do we know what we know? Because we act with intention, this may
be the most important question ever to face mankind. We live in
what seems to be an objective world, but our understanding
of that world is grounded in subjective opinions derived
from an individually formulated mix of personal experiences; formal
learning; philosophical, religious, or scientific beliefs; rumors,
gossip, newscasts, and public opinion polls; intuition and introspection;
and perhaps influences from what Carl Jung, Samuel Butler, and others
have termed a "collective unconscious."
study of history has long been crucial to an understanding of the
nature and meaning of human action. We are able to anticipate the
consequences of what we do today, by comparing and contrasting
our behavior with that of our predecessors. In so
doing, we try to discover — based upon prior experiences — the future
that is implicit in the present. Because of Uncle Willy's
alcoholism, we understand that cirrhosis of the liver is implicit
in the daily drinking of a quart of Scotch. From a broader social
perspective, historians provide lessons from the past with which
to inform our judgments in the present.
can see, at once, the central importance that a respect for truth
has in such an undertaking. If you or I were facing a serious
illness, we would want our doctor to be as truthful as possible
with us regarding our condition and prognosis: we would not
want to be told things simply to make us feel better than we are.
But because the political world is grounded in lies, contradictions,
distortions, and manipulation of people, truthfulness becomes counterproductive,
if not downright treasonous. The cliché "truth is the
first casualty of war" ignores the underlying dynamics that
pit truth against propaganda in the pursuit of state
policies. If political schemes are to be realized, the truth-tellers
must be silenced. This is why whistle-blowers; spokesmen such as
Peter Arnett, Daniel Ellsberg, John Stossel, and Seymour Hersh;
and unrestrained freedom of expression, have all been looked upon
as threats to the political establishment.
the state, truthfulness is simply one of numerous strategies available
for the achievement of political ends. The proposition "a lie
is as good as the truth, if you can get someone to believe it,"
has been relied upon by politicians and other unscrupulous persons
since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. It is a variation
on Mark Twain's observation that, since truth is the most valuable
thing we have, we ought to economize its use!
the state is to exercise authority over our lives, it must convince
us, through any means at its disposal, that its policies and practices
are valid. Lying and exaggeration, reinforced by the rote methodologies
of a state-controlled media, can easily convert the pursuit of truth
into a demand for righteousness. Neither the Bush administration
nor its neocon war council has been creative enough to have concocted
this strategy. It inheres in the very nature of politics, and has
been no better expressed than it was by Hermann Goering, Hitler's
second in command:
course the people don't want war. But after all, it's the leaders
of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple
matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, a fascist
dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice
or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of
the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they
are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism,
and exposing the country to greater danger."
are living the history that your descendants shall one day read
— unless, of course, the book-burners and the government school
system continue to thrive. Look at the cavalier way in which "truth"
has been played with, distorted, and lied about by the present regime.
Following the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11, the government
undertook the bombing of Afghanistan, even though there was no evidence
that the Afghan people had been involved in that atrocity. The Bush
administration speculated that Osama bin Laden — who it was further
speculated had been behind the 9/11 attacks — might be in Afghanistan
and, therefore, thousands of Afghan peasants must be bombed in retaliation.
the name of combating "terrorism," the Bush administration
decided to conduct its own campaign of terror against "anyone
who's not with us." Iraq was the first sacrificial lamb led
to the altar. It was initially stated that Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda
— the suspected group behind 9/11. But when it was pointed out that
Al Qaeda — because of its fundamentalist Islamic leanings — disliked
Saddam Hussein and his secular state almost as much as Bush did,
the story shifted. Iraq now had to be attacked because it
had "weapons of mass destruction," a phrase that quickly
became the mantra for all flag-waving patriots.
when UN inspectors — whose efforts to discover the truth in Iraq
continued to annoy Mr. Bush — reported that there was no evidence
to support this claim, the rationale for the war shifted once again.
Iraq was now accused of trying to develop weapons of mass
destruction. Colin Powell then announced that the government had
received such reports from British intelligence, but these proved
to have been from a dated paper by a California graduate student
as well as trade publication materials.
should have been the most damning indictment of the Bush administration
— one for which a more respectable Congress ought to have voted
a bill of impeachment — was the use of flagrantly forged documents,
purporting to show an earlier transaction between Iraq and the government
of Niger, for the purchase of nuclear materials. But the bovine
flag-wavers, now firmly caught up in the whoop and holler of a war
frenzy, were not about to allow truth to rear its ugly head
and spoil all the fun. I suspect that, had the Bush administration
added Hussein's refusal to recycle, or mistreatment of his dog,
or cigarette smoking to the indictment, the jingoists would have
picked up the new verse with nary a break in meter.
yet another time, the Bush administration altered its excuse for
going to war against Iraq: now it was to liberate the
Iraqi people, ostensibly by bombing and killing them first, using
"smart" bombs that only killed "evil" people,
while avoiding "good" people! Those of us who respect
history recall the Vietnam War exercise in Orwellian "doublethink"
about how a village had to be destroyed in order to save
so, a war undertaken, initially, to fight "terrorism"
ended up bombing and killing untold numbers of innocent civilians
under a campaign labeled "shock and awe," whose detailed
description evidenced a continual and heavy bombing of Baghdad in
order to "terrify" the Iraqi people with the might of
America. In the Bush administration's "war against terrorism,"
in other words, innocent Iraqi civilians had to be "terrorized"
in order that they might be "liberated!"
Iraqi people were now going to enjoy the blessings of "democracy,"
American-style. But one U.S. military official let the cat out of
the bag when he announced that Iraq would be under military rule
for an extended period of time. In much the same way that the political
establishment informs us of the candidates from which we will be
allowed to vote for president, the media introduced us to one Ahmed
Chalabi, the new "leader" in a "democratic"
Iraq! Had I missed something? In the course of reporting on the
"war," had the media failed to inform us of an ongoing
election among the Iraqis to select a new head of state? Or was
this, like the puppet regime set up by the United States in Afghanistan,
just another colonial charade disguised as the "voice of the
people?" Or, as with Mr. Bush, must we await a decision by
the United States Supreme Court to confer Mr. Chalabi's status?
Reichsmarschall Goering warned, those who opposed the attack on
Iraq were accused of being "anti-American," a charge that
has about as much validity as labeling opponents of the Holy Crusades
as "anti-Christian." Some went so far as to argue that
"pacifists cause wars" and even "tyrannies,"
leading one to wonder what, by such twisted thinking, warmongers
cause. Wars and tyrannies have always been the product of a refusal
of people to challenge the legitimacy of coercive authority.
most raised the hackles of the war-whoopers, however, were the parallels
offered by a number of us between Hitler's rise to power in the
1930s and that of the current Bush administration. Hitler's exploitation
of the Reichstag fire to expand police powers bears a chilling resemblance
to the post-9/11 policies of the current regime, each of which led
to an increased centralization of authority in the head of state.
So, too, does Mr. Bush's laundry list of projected targets for military
action compare to Hitler's relatively effortless subjugation of
Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, the Netherlands, and France.
But those whose opinions are unburdened by a reading of history
have no patience with such comparisons. After all, what is the relevance
of history to men and women who have learned to judge the propriety
of events or policies by the results of public opinion polls, or
the bloodthirsty rants of radio or television demagogues?
does the war crowd want to hear or see the consequences of their
destructive campaigns. One opinion poll indicated that a majority
of Americans didn't want to see pictures of dead and maimed Iraqi
men, women, and children. Like a drunk driver who, the next day,
doesn't want to grasp the reality of a deadly accident he caused,
the flag-wavers want to go on pretending that, like a computer game,
nobody really gets hurt, and when the game is over, one can simply
turn off the program and enjoy an untroubled sleep.
Bush, perhaps channeling the spirit of Marie Antoinette, expressed
the same sentiment in an interview on ABC-TV. "[W]hy should
we hear about body bags and deaths and how many, . . . Oh, I mean,
it's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something
seemingly countless days of bombing and shelling of an impoverished
country that was heralded by the Bush administration as a threat
to world peace — and whose military "might" proved to
be another phantom — many Iraqis took to rioting and looting. American
officials and their media lackeys cynically labeled this as "anarchy,"
completely ignoring the fact that it was the concentrated governmental
activity of the United States and Great Britain — not the
absence of government — that produced such results! The looters
were only doing at the street level what American bombers had been
doing from the air!
ignorance of the meaning of "freedom" to the conquering
forces was no better revealed than in the statement of Donald Rumsfeld
who, responding to the rioting, declared: "free people are
free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."
Such mindlessness was reiterated in a statement made by a spokesman
for the British forces in Iraq in declaring: "The last thing
that we want is to be seen to be oppressing them [the looters] when
they're just having their first taste of freedom."
can think of no better words with which to indict the very nature
of all political systems than these. Those of us who understand
that unrestrained individual liberty, grounded in a respect for
the inviolability of property, stands in stark contrast to the thinking
of political "leaders" who equate "freedom"
with the commission of "crimes," and who regard the "first
taste of freedom" as an exercise in riotous destruction! When
one's actions are confined to what is his or hers to own — the essence
of liberty — peaceful and responsible behavior abound. But history,
if not reason itself, demonstrates that no political systems
are respecters of property interests.
of the buildings sacked by those getting what the new ruling class
regards as their "first taste of freedom" was the National
Museum of Antiquities, in Baghdad. Statues, carvings, pots, cuneiform
texts, and other items dating back some 5,000 years were indiscriminately
destroyed by rioters and looters who apparently saw nothing of relevance
to their lives in artifacts of their own history. A disregard for
lessons from the past is an international phenomenon.
the destroyed collections were items from ancient Sumeria, one of
the most advanced cultures of its time. A Sumerian text, dated 2,300
B.C. contains the word "ama-gi," the first known
expression of the concept "liberty." Western civilization,
itself, traces many of its roots to this part of the world, lands
that have been crisscrossed and peoples subdued by one tyrannical
regime after another. I suspect that the Sumerians would have known
what many of their descendants — whose historical records now lie
in rubble — will have to rediscover for themselves, namely, that
their newly imposed "freedom" is but the most recent pretext
by which some people presume to rule and despoil others.