What's Left

November 6, 2003

Questions, questions

By Stephen Gowans

The question of why countries or people behave in certain ways, or why various rules exist, is rarely ever entirely clear.

Take the familiar, "you shall not chew gum in class." Any kid with an ounce of inquisitiveness will puzzle over this prohibition and eventually ask what any kid with an ounce of inquisitiveness should ask: "Why not?"

I doubt that anyone really knows why this rule was ever formulated. Maybe a 19th century classroom martinet had taken a skunner to gum chewing. But the 21st century inheritors of this rule, keen to show they aren't brainlessly mimicking their own teachers, who mimicked their teachers, who mimicked their teachers, and so on, can be counted on to fill in the blanks.

"So you don't get a gummy mess all over your books and clothes and all over the other children," they reply, uncertain deep down whether this has anything whatever to do with why the rule was originally formulated, but certain that this is a "standard" classroom rule, and therefore one that must be enforced.

Besides, the explanation seems to ring true. To a teacher, anyway.

But to a kid who's not only inquisitive, but also has some guts, the chime of the bell may seem a little off. A smart kid who bears the label "insolent" will rejoin, "But that doesn't make much sense to me. Surely, the problem isn't having gum in your mouth, but gum out of your mouth stuck to desks, to clothes, to hair. Why not simply insist that gum be properly disposed of?"

Needless to say, any kid who asks this perfectly reasonable, and commendably inquisitive question, will soon be labeled a troublemaker, and doubts will be raised about how well he's been socialized.

This I know. I remember sitting in an interview with a distraught teacher, who told me with a certain degree of shock that my son "questioned her." I felt badly about this, for I was the Dr. Frankstein who'd unleashed a questioning monster on the public school system, and it was I, therefore, who had been vicariously responsible for her distress. "Rules," his mother and I had explained, "are to be followed when they make sense, challenged when they don't."

These days my son's teachers lament that he isn't taking on leadership roles. A "gifted" child, he's expected to act as a kind of surrogate teacher, pulling his fellow students up to his level, rather than -- as his teachers complain -- sinking to the level of other students. They're bewitched by what they think is Plato's idea of the philosopher king the intelligent must rule the world.

But what they don't say, or don't recognize, is that what they mean by "leadership" isn't what Plato meant; it's want Henry Ford meant: "supervision." They want him to lead in directions they set. In other words, they want him to be a good follower, who can help keep the other kids in line.

Acutely aware that kids don't follow anyone labeled "nerd" or "geek" (except for the insignificant number of kids in the chess and strategic games club) he's taken pains to duck the labels and assume a real leadership role; that is, one in which he leads in directions he, not his teachers, have set. People who lead in directions independent of, or at odds with, the goals of established authority, aren't called leaders. They're called troublemakers.

Troublemakers, it could be said, aren't well socialized. A socialized person knows the rules, and follows them, even if he doesn't always accept them. A well-socialized person knows the rules, follows them, and accepts them, believing they must make sense. Otherwise, why would they exist? This evinces a failure to grasp how incredibly boneheaded people can be.

Yesterday I overheard a kid ask her mother, "Why do people have middle names?" Parents always feel obliged to construct an explanation, without having the foggiest idea of the original reason for the convention.

"Well" the kid's mother began, "if two people are named John Smith, you can tell them apart by their middle name."

"Oh," said the child, apparently accepting this.

But middle names are hardly ever invoked to distinguish people bearing the same names. No one says, "Hey, is that John Herbert Smith, or is that John Humphrey Smith, hovering over the chips and dip?"

They're more apt to say something like, "Is that John the nose picker, or is it John the sleezeball, because if it's John the nose picker there's no way I'm eating any of that dip."

I once worked with two guys who had the same name: John Farmer. One always wore cowboy boots. We called him Cowboy John. The other was called Farmer John. Their parents needn't have given them middle names.

If the mother I overheard was to be honest, and thought about it for a while, she'd have to say, "Well, giving people middle names is a convention, which is to say, it's something you do so you don't become an object of derision to be discussed at parties."

"Hey, did you hear that Bill doesn't have a middle name?"

"No."

"S'true. He's just Bill Baggins."

"It'd be cool if he had two middle names, like Baxter and Orville. Then he'd be Bill B.O. Baggins, that dude from Lord of the Rings."

It's believed that long-standing rules, traditions and institutions that have existed for centuries, have an unimpeachable logic, even if it can't be discerned.  Also, whatever has the blessing of established authority is right and true. I overheard the vice-president of a huge company tell his staff: "If you don't understand where we're heading, think about it for a half an hour or so. If after a half hour it doesn't make sense, ask a colleague. If after taking with a colleague it still doesn't make sense, come talk to me."

Implicit in this is that the company's direction conforms to an impeccable logic. It's there to be found, if only you look hard enough. For the lazy, you can fall back on faith.

So it is that from the perspective of conservatives, if institutions, like marriage being limited to members of the opposite sex, don't make sense, and if it seems to you that homosexual couples should be allowed to marry, it's because human brains are too puny (yours included) to understand, and you best leave long standing institutions alone, for to meddle and question is to open a Pandora's Box.

The conservative historian Richard Pipes attributes all manner of horrors, from National Socialism to Pol Pot, to well-meaning but misguided people who foolishly challenged the idea that wealth and privilege and property must be unequally distributed (and concentrated in the hands of people like Pipes and his patrons.) The quest for egalitarianism, in Pipe's view, made the 20th century a charnel house.

Still, you don't need Pipes to defend the established order. Most people fill in the blanks.
If it doesn't make sense, they'll make sense of it themselves, for it's much more comforting to accept that rules and conventions and the social order are imbued with a defensible logic, than to have to challenge them. Those who challenge rarely lead quiet, materially rewarding lives. Instead, they become objects of ridicule, to be endlessly sneered at, at parties where the dip doesn't taste quite right.

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As a child asks, "Why can't you chew gum in class?" an adult asks "Why did the US lead an invasion of Iraq?"  And just as you can come up with answers to the child's question about gum chewing, by making sense of the rule after it has been formulated, so too can you come up with answers about US motivations for invading Iraq, without ever knowing what the real motivations are.

For example, it could be said that George W. Bush decided to press the Pentagon into action to finish the job his father left unfinished. Alternatively, the US decision to wage war could be attributed to rivalry for control of Iraq's oil.

The explanations aren't mutually exclusive. It could be true that George W. Bush set out to finish off Saddam for Papa Bush, but even so, this lined up with the interests of the class of people who exert enormous influence over US public policy, in whose name US public policy is formulated, and of which Bush and his cabinet belong, namely, the class of CEO's and investors who own and control the economy. No matter what the genesis of the idea, or the stated motivations, the idea survived through a kind of natural selection, where selection pressure was provided by the material interests of the class of people running the show. Indeed, so thoroughly are their interests served by the conquest of Iraq, that it would be astonishing if Iraq hadn't been invaded.

Consider:

1. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Electric and other titans of the US arms industry enjoy a growing stream of revenue from the sale of arms used to destroy Iraqi infrastructure. The elevation of Saddam from the leader of a crippled country to a pressing threat, as well the contrived war on terrorism and the invention of an axis of evil, provide a pretext to pitchfork ever larger amounts of money into the coffers of an important engine of the US economy.

It follows from this that the US economy runs, in part, on killing, a fact that should be clear to workers pulling their gas-guzzling pickups into the parking lot of the Lockheed Martin missile plant for the 4 p.m. shift, as it is to the countless grocery store clerks, unemployed abattoir workers, and telephone company installers who've told me over and over again when times get tough that, "What we really need to get the economy going again is a good war."  Not a war, of course, that takes place anywhere within a 1,500 mile radius of home, and, where most of the casualties are poor, dark-skinned people, whose role in life is to be transformed into "collateral damage" whenever profit margins back home need a little beefing up. And preferably a war where liberals can make everyone feel good about the killing, because, "You know, what we're really doing is rescuing a poor, oppressed people from dictatorship and economic mismanagement, and delivering them freedom, democracy, and prosperity." Get it straight: What we're really doing is delivering prosperity, or a bulwark against economic collapse, to the corporate class at home, with trickle down effects, at the best of times, for the people who work the night shift, stock shelves at Wal-Mart and bang away all day on computer keyboards in office cubicles.

2. Halliburton, Becthel, and other stars of America's corporate firmament are awarded billions of dollars in reconstruction contracts to rebuild the infrastructure Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and General Electric supplied the warplanes, bombs and missiles to knock down. A perfect complementarity. Corporate America provides both the problem, and the solution. It's kind of like your garage mechanic loosening a few bolts every time you take your car in for a tune-up. It may be crooked, but it does wonders for demand.

3. Washington has put itself in the position to hand control of Iraqi oil to US oil firms, squeezing out French and Russian competitors.

4. Iraq's publicly owned assets are to be parceled up and sold to privately owned firms. Iraq's citizens, of course, weren't asked if they agreed to their collectively owned property being sold off. That's because private property (not your house, your toothbrush or your collection of handcrafted Elvis Presley bobblehead dolls, but private control of the economy) stands at the head of the US conception of democracy, the one Washington wants to shove down the throats of the denizens of the world's "dark places," at the point of a gun. Letting people make their own decisions about the economy is a no-no, kind of like pulling a vibrator out during an especially boring homily at Sunday services.

5. The occupation authorities have set about transforming the Iraqi economy into a neo-liberal's wet dream, complete with privatization, a flat tax, and the dismantling of social supports so Iraqis can learn to stand (or starve) on their own two feet. So titillating is the promised transformation, that the Victoria's Secrets catalogues squirreled away in the men's washrooms at the Heritage Foundation, CATO Institute and Brookings Institution have fallen into disuse. Now, the impeccably tailored proponents of the Chicago School can be occasionally glimpsed sneaking off to the john, with a tube of KY Jelly and a copy of US overlord L. Paul Bremer's report on progress in the makeover of Iraq into a model of free trade and deregulation tucked discretely between the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

The neo-liberal makeover is what amounts to giving Iraqis the gift of "freedom and democracy," which, as the 60's folksinger Phil Ochs used to say, is the name for US profits. You'll notice, however, that freedom and democracy have nothing whatever to do with Iraqis being free to make their own decisions. That kind of freedom and democracy would be like your garage mechanic ensuring all the bolts are tightly secured before you drive off; which is to say, it would be bad for business.

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Pressing against these powerful economic forces that have coerced Washington into reviving the "Adolph does Europe" show for a Mesopotamian audience, are

A.) A series of very large anti-war demonstrations, now organized around the theme "bring the troops home."

B.) The weak claim that public opinion has become the world's second superpower. I suppose that if every country in the world, but Burundi, were gobbled up by the US leviathan, Burundi would also be declared the world's second superpower. Were the tiny country to develop a domestic peashooter industry, this would surely be seized upon as a reason to funnel billions of dollars into the development of an anti-peashooter shield to protect the US and its allies from the menace of this "regional rival." Its superpower status, no doubt, would lend credibility to the claim that Burundi was a threat that needed to be reckoned with, now, rather than later. Face it, the claim that public opinion is the world's second superpower is feel-good claptrap peddled by the self-appointed leaders of the antiwar "movement" who think they need to shower the legions of people who participated in demonstrations against the war with bullshit to keep them motivated. Ceaselessly astonishing is the tendency of elites, including those of the antiwar ilk, to suppose others will readily fall for nonsense. What's de-motivating isn't that a war went ahead despite the efforts of numberless people throughout the world, but learning that the most vocal members of the antiwar movement are glee club rejects whose respect for the intelligence of the "masses" (a term whose best before date expired sometime around the Bolshevik Revolution) is no greater than that of George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleeza Rice. "Rah, Rah, Rhee, Rah, Rah, Rhee, Here's to moral victory."

C.) American Leftists lining up behind the Democrats as a meaningful alternative to Bush, an act either of desperation, sheer lunacy, historical myopia, or all three. (See earlier comments about how incredibly boneheaded people can be.)

The US foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky, whose elevation to icon is attested to by his commonplaces being seized upon as beautiful nuggets of insight, chides those who lament the apparent inefficacy of the largest antiwar demonstrations in history to stop the attack on Iraq. "Ya gotta keep fighting," he says, which is true enough, but "ya gotta keep fighting" doesn't mean, "ya gotta keep doing what doesn't work." Pointing out that stabbing a Bradley tank with a banana, even if you do it repeatedly, isn't going to stop you from being permanently tattooed with tank treads, is enough to get you labeled a "cynic" and "gosh, just not helpful."

The aggrieved usually go on, demanding: "Okay, Mr. Smartie-Pants, what do you think will work?

Smarting from this devastating reply, I usually hang my head, rub my toe on the ground, and concede, "Yeah, you're probably right."

Then, brightening up, I ask: "Hey, wanna get some bananas? And after that, we can get a really sweet tattoo."

I don't fault Chomksy, but his followers afford many hours of amusement. They're the first to disdain the iconography of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il, but fall prostrate before every one of Chomsky's pronouncements, and painstakingly mimic their guru's terminology and arguments. Were these devotees not self-described anti-authoritarians who profess to eschew leaders, the spectacle would not be so risible. But risible it is. Michael Albert, the publisher of Z-Net, chided a once prominent figure in the defense of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic for hanging on every word of the deposed president, while hanging on every word of Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky, and the octogenarian folk-singer Pete Seeger, are of the view that the US is the best country in the world, which cannot be doubted, if you're talking about Chomksy, Seeger, the Bush family, Donald Rumsfeld, Bill Gates, John Smith the nose-picker and a whole lot of other people. (Interviewer: Have you ever thought of living elsewhere? Chomsky: No. The US is the best country in the world.) But it's not the best country in the world for millions of others, among whom we might count those who can't afford health insurance, those who've been tossed in the hoosegow for minor, usually drug-related, offenses, young black men who the police like to pick off the street for truncheon practice, and Arabs who're held incommunicado and without charge for the crime of bearing too much of a resemblance to Osama bin Laden. Soon enough, anyone caught sporting a bad haircut, and wearing drab, nondescript garb, will run the risk of being picked up for looking too much like Kim Jong Il.

Still, Chomsky is prepared to declare the US the best country ever, without specifying for whom, and Seeger seems to think the US is the only place on earth where people are allowed to speak their mind.

The grand old man of folk recently re-recorded "Bring them Home," along with Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, and Ani DiFranco, a remake of his Vietnam era "If you love your Uncle Sam, (support our boys in Vietnam, bring them home)." Half way through the song, Seeger interjects,

"Isn't that the wonderful thing about America? You've got the right to be wrong. Where else in the world can they do it like we can do it here?"

Do what get it wrong?

The last I time I checked you could speak your mind (and be wrong) in Canada, Australia, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Finland, New Zealand, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Liechtenstein, not to mention dozens of other places. Heck, I've been wrong more times than I can count in Canada (including in the preceding paragraphs), and still the RCMP hasn't come banging on my door in the middle of the night, dragging me off to a torture cell, to be forced to listen to Celine Dion and Leonard Cohen music (or some lesser torture, like flogging) for speaking my mind...and, I should quickly add, getting it wrong.  Seeger would have hit the nail on the head had he said a majority of one mind can speak, and be ignored at the same time, in all these places, which hardly seems to be something to celebrate. But the "movement" (a word which has far too much of a scatological flavor to be recommended for everyday use) bends to American requirements, much like everything else in the world, which is why the rest of the world just gets pissed off.

And these days, in Iraq most of all.

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