reason to trust the court on any issue.
The 2004 election revealed the entrenchment of the malfeasance. I've written to the Yale '67 list often on the subject of the disparity between the exit polls and the actual vote count in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Nevada, and several other pivotal states. This is the plainest evidence I can imagine for massive manipulation of vote counts. Knowledgable classmates disagree with me. However, the statistical evidence remains convincing to me and is backed up now by the recently developed links between the Ohio computer network managing the vote count and the political office of the White House. There is simply no credible evidence that the 2004 election was not corrupted on a massive scale. Unfortunately, very few people in a position to do so have made anything of the situation.
Both 9/11 and the Va Tech massacre had dramatic effects on most people. I have always reacted to such events almost with a cold indifference. I cannot explain why. I remember that I was passing through Yale Station (the campus post office) when Kennedy was shot, and I was more concerned about reading my mail than reacting to the tragedy. Similarly when Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan were shot. I don't know where this coldness comes from, but it is innate, apparently invariant, and independent of my feeling for the victims. I do, however, react significantly to the news surrounding such events. I still believe that there was a darker agenda driving the Kennedy assassination. My reasons include prominently that my roommate's father, a dental surgeon in the Navy and stationed in Bethesda, was charged with rebuilding Kennedy's head for a funeral. He knew much more about what happened than was ever released in the press. Accessory reports, however, indicated that there were multiple wounds, and I suspect that he knew this first hand. He went into seclusion soon afterward and died without further enlightening us.
My immediate response to the WTC attacks was to accept national responsibility for it and to suspect the worst from the junior bush administration. I put myself squarely in the "blame America" camp; I think it is a no-brainer given our history and compounding it with the trajectory of the bush family history and the 2000 election. That there was no serious investigation of how it came to pass is proof positive that there is something heinous to hide. Glaring inconsistencies abound, and all attempts to rationalize what happened during the breakdown of security and the avoidance of responsibility, as outlined by Richard Clarke in his book confirmed my initial reaction in spades.
There are several aspects of this situation the engender cynicism. One one hand, one must ask the question, why on earth WOULDN'T people around the world begin to fight back, after what we have done to them. Putting myself into the terrorists' shoes, I would certainly have immense animosity toward a country that tried to manipulate the middle east for the sole purpose of exploiting its natural resources.
This is not to say that my reaction is unilateral. The entire summer before the WTC attacks I read up on religious fundamentalism, especially books by Karen Armstrong and in particular about Islamic fundamentalism. In my posts to the list, especially on subjects like religion, I emphasized the deep significance that fear has in generating a fundamentalist reaction. I was fully aware of the threat posed by fundamentalism of all kinds, because I had come to believe that the underlying fracture of biological restraints against interspecies violence is the primary purpose of religious domination, and that religious domination is a pervasive response to fear. I am certainly far from alone in this belief, as evidenced by the recent spate of books by Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Jack Miles, and others about the adverse impact of religion.
If one applies the analysis in the previous paragraph to what took place in the US after the WTC attacks, it opens the door to the possibility that perhaps the junior bush administration was doing some linear combination two things, depending on what they actually believe (which is hard to know): 1) they were exploiting the kind of fear that naturally accompanies a violation such as the 9/11 attacks to move the country decisively toward an expansionist projection of military power, or 2) they were themselves actually acting out that same fear. Either way, they were projecting precisely the logic used by Islamic fundamentalists themselves. The only real distinction was the level of irony involved. In the former case, they knew what they were doing, and it was rankly cynical. In the latter case, they failed to understand what they were doing, and what they did was simply foolish. Mario Cuomo expressed this succinctly during the months following the invasion of Iraq when he said words to the effect that the invasion of Iraq was either inconceivably sinister or inconceivably naive - a national tragedy of epic proportions in either case.
X. Contempt for data.
Much has been written about the junior bush administration's contempt for science and for data in general. This contempt is expressed in every aspect of the executive branch, from Treasury, to State, to Justice, to Agriculture, to HHS, to Interior, to Education, to Homeland Security, even to NASA and the Bureau of Standards. Regulatory agencies have been gutted by the wholesale firing of career staff and replacement essentially by lobbyists whose only claim to expertise is in the area of corporate profits. It is hard to decide which direction is worse - the purveyance of false information is to pervasive. One example leads to another in an endless stream of very bad news. The pet owners who lost pets because of melamine poisoning that went undetected because the FDA stopped monitoring imports was not the first wave of the effects of our broken radar on food poisoning. It may not be the last. Hogs in North Carolina have been quarantined because they had dangerous levels of melamine, apparently used to enhance the apparent protein content of agricultural imports. It is no accident that the incidence of death from contaminated food has been substantially higher since the dissolution of regulatory supervision began in 2001.
An important reason for this contempt for data is that the data themselves are so damning. From the first weeks of the new administration, Alberto Gonzales acted swiftly to protect the administration from oversight by reversing a Watergate era law defining presidential papers to be in the public domain. I had no illusions at the time. Gonzales was acting to protect the Bush family from the release of evidence of the crimes of both father and son. From that point through the secrecy of the energy policy hearings, to the cover-up of intelligence corruption by the administration, to the emails that have disappeared from the Republican National Committee computers in which US Attorney firings were discussed, and on which there are probably records of the fraudulent vote counts in Ohio, this administration has invested colossally in preventing us from determining the truth.
XI. There is no meaningful opposition.
Perhaps the most discouraging source of my cynicism is the almost total acquiescence of the Democrats in Congress, who have let the administration define both the vocabulary and the playing field of all debate, rather than taking issue with what are in fact a series of pernicious myths for which there is almost no evidence. Among these myths:
Negotiating with terrorists is wrong.
Withdrawal of forces from Iraq is equivalent to surrender. The entire "war" metaphore is entirely wrong. We are engaged in an illegal occupation.
Projection of military force can achieve national goals.
Torture is an effective means of interrogation; ie, it produces intelligence that saves lives (I do not believe this myth, even at face value.)
I conclude with something from Howard Zinn's essay on land mines, which are certainly one of the most evil of human constructs, inflicting untold damage on children, while yielding scarcely anything positive. He says in this chapter of his latest book, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress "...the abolition of war is not to be dismissed as utopian. The abolition of slavery in the United States was seen that way, but a handful of abolitionists - black and white - would not give up, and they eventually created a national movement powerful enough to turn a utopian dream into reality".
Politics has been called the science of the possible. However, questions about politics often actually involve unsolvable problems. They do seem unsolvable. Yet, Nelson Mandela found a solution (albeit incomplete and untidy) to the problem of apartheid while he sat in prison, and he effected a quite significant transformation in South Africa with remarkable absence of violence. Similarly, Ghandi was able to do the same. Certainly many would argue that the British were not Nazis, and try to escape my message by that ruse. However, the Apartheid regime in South Africa was most certainly in the same category as the Nazis, so Mandela's achievement is certainly an existence proof. As to the British, their actions in China during the 19th century, addicting the chinese to opium and leading to the Boxer rebellion approach the scale of much of what we recognize in 20th century fascism.
Another Yale classmate pointed out to me some time ago the essence of the Mandela and Ghandi approach. Ahimsa, non-injury, or what we tend to call non-violence is truly an alternative I believe to be much more powerful and effective, even in the contexts of your question. It is the alternative I favor, and when combined with courage, it applies in all situations, I believe.
Ahimsa is especially relevant to todays confrontation with radical islam. Let us ask just what "non-injury" implies in this apparent mare's nest. It implies enormous scope of change. None of the motives attributed to radical muslims is really too wide of the mark. Like domestic fundamentalists in the US - our numerous country persons - they are pathologically afraid of the rate of cultural change. Hell, I'm afraid of the rate of cultural change. It happens much to fast for my software. Combined with a transcendental authorization, this makes a nasty brew, because all behavioral decisions bypass the checks and balances that evolution has built into "normal" biological individuals. The anti-Americanism that motivates radical Islam today is entirely understandable, and I sympathize with almost all of it. The US is a very vicious empire, using wanton mass murder as a matter of policy. This is not a partisan thing. It goes back at least to James Polk, who was a democrat who graduated, I'm ashamed to say, from UNC Chapel Hill. We provoke, entrap, and torture far more pervasively than any other contemporary power, and I've argued with some justification that we have now fully assumed the mantle of the Nazis and the Soviets in the manner in which we set and prosecute policy.
It is difficult to conceive of a leader in the US with the moral qualities of a Mandela (my nominee for man of the millenium, over Newton and Einstein, as well as Ghandi). Were we to try to imagine such a thing, I feel near certain that the residual good will in the rest of the world would respond in ways that would limit terrorist violence vastly more effectively than any military or policing action could ever do. At the same time, it would improve the quality of life not just of the terrorists, but also of the US citizenry.
Another Yale classmate wrote to me soon after the build up of the Iraq war began, asking me how I could rationalize my positions. His point, was that I was an idealist, whose thoughts had no relevance in the "real world". I could not disagree more. Exactly what I wrote to him I do not recall. However, I am quite certain that what I predicted to come of the invasion of Iraq was a severe underestimation of the pathological damage we have inflicted on our own troops, not to mention what we have done to destroy Iraq. I think what I said meant something to him.
The essence of Ahimsa is respect. We do not treat the rest of the world with anything even approaching the respect or decency we like to think we show each other. Respect and decency in our international dealings would go a long way, and appear to me simply to be by far the most practical approach.