The Axiom of Evil

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (revised 1973 edition) defines an axiom as “a proposition that lends itself to general acceptance; a well-established or universally-conceded principle.” One notes, however, that in its use in logic or mathematics, the word does not mean something absolutely and demonstrably true from an objective framework: “a self-evident proposition, not requiring demonstration, but assented to as soon as stated.” To logicians, the axiom possesses the same self-evident correctness, not requiring proof, as the taboo holds for a tribe of Stone Age headhunters.

So are not a few of the propositions that most 100-Percent Americanos tacitly bear allegiance to: Babe Ruth called his shot; America won World War II single-handed (with Winston Churchill chipping in a few sonorous epigrams); a rising tide lifts all boats; God is on our side.

Long observation has convinced this writer that demolishing untruth is an arduous and hazardous business, to be approached with the same trepidation as an anthropologist explaining to Cargo Cultists that C-47s are not chariots of the gods. It is easier to establish one’s own self-evident axiom in the hope that in the fullness of years, it will lodge itself imperishably in the national psyche.

In that spirit, we herewith propound WERTHER’s First Axiom: In Washington, D.C., one need know nothing to become a policy expert. Anyone having the slightest acquaintance with the Federal metropolis will readily assent to this axiom. Examples of it in action are legion.
One must stipulate that for most other mortals who scratch for a living, this axiom does not apply. An incompetent sheet metal worker can neither disguise his lack of knowledge of his trade, nor can he con his supervisor. An incompetent surgeon faces a malpractice suit from outraged next of kin. A combat soldier who cannot field strip and clean his rifle, or shoot true, runs a heavy risk of a perpetual lease at Arlington.

But the National Capital abounds with 25 year-old, unmarried Congressional aides who gravely advise the people’s representatives on legislation affecting families and children, or geriatric medicine. Think tanks like AEI and Heritage fairly seethe with fellows who barely know from which end of a firearm the bullet comes out, yet self-assuredly pontificate on how “we” can win the Global War on Terrorism (in its new incarnation, “the Long War”). The Secretary of State can make a historical comparison between post-World War II Germany and present-day Iraq, and get virtually every significant point of comparison wrong-yet have her remarks recapitulated by the press, virtually without adverse comment, as an important policy statement. [1]

Most surprising of all is this underreported exhibit: on 11 January of this year, the President of the United States addressed a “town hall” meeting in Louisville. In the course of persuading the local burghers that the present Global War on Terrorism was so much more dangerous than the Cold War, the President offered up this personal anecdote to buttress his proposition: “You know, when I was growing up, or other Baby Boomers here were growing up, we felt safe because we had these vast oceans that could protect us from harm’s way.” [2]

One blinks in astonishment at that statement. No adult above a certain age can fail to remember the dawn of the era of thermonuclear weapons, intercontinental bombers and missiles, and nuclear submarines. Or the air raid drills. Yet the audience at Louisville apparently succeeded in self-inducing mass amnesia, as if the Cold War many of them lived through were as remote from their experience as the reign of Xerxes. The mainstream press did not show much interest in correcting the historical record, either.

Here we see the outlines of a remarkable phenomenon. In George Orwell’s 1984, the Party had to work assiduously consigning historical records to the Memory Hole in order to render the populace eternal children: subjects of the state without memory of anything beyond their immediate experience. [3] Anno 2006, by contrast, the bookshelves of any free public library heave under the weight of historical documentation. It apparently moulders unread, for such is the superstitious reverence the people grant to the “policy expert,” particularly one who has graduated to the celestial sphere of “leader,” that all he has to do is say something in order to make it so. It is practically axiomatic.

WERTHER is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.

[1] WERTHER, The Poisoned Well, CounterPunch, February 23, 2005.

[2] White House News Release
[3] Perhaps it is a coincidence that former Presidential chief of staff Andrew Card once stated that the President sees America as a “10-year-old child” in need of the sort of protection provided by a parent.