Torturing the Obvious
The New York Times reports that a National Intelligent Estimate (NIE) from April 2006 concludes the Iraq War has actually increased Islamic radicalism. You don’t say! Americans want to know why our bombing, devastating and occupying a country that has done us no harm would inflame its people.
"Common Sense", wrote Einstein, "is prejudice acquired before the age of 18". In science, the obvious is often contrary to the truth, which explains why scientists are sticklers for ‘proof’. As Isaac Asimov said, anyone could ‘see’ that the sun revolved around the earth. Mistrusting the obvious is thus the first attribute of any scientist.
In human affairs, on the other hand, the obvious may be the most important thing. Not for nothing does the Declaration of Independence say, "We hold these truths to be self-evident". If instead, Thomas Jefferson were to have set out to prove why Life, Liberty and Happiness are essential commodities for human existence, the British might still be here. As it is, the document calls out to us across the centuries. The great leaps in politics are made by appeals to the heart, not the head.
The great truths (eternal verities, my dad called them) have no proof, nor are they pious. They are merely based on emprical, societal, experience. In the old saying "Honesty is the best Policy", the use of the word, "Policy" is worth noting. It appeals not to ideology or ethics, but to simple everyday practicality. It says that any temporary gains of dishonesty are bound to evaporate and cause a loss over the long run.
The devotion to such obvious truths was America’s salvation. It was a uniter. It was obvious that rules were to be obeyed, that the law was majestic. Even more, it was obvious that the law acquired teeth not by adding provisions, but by first enforcing the ones that existed. Scrapping or changing laws was difficult by design. Even people on the street seemed to have a working understanding of the Constitution and were aware of things like the first or fourth amendments, no mean achievement for a large society.
What should one say when, in a few short decades, a people whose native pragmatism and instinctive linkage of societal and personal self-interest made their country unique, suddenly seem to have reached a stage where the obvious requires a dissertation? We live in a milieu where coffee stores need to put up signs warning patrons that spilling hot coffee on your crotch can be painful.
Whence this sudden descent? Not so sudden, actually, for the signs have been there all along. As Michael Neumann wrote, the onset of Dementia Americana seems to have its origins all the way back in the election of Ronald Reagan. Whether or not Neumann is correct, take a look at this list; blunders that would have been immediately obvious to a previous generations, but which barely trouble the current one:
The proposition that budget deficits and lowered taxes would together usher in the millenium, an obvious crock, gives the Gipper a 49 state reelection win,
The notion that shutting down American factories and getting things manufactured abroad, touted and accepted as the way to enduring prosperity,
NAFTA, whose obvious consequence was described best by Ross Perot’s "Giant Sucking Sound" (a prediction realized in greater measure than even Perot might have imagined),
Attacks on the preservation of the environment, an American ideal dating back to Teddy Roosevelt, steadily under attack begining with James Watt, with state after state voting for the notion that land conservation was inimical to individual prosperity,
The obvious advantage of having a common language for the country, undermined by a tawdry appeal to multiculturalism and multilingualism (signs in every language, so long as we can sell in one of ‘em!),
Country actually entertains a serious debate about whether illegal immigration is bad,
President ignores warnings of ‘bin Laden determined to strike inside the US’, vacations, reads My Pet Goat, and refuses to order an inquiry into 9-11 until over a year later, when forced,
Responding to 15 hijackers coming from a country which financed madraasas and recognized Osama’s hosts, by going to war against a country which had no connection to 9-11,
Responding to the attack by training our guns on the American Constitution, a la the Patriot Act, illegal wiretapping, detentions without trial …,
Reelecting a President who had not only flubbed 9-11, but was so obviously clueless three years later that he had to explain in the first presidential debate, "Of course I know Osama Bin Laden Attacked Us. I know that".
Comedy happens when the fool pays inordinate attention to some trifling problem while disaster looms in the background, unknown to him but obvious to the audience. While America gets riled up over gay rights (for or against) and engrossed in who won Survivor last night, state and country totter under a quarter century of determined movement (see James Kurth’s excellent essay, The Rich Got Richer) toward a split society.
Now, three hundred billion dollars (and counting) have bought us, we are told, the spread of Islamic radicalism. The obvious solution? Go after those who leaked the story, of course. Thank God for that brand new torture agreement. Now at least the President is bound (unless he decides otherwise) to permit the Times and the leakers to see the evidence.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog is at http://njn-blogogram.blogspot.com.