"Sanity" does not mean perfection; it merely means sufficient commerce with the real world to allow us to survive both day-by-day and in the long term – thus “sane” individuals obey traffic laws, learn from their mistakes and practical experience and, in the case of moral sanity, they recognize in others their worth and their capacity for joy and suffering. Furthermore, sanity implies a capacity to critically evaluate one’s experience, to distinguish fact from fiction, and to further adapt to the real world through that experience and knowledge.
Insanity, by implication, suggests a kind of “habitation” in an unreal, made-up world. The megalomaniac who believes he is Napoleon, to put it bluntly, is not Napoleon. The schizophrenic hears voices that nobody in fact utters. The paranoid is in constant fear of non-existent threats. The psychopath can not recognize the human worth and the capacity for pleasure and pain in others, and so on.
A deranged society is often, but surely not always, made so by a deranged leadership. This is especially likely when that leadership has effective control of the media. Then the leaders possess the means to convey their delusions to much of the public at large.
Now I don’t wish to claim that one George Bush has lost all his marbles, though I suspect that he may be “a few bulbs short of a full marquee” (Garrison Keilor). George Bush’s “world” may, to a disturbing degree, be out of sync with the real world.
That’s a startling charge to level at “our leader” and, by extension, at our compatriots. So let’s look at the evidence:
“Solipsism” is the philosopher’s term for the assertion that “all that exists is my mind and its ideas.” It is epitomized by the opening sentence in one of Arthur Schopenhauer’s books: “the world is my idea.” Of course, no sane person believes this (including Schopenhauer).. However, the challenge of “escaping solipsism” leads to the core issues of epistemology: how do we demonstrate the existence of other minds and of an independent “outside” physical world.
(My late friend, the novelist Edward Abbey, had an ingenious solution: “if someone tells you he is a solipsist, throw a rock at his head. If he ducks, he is a liar.”)
Now, of course, Bush and his gang are not solipsists, and the term, “national solipsism” is meant figuratively. (Literally, the term is self-contradictory – “national” entails a plurality of minds).
In this figurative (and I suspect original) sense, “national solipsism” is a belief, still better an “attitude,” that the world beyond our borders is just what I want it to be and believe it to be, and nothing more. To Bush and his neo-con “handlers,” ours is an uncomplicated world free of unintended consequences. This world need not be studied in order to be understood – the opinions of “experts” are of no interest. Rather, the state of the world is best apprehended by “gut feeling.”
So we are free to violate a batch of treaties, to defy the United Nations, and to invade an unthreatening country. And what will the excluded “community of nations” think of this behavior? How will the Arabic and Islamic nations react? Can they retaliate in any troublesome way? We don’t know and we don’t care.. Anyhow, we can always bribe or bully our way through, as we did when we collected the “coalition of the willing.”.
In brief, in the world of the “national solipsists,” our nation is the sole actor; all other nations are completely passive.
Case in point:
Syria. When asked “what is the message of the Iraqi attack” to other countries in the region, Richard Perle casually said: “you’re next!” To Perle and others of like mind, the governments of Syria, Iran, North Korea, or wherever, upon hearing this and contemplating the fate of Iraq and its leader Saddam, will simply passively await their fate in fear and dread, making no alliances or other preparations that might surprise us. Instead, they will wait helplessly, like condemned prisoners in their cells, awaiting the sentence of the court.
And that kind of an assumption is just plain crazy.
In point of rational fact, the remark “You’re next!” must surely provoke strategic planning in Syria, etc., and for that matter in numerous nations throughout the world. Similarly, reactive strategic planning is the certain response abroad to the Bush regime’s flagrant violation of treaties, and its disregard of international law and institutions.
We are not the only nation on earth with “national interests” to attend to, although the neo-cons behave as if this were so..
Suppose one were to directly confront Perle, or Wolfowitz or Rumsfeld with the question, “Do you really believe that other countries will stand idly and passively by as they contemplate the fate of Iraq, as they read the text of ‘Project for a New American Century,’ and as they hear that taunting remark, ‘you’re next’?” Surely they would reply, quite truthfully, that they don’t really believe in the complete passivity of nations abroad.
But the essential point is that they act as if they believed this!
Provocative remarks (‘you’re next!”), violations of treaties, habitual lying, unprovoked attacks upon harmless and disarmed countries – all this is done by the Bush team as if they firmly believed that the U.S. government and its military can do whatever it damned pleases, without fear of “surprises” and retaliation from other regimes and non-governmental organizations such as al Qaeda.
In short, their beliefs in rational reflective moments are fundamentally disconnected from their actions and their policies. And that is clinically insane behavior. Moreover, to the degree that this disconnection between certifiable knowledge (“justified-true-belief”) and operative foreign policy doctrine infects the general public, via the “vector” of a compliant media, that public “catches” a bad case of the crazies from its government.
Sooner or later, the Bushistas and the American public will find out, to their astonishment and chagrin, that “the world” beyond will not tolerate this behavior much longer, and moreover, that the community of nations, comprising the “other” 95% of the world’s population, is quite capable of devastating, albeit non-military, retaliation.
Science be damned -- “the world is my idea.”
Solipsism, or “subjectivism gone mad,” is reflected in Bush’s attitude toward science, and in the consequent policies of his administration. According to the Bushevik subjective metaphysic, the physical world is also just what we want it to be, scientific expertise and proof be damned.
And so, when the threat of global warming is affirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change, consisting of 2000 of the leading atmospheric scientists of the world, and when the IPCC findings are confirmed by the National Academy of Sciences, the Bush regime responds by “shooting the messenger” – by arranging the firing of the IPCC Chairman, Thomas Watson. Furthermore, the Bush EPA then removes a section on climate change from its annual report.
Similarly, Bush energy policy is apparently based on the belief that petroleum reserves are infinite – contrary to scientific information and economic statistics. “We don’t want to believe what the scientists tell us, so it ain’t so.”
Economics is not a “hard science” – to say the least of it. Nonetheless, there are a few compelling economic principles that are ignored at the peril of society. One is that huge deficits far into the future, with no indication of reversal, leads inexorably to fiscal collapse.
Another principle is that the way to “stimulate” an economy is to direct funds to those who will spend and/or invest in the near future (that’s most of us), and not to those who will send these funds to offshore banks or to set up low-wage industries abroad (i.e., to the fortunate top 2%).
But never mind all that. George Bush has “a promise to keep” – to his political contributors. And, at least in this case, he keeps his promises.
Another bit of economic lunacy: “Compulsive behavior” – persisting in an activity that has clearly been shown to be useless or even counter-productive – is a compelling indicator of some loose screws in the cognitive clockwork. In extreme cases, it calls for strait-jackets and padded cells. Now consider “supply-side,” “trickle-down” economic policies (i.e., “reverse Robin-Hoodism" – throwing money at the rich), which proved to be a colossal failure during the Reagan and Bush-I administrations.
When Bill Clinton dumped “supply side,” two conservative Texas Professors of Economics, (and Senator and Congressman respectively) Dr. Phil Gramm and Dr. Richard Armey, predicted economic disaster.
Instead, there followed eight years of unprecedented grown and prosperity.
But never mind that, with Bush the Sequel we get supply side, the sequel. Experience refutes supply-side economics, and eight Nobel Laureate economists have denounced it.
But so what?.
George Bush’s “gut” says otherwise, therefore “supply side” theory is true.
Psychopathology: “Who cares what you think?”
Psychopathy – the failure to recognize, much less to empathize with, the personal human dignity, rights, and feelings of others, is displayed in the Bush administration de-funding of Medicare, Social Security, veterans’ benefits, and furthermore, in the callous disregard of the lives and safety of the unfortunate Iraqis beneath the U.S. military’s cruise-missiles, shells, and bombs.
Sure enough, the Bush word-smiths recognize compassion as a politically potent concept – hence “Compassionate Conservatism.”
But the astute citizen will (untypically) follow Richard Nixon’s advice: “don’t pay attention to what [they] say, pay attention to what [they] do."
“The Truth is Out There.”
The Bush administration has an uncanny ability to concoct lies and, when “found out,” to “move on” unscathed. This accomplishment stands as a tribute to their mastery of the black arts of public relations and propaganda.
Consider the “justifications” for the attack on Iraq – in particular, those presented by Colin Powell to the UN Security Council. (a) Saddam Hussein is producing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and (b) Saddam Hussein is in close cahoots with al Qaeda terrorists.
As it turns out, the case for WMDs was based on a collapsing structure of plagiarized term papers, forged documents, rumors and false reports, even as the UN inspectors were failing to find any independent evidence of WMDs.
And even the CIA reported that there was no evidence linking Saddam with al Qaeda. Furthermore, it was a plain verifiable fact that none of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqi. And yet, so effective is the Bush propaganda machine, that a majority of the American public now believes that Saddam had WMDs “at the ready,” and that Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks.
Significantly, the corporate media has taken no great pains to disabuse the public of these flat-out misconceptions.
In other words, the American public’s “reality principle” was, in these cases, deliberately and effectively sabotaged, resulting in a case of mass-derangement.
And yet, “the truth is out there.”
The facts about Saddam, WMDs, al Qaeda, 9/11 are not secret, nor are the opinions of atmospheric scientists, petroleum geologists.
The opinions of world-renowned economists are on the record, and if that doesn’t suffice, the economic statistics – unemployment, consumer confidence, inventories, stock prices, etc. – are published for all to see.
Yet, to the neo-conservative and fundamentalist dogmatists in the Bush administration, none of this matters. “Screw reality, we have our doctrine – and we have the interests of our ‘sponsors’ to tend to.”
Likewise, although the facts are out there in front of the eyes of the public, yet they refuse to see.
Meanwhile, the subservient corporate media have instituted a successful campaign of “mass distraction,” while the Congress and the Courts are no help, since they no longer work for “We the People.”
Corruption and despotism, like cockroaches, scurry for cover when the light is cast upon them. Thus the most dependable route out of this pit that we the people find ourselves in, is the route prescribed by Thomas Jefferson and fellow founders of our republic: a free and diverse media, a vigorous and well-funded system of education, and the resulting open discussion of competing ideas.
Unfortunately, now that the corporate media at home have abandoned us, we must now look to the foreign press and the internet for our news and information.
So wake up, America. Reality calls!
And reality won't budge an inch to accommodate our fantasies.
By Ernest Partridge,
The Crisis Papers April 20, 2003
When I left home to enter college, I believed that the purpose of thought was to discover truth. After all, hadn't Aristotle famously proclaimed, "Man, by nature, desires to know"?
After a couple of undergraduate classes in psychology and critical thinking, I was permanently disabused of this touchingly naive article of faith. Instead, I came to understand that "all persons, by nature, desire to believe that they know." Modern psychology., I learned, has replaced Aristotle's maxim with a realization that "all persons by nature desire repose," and repose, of course, is nicely obtained by a facile belief, warranted or otherwise, that one is in secure possession of the truth.
The universal willingness to accept a wishful belief as justified knowledge has led to the defeat of armies, the downfall of civilizations, and the demise of millions of human beings. The belief that "it just can't happen to me" proved to be a death warrant for millions of European Jews, and every year half a million smokers in the United States face the fatal realization that it can, and has, "happened to them."
With time, experience, and maturity we might come to appreciate that the short-term comforts of unwarranted belief can cause us considerable grief in the long term, and thus that the best means to achieve the repose we all desire is through the attainment of "justified true belief" – i.e., verifiable and public knowledge. Hence the emergence of science – an institution deliberately designed to thwart the universal inclination to choose comforting belief over brutal fact.
"Wishful thinking." We all know what it is, and we all appreciate the error and peril to which it has led in the past, and to which it can lead in the future. And yet we are all, more or less susceptible to it. Rationality is a virtue that admits always of degrees, never of perfection. Thus we must forever be on our guard against wishful thinking, personally in our own lives, and collectively in our politics.
Sadly, there is abundant evidence at hand (for those willing to face it) that the American public is in the thrall of an Administration, via a submissive media, which constructs a world-view almost entirely from dogma and wishful thinking, unperturbed by the challenge of compelling facts. As George Bush is famously reported to have said to Bob Woodward, "I can only just go by my instincts ... I'm not a textbook player, I'm a gut player."
Far from being a luxury that we can afford, this wishful thinking -- this deliberate blissful ignorance -- threatens to bankrupt our domestic economy, disrupt international law, commerce and security, and even imperil the life-support systems of our planet.
Examples of this triumph of blissful ignorance over well-informed public policy are seemingly endless. I will focus upon three of them: the Challenger disaster, the health effects of smoking, and the global warming controversy.
The Challenger Disaster provides a vivid and tragic example of how wishful thinking, issuing from politics, investments, and institutional inertia, can overwhelm sound scientific judgment. The informed reader may notice here some disquieting parallels with the ongoing investigation of the Columbia disaster.
In his outstanding (and sadly forgotten) Public Television Series, "The Public Mind," Bill Moyers, examined four recent cases of fatal "group think" – the triumph of wishful thinking over hard, cold evidence and plain reasonableness. These were, in addition to the Challenger disaster, "the Bay of Pigs" invasion of 1963, the Viet Nam War, and the Watergate Scandal. Fortunately, I recorded the series when it was broadcast in 1989, and have used it repeatedly in my classes in Critical Thinking.
From the segment on the Challenger disaster, these were the reflections of Roger Boisjoly, an engineer at the Morton Thiokol Corporation which built the solid fuel rocket that caused the fatal explosion.
The day before the scheduled launch, Boisjoly reports that the Thiokol engineering team in Utah was advised of the freezing temperatures at Cape Kennedy. He continues: "We immediately went to the engineering management at Morton Thiokol and spent that afternoon convincing [them] not to launch under such adverse conditions and they accepted those arguments and presentations... There was not one engineer in that room the night before the launch that supported the decision to launch -- not one... There was no doubt in my mind that we were not going to launch."
In a conference call the night before the launch, the Thiokol engineers conveyed to NASA their strong recommendation that the launch be postponed. In Florida, NASA would not hear of it, and immediately put pressure on Thiokol to change their recommendation. And considerable pressure it was, for the company had a billion dollar contract with NASA that was open for renegotiation.
To the Commission investigating the disaster, Boisjoly testified: "[The senior Thiokol manager] said ‘we have to make a management decision.' [Then] he turned to [the chief engineer ] and asked him to take off his engineering hat and to put on his management hat.
I was never asked or polled, and it was clearly a management decision from that point." To Moyers, Boisjoly added, "Four top executives in that division convened their own meeting in front of us [engineers] without our participation, and it became very obvious that they were seeking some information to put on a piece of paper that would justify a decision to launch.
That [memo] was almost immediately accepted by NASA without any troubling questions or discussions, because they had received the answer that they had hoped they would receive from the beginning– the decision to launch."
"We all thought that it would blow up on the pad, when they ignited the motor. So when it cleared the launch tower, we thought we were home free. In fact, I made the statement ‘we've just dodged a bullet.'"
In a "shoot the messenger" response, typical of culpable corporations, Thiokol demoted Boisjoly who soon thereafter resigned.
Moyers concludes: "The Challenger disaster cost Roger Boisjoly his job, it cost Morton Thiokol almost nothing, it is [in 1989] still NASA's sole source for boosters and received a larger contract to redesign the boosters. It cost the entire nation a measure of confidence and prestige, and it cost seven astronauts their lives."
Predictably, the Select Commission appointed to investigate the Challenger disaster, brought forth a whitewash, essentially exonerating NASA and Thiokol. "A tragic accident," they said. To his everlasting credit, Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman submitted a brilliant and devastating dissent:
The shuttle ... flies in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure on the order of a percent. (It is difficult to be more accurate).
Official management ... claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA's perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believe it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between the managers and their working engineers.
In any event, this has had very unfortunate consequences, the most serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine -- as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner. The astronauts, like test pilots, should know their risks, and we honor them for their courage. Who can doubt that ["Teacher in Space," Christa] McAuliffe was equally a person of great courage, who was closer to an awareness of the true risks than NASA management would have us believe.
Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality, understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in a world of reality in comparing the costs and utility of the shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts and in estimating the costs and difficulties of each project.
Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed -- schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support NASA, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.
Cigarette Smoking and Health: For decades, the tobacco industry and the public have been warned of the health risks of cigarette smoking. A milestone in this long journey was passed in 1964, when the Surgeon General, Dr. Luther Terry, issued a report on Smoking and Health. Industry responses at the time were as expected. For example:
"Nobody has produced evidence proving that cigarette smoking causes cancer."
"Nobody has ever shown anything conclusive about cigarettes and health – lung cancer and all that. It just hasn't been proved."
"The hypothesis about smoking [and health] has not been proved."
"There is no proof – no established proof – of cigarettes being harmful"
In the almost four decades since Dr. Terry's report, an endless parade of scientific studies and lawsuits have at last eroded away some of the tobacco industry's "no proof" defense. In its place have emerged the arguments that cigarettes are "not addictive" and that smoking is a "free choice" by responsible adults. (See "Junk Psychology,").
I will not ask, yet again, if cigarettes are really hazardous to one's health. That issue is settled in the mind of anyone even moderately acquainted with the evidence. Nothing that I might add can conceivably change the minds of those still not convinced.
A much more interesting question is, "how is it possible for anyone to deny the risks of smoking – and more fundamentally, to fail to see the moral implications, in the light of this knowledge, of continued marketing of this deadly substance, especially to children."
Consider these facts: there are over 400,000 tobacco related deaths per year in the United States, 90% of smokers acquire the habit before age twenty, and on average those who begin smoking at age fifteen lose eight years of life as a result.2
How can anyone with a sliver of conscience willfully engage in the promotion of this deadly practice? And yet, millions do.
First of all, there is a kind of "counter-Darwinian" selection at work here – a "survival of the morally unfittest." Surely many advertising and business management professionals simply refuse to work for tobacco companies or, if involved, soon depart. In this industry, as Garrett Hardin said in a different context, "conscience is self-eliminating."
The remainder, as they go about their business of enticing the youth to take up the habit (and thus condemn one in three to an early demise), simply shut down their consciences and go into deep denial. If the truth is troubling, then just ignore it. As Roger Rosenblatt wrote in his disturbing New York Times Magazine article, "How Do They Live With Themselves?" (3/20/94, p.36), tobacco executives
...reject the overwhelming epidemiological evidence in the Surgeon General's Report of 1989, connecting smoking with long and throat cancers, emphysema and heart disease, insisting that direct causation has not been proved... They ridicule people who say they are pushing a drug, noting that their product is legal..., and that what they are really promoting is freedom of choice.
In other words, if they experience denial as a psychological response, they also use denial as an aggressive tactic. This mirrors the way the live with themselves in general. Individually, they remove themselves from most of the rest of the country and create their own moral universe of explanations and justification...
Nonetheless, the facts of human physiology, and the consequent toll of tobacco use in human lives and suffering, are what they are. The billions of dollars invested by the tobacco companies in public relations, advertisements in the news media, and political campaign contributions can not and will not alter these stubborn facts by one iota.
Finally, and most urgently, Global Warming.
The essential message of the Bush administration is that "the scientific jury" is still out on global warming, and thus more study is needed. Besides, we have more urgent energy problems directly before us – problems that require an increase in fossil fuel (i.e., "greenhouse gas") consumption.
Bush's reversal of his previous promise to regulate CO2 emissions came within days of the release of a report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a report described by Richard Kerr of Science magazine as "the closest thing to a global scientific consensus in the contentious business of climate forecasting. The IPCC Report (available at www.ipcc.ch) disclosed that the earth could heat up by as much as nine degrees (F) in the next hundred years.
Is "the jury still out?" Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science, observes (3/30/01, p. 2512) that
"by now the scientific consensus on global warming is so strong that it leaves little room for the defensive assertions that keep emerging from the cleverly labeled industrial consortium called the Global Climate Coalition and from a shrinking coterie of scientific skeptics... During the past year, [Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has] published over thirty peer-reviewed reports and articles documenting findings that relate to global climate change... All of them, in one way or another, support the concerns that the president now says he is not prepared to address."
And in Environment magazine (March, 2001), Sherwood Rowland writes:
The earth's climate is changing, in large part because of the activities of humankind... The possibility exists for noticeable deterioration of the climate in the United States even on a decadal time scale. Furthermore, unless the drivers of climate change are successfully addressed and controlled, no future stabilization point can be identified against the otherwise inexorable warming of the globe...
... a changing climate offers numerous possibilities for extensive, possibly severe, impacts upon society.... None of the currently available remedial responses, such as the Kyoto Protocol, provide a solution to the problems brought about by climate change. Rather, they are directed toward slowing the pace of change. amelioration, and adaptation rather than cure. Consequently, the climate change problem will be much more serious by the year 2050 and even more so by 2100... We need to be exploring all the potential avenues of response to climate change, and we need to do it now because the development of long-term solutions will require decades to develop and decades to put into action.
But our President's "gut" tells him, and then us, that the science is uncertain and we need further study. After all, what does Prof. Rowland know? All he did was win the Nobel Prize for his work in atmospheric chemistry.3
As we noted at the outset, self-delusive "wishful thinking" is both universally acknowledged and universally indulged in. We can not totally expunge it either from our personal lives or from our politics. But when the lives and welfare of others are at stake (as they are in politics), we have the moral obligation to minimize wishful thinking as much as possible. Fortunately, we also have the means to do this: it is called judicial disinterest, scholarly integrity and scientific method.
John Kennedy succumbed to wishful thinking when he sent the brigades of Cuban exiles on to the beaches of the Bay of Pigs – an enterprise that was clearly seen, in retrospect, to be utterly hopeless and doomed to failure. But when the next Cuban crisis arose, Kennedy was forewarned and prepared to deliberate rationally.(See also, "The View from Wonderland").
And that consideration makes us very uneasy today. George W. Bush gives us preciously little indication that he has the capacity to rise above his biases and wishful thoughts. He seems bereft of intellectual curiosity or the ability to seriously weigh alternative views. His policies appear to be crafted to serve the short-term interests of his corporate sponsors, to the detriment of the long-term interests of humanity and of the global ecosystem that supports us.
He surrounds himself with personnel from his father's administration – notably Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who act and talk as if they had walked through a time-warp, untouched by discoveries or conditions less than a decade old. The same tax policies that tripled the national debut under Reagan and George the First are back again, as is missile defense – a scheme with technological flaws far more apparent than those that doomed the crews of Challenger and then of Columbia.
John Kennedy learned a cruel lesson from the Bay of Pigs that served him and us well during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He learned not to allow wishful thoughts to get in the way of brutal facts and evidence. We can scarcely imagine Bush being equal to that sort of challenge.
So it is up to our Congress to "just say no." And if they don't, then it is up to the American electorate to find themselves a new Congress and a new Administration at the first opportunity.
If not, the consequences of our willful ignorance upon our children, grandchildren, and all succeeding generations, will be inexorable, irreversible, and horrible beyond our imagination.
A Postscript by Bill Moyers:
Nations, like families, can die of too many lies. The founders of our republic knew this, and gave us the First Amendment so America would be safe for second opinions that challenge official lies. Because all of us are capable of deceiving ourselves, each of us needs a personal First Amendment operating within that would protect the quiet, fragile voice that occasionally rises uninvited to say, ‘that's just not so – that's not the truth.'...
Beneath the distortion and deception of life in America today there is hard reality: the earth is threatened with pollution, nuclear weapons have been accumulating worldwide..., the United States is sliding into an inferior status in the world economy, yet our public mind is filled with an image of America where the vending machines are always full, the wounded always recover, and the bills never come due. We seem to prefer a comfortable lie to the uncomfortable truth. We punish those who point out reality, and reward those who provide us with the comfort of illusion. Reality is fearsome .. but experience tells us that more fearsome yet is evading it.
Concluding remarks in the PBS series, "The Public Mind," 1989.
1. The first two quotes cited in The Consumers Union Report on Smoking and the Public Interest, Consumers Union, 1963, p. 109. The second two were cited by Thomas Whiteside in his article, "A Cloud of Smoke," The New Yorker, November 30, 1963, pp 96 and 105.
2. Anne Platt McGinn, "The Nicotine Cartel," World Watch, July/August, 1997, p. 20.
3. For an excellent commentary on our global warming crisis, see Bill McKibben’s "Now or Never: What’s an Environmentalist to Do?" In These Times, April 30, 2001.
America, The Vulnerable Giant
By Ernest Partridge, The Crisis Papers
February 16, 2003
George Bush and the Administration “chickenhawks” thrill at the contemplation of combat, past and future, that they did not and will not have to engage in personally. Thus they must be positively giddy at the very thought of onset of “Shock and Awe” – the unleashing of over eight-hundred cruise missiles in the first two days of the “Desert Storm II,” more cruise missiles than were fired through the entire first Gulf War.
Surely “Shock and Awe” will show every nation in the world who’s the boss of Planet Earth, and all those nations will yield to the will of The New Empire.
Today Iraq, tomorrow the world!
If this is what George Bush (a dropout from “the champaign squadron”) and his coterie of absentee warriors believe, they are wrong – as was Herman Goering who was convinced that the Blitz would shatter the morale of the British, and as was General Arthur “Bomber” Harris of the RAF, who similarly believed that the destruction of the German cities would demolish the morale of the German population.
Accordingly, while “Shock and Awe” might in fact result in the early capitulation of the Saddam Hussein regime, it is at least as likely that this blitzkrieg will steel the resolve of the Iraqi people, in addition to their Arab neighbors, to resist the invasion of their tormentors and avenge the slaughter of their compatriots. Thus the dreaded “urban warfare” will follow in Bagdad and Basra, while beyond Iraq, terrorism against American targets will escalate.
In either case, world opinion will be so infuriated at this bloodbath that Colin Powell’s so-called “Alliance of the Willing” (i.e., Tony Blair and the Seven Dwarfs), will be immediately overwhelmed by an “Alliance of the Enraged” extending throughout the world. At last, the world leaders may take seriously the imperial aspirations of the Bush gang, as stated explicitly in the “National Security Strategy" released last September, and articulated by George Bush at West Point in June.
Indeed, the precursors of that alliance can be seen today, in advance of “Shock and Awe,” as the leaders of Germany, France and Russia confer in a desperate attempt to forestall “Desert Storm II.” They are responding to the overwhelming sentiments of their populations. Public opinion on the European continent runs 60% to 80% against an Iraqi war without UN sanction – this includes the seven countries (minus Great Britain) of the so-called “Alliance of the Willing.” In Tony Blair’s United Kingdom, a solid majority of the population opposes a war without UN support. And in a poll just released, 32% of Britons consider the United States to be the greatest threat to world peace -- well ahead of Iraq and North Korea, each of which was cited by 27% of the respondents
The Bush regime’s “brain trust” (an oxymoron if there ever was one) is singularly uncurious about “side effects” and “unintended consequences.” And they never seem to ask, “and then what?” Thus, for example, we have heard precious little about what they plan for Iraq “post-Saddam.”
By all indications, an “Alliance of the Outraged” is totally off the Bush “projecto-scope.” Nonetheless, after Desert Storm II, the world at large will likely regard the United States military and the imperial designs of the Bush Administration as the pre-eminent threat both to their national sovereignties and to world peace. And one of the most fundamental and time-confirmed principles of politics is that alliances are formed by the perception of a common threat. Thus Athens and Sparta halted their war to join forces against the Persians. And capitalist America and Britain allied themselves with the communist Soviet Union against Nazi Germany – an alliance that fell apart after the defeat of Germany. As the familiar maxim states, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." And we are all familiar with the maxim, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Can we therefore doubt that a world-wide anti-American alliance might be in our future – indeed, tentatively forming even now?
“Well, so what? What can the rest of the world do about it? They are facing the sole remaining super-power with the mightiest military in history. No power on Earth today can overcome the US military in a face-to-face military encounter.”
Clearly, that last statement is true: “No power on Earth today can overcome the US military in a face-to-face military encounter.”
From that truth, the Bushistas conclude: “No power on Earth can challenge the United States hegemony or cause damage to the American economy.”
That conclusion is radically and dangerously false.
All that the first, true, assertion tells us is that no opposing power, with a modicum of intelligence, will directly confront the US military. It does not tell us that opposing nations or alliances are helpless in the face of American military might. They have other, non-military, options.
To shift the perspective, the mere fact that no army, navy or air force can defeat us Americans in battle does not imply that we are invulnerable. Quite the contrary. As we well know, a multi-billion dollar defense and intelligence regime was defeated by box cutters and airline tickets. And the only effective defense against that attack turned out to be bodies and bare hands of a few courageous private citizens.
What the Bush team fails to appreciate is that the US, while militarily supreme, is otherwise extremely vulnerable. And should the US decide to take on the entire world, the rest of the world, in concert, can take down the US with ease. The “outside world” has two weapons – foreign debt and resource imports -- which, if employed either separately or in concert, will quickly bring catastrophe upon the United States without a shot being fired.
The first weapon involves the US foreign debt, which has grown in the past fifteen years from zero to $2.5 trillion – which is a quarter of the US GDP. At present rates, that debt will increase by another trillion in three years. Given these facts , do we dare to lord it over the rest of the world? In his brilliant article, “The End of Empire,” William Greider wryly points out “any profligate debtor who insults his banker is unwise, to put it mildly.”
All that our creditors need do is withdraw their capital from our economy and/or shut their cash boxes and refuse to lend us any more. After that, chaos ensues. As Greider observes, “you can’t sustain an empire from a debtor’s weakening position – sooner or later the creditors pull the plug.”
But if “the rest of the world,” but most acutely, Europe, Russia, China and the Pacific Rim, put the squeeze on us and try to cut us down to size, can’t the US simply say, in effect, “screw you all – we hereby repudiate our debts.” At that point, the US becomes a pariah to international trade and is thereafter, as Sam Goldwin said, “included out.” No more foreign markets to sell our goods and, far more seriously, no more imports of essential raw materials – the most essential of all, of course, is petroleum. And note this: now half of our petroleum is imported, as domestic sources approach final depletion.
As we pointed out earlier (in “The Oil Trap”), the lost luxury of driving our SUVs is the very least of our worries when the oil tap is shut off. We quite literally “eat oil,” for petroleum not only carries the food to our tables, it also provides the fuel for the farm machinery and the raw materials for the fertilizer which are necessary for our mode of intensive, industrialized agriculture. In addition, we have foolishly opted to move most of our industrial and consumer products by trucks, rather than rail (which, incidentally, also uses diesel fuel).
So imagine a sudden and unrecoverable loss of half of our petroleum supply. From that moment, we might coast for a few months on the “strategic reserve” – crude oil that has been pumped back into the ground in case of emergencies. But after the reserve is gone, the US economy will collapse, as all inessential use of oil is forbidden, ordinary economic life grinds to a halt, gasoline is severely rationed, and all domestic oil supplies are directed to the task of bringing food and essential supplies to our cities – just to keep our populace alive.
The oil shortage might be further compounded by sabotage of the Alaska pipeline, which supplies approximately one and a half million barrels of crude oil per day. Almost all of the 800 miles of that pipeline is above ground – I know, I’ve driven alongside hundreds of miles of it. A couple of years ago a few rifle shots shut down the pipeline for several days. It is virtually impossible to protect the entire line, and a few well-placed satchel charges or bazooka shots could shut it down for good.
To put it graphically, the United States is like huge, ugly, menacing mechanical monster, powered by an AC line attached to a wall socket. The poor, cowering, intimidated victims need only notice that the wall socket is right behind them, within easy reach. (Would that I were a cartoonist!).
When the ninety-five percent of humanity that resides outside our borders – or at least a sizeable industrialized portion thereof – decides they have had enough of our bullying, they need only pull the plug, and our vaunted economy, along with our military, will collapse into a ruined heap.
To be sure, such a coordinated act of economic warfare would have serious economic repercussions for the anti-US alliance, though the damage would arguably less than the damage to the United States. After all, we need their raw materials, oil especially, to survive. The "outside world" has no need of our raw materials, and it can readily replicate our technology. But while the damage to the world economy might be considerable, the American bullying and empire-building might well become sufficiently onerous to the rest of the world that they would willingly suffer the consequences of bringing the US down. After all, any nation that goes to war believes that it is worth the cost of some rather horrific consequences. Never mind that the leaders almost always grossly underestimate the costs to their nation, and care little about the damage and misery that they inflict upon their enemies. The historical fact remains: nations (mis)-calculate the costs, and then willingly go to war. The costs of a bloodless economic boycott would seem to be considerably less than total war.
“Even so, they wouldn’t dare,” replies our irrepressible chicken-hawk. “If they did, we’d nuke ‘em. Just the threat should keep them in line, and should keep the oil coming in.” Sorry, fellas. You see, they also have nukes. Not as many as we do, but so what? With a few hundred warheads, and a reliable delivery to twenty of our largest cities, we will be adequately “deterred.” We have thousands of warheads, but no matter. Just a few hundred will do. More than that would be like adding more rifles to the firing squad. (See “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Armageddon”).
To sum up:, the mighty American military machine is a paper tiger. No military force on Earth can defeat it, but no such force need to. Our economy rests upon the willingness of our creditors to continue to put more billions of dollars “on the tab.” In addition, our economy – all of it -- depends totally on the energy supply that “the outside world” consents to sell us.
At any time, an “Alliance of the Fed-Up” can decide to cut off our credit line and/or pull our energy plug from the wall socket. George Bush and his gang of usurpers don’t seem to realize this.
Gawd help us all when the rest of the world comes to appreciate its leverage, and begins to look mischievously at that wall socket.
Turn Off TV and Turn On Quantum Mind
Humanity's most valuable possessions are Clean Water, clean Air and Trees