How 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."
The 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.
One 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.
To 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!
If 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:
"Of 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."
You 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.
In 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.
But 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.
What 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.
For 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 it!
And 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!"
The 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?
As 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.
What 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?
Nor 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.
Barbara 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 like that?"
After 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!
The 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."
I 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.
One 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.
Among 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.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.