Monday, June 21

The Past Sure Ain’t What It Used To Be

skepticI’ve heard that, as you get older, you tend to get more nostalgic about the past, perhaps because your mortality weighs more heavily upon you, so that you pine for a “do-over” before the Great Cosmic Electoral College rules you the victor … or not … or perhaps because you simply have more to remember, and therefore more to be nostalgic about. Whatever … anyway, I have found that to be true, at least in terms of politics and political discourse in the Nation. With due allowance for the human tendency to imagine the past as some kind of Lake Woebegone-like golden age “when men were men and children were all above average,” it does seem to me that my nostalgia is more or less firmly grounded in fact, not fancy, all the more so because I am waxing nostalgic about events and trends of quite recent provenance. I give three examples below:

I am nostalgic for …

o … the early-Carboniferous days of 2008 when it was actually possible for a presidential hopeful – at the time, I think even the front-runner – to get himself into trouble for being associated with a racial slur. I am referring, in particular, to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s association with a family hunting lodge bearing a name so over-the-top vile and incendiary that I will refer to only with a hyperlink to a story about same. (Note that the hyperlink leads to the on-line version of Forbes magazine, certainly no bastion of bleeding-heart sensitivity about political correctness, least of all hair-trigger synthetic outrage.) Similar remarks apply to George Allen’s use of a racial slur for Native Americans in 2008 and allegations that, in the company of white teammates, Allen had used racial epithets to describe African-Americans. And then, of course, back right after the Big Bang but before the first hydrogen atoms formed, there was Vice-President Agnew's 1968 disparaging reference -- in strict fairness, it may have been an inside joke between him and the Asian reporter to whom he was speaking -- to Japanese Americans. (The late William Safire -- at the time, a speechwriter for the Nixon White House -- wrote a column for the NY Times defending Agnew, but the reporter's daughter wrote a letter to the Times rebutting Safire's column. Digging through the archaeology of this incident is like excavating mesolithic sites in England!) And, in any case, Agnew's disavowal would hardly apply to his denigration of Polish people, which occurred in the same general time-frame as the Japanese reference.



Now fast-forward to 2015 … and … to quote Aldous Huxley, “Oh brave new world, with such people in it!” Donald Trump’s by-now-iconic rant about the character of illegal immigrants earned the usual pro forma media censures and excoriations, but, unlike the Perry. Allen, and Agnew bumbles, it is not clear that Trump’s sentiments harmed either his campaign or his credibility as a presidential candidate. If anything, quite the opposite was the case: Trump earned his chops with the GOP base, and his campaign and his popularity among conservatives shifted into warp drive. Similar remarks apply about his advocacy of stopping the immigration of Muslims into the United States and the issuing of i.d. cards to Muslims. (One wonders if Cat Stevens will have to use his real name. And what of Minnesota representative Keith Ellison, and of the more recently elected Indiana representative Andre Carson? And would a Trump Administration require Muslims to sew a crescent-and-star on their coat lapels?) I recall the public reaction to Perry’s and Allen’s gaffes, in particular, that both damaged their respective campaigns. Not only did Trump’s backed-up-toilet rhetoric not damage his campaign, his polling numbers got stronger – to such an extent that other Republicans deemed it strategically advantageous to follow suit. For example, so low is the bar that Jeb Bush at one point qualified as a “moderate” Republican because he has stated that only Christians should be allowed to enter the US. Other examples could be cited, even examples from recent history: their name is “Legion”, for they are many.

So … yes ... guilty as charged: I am nostalgic for the days when failing to speak of others, especially those who are different, with at least grudging and pro forma respect was a political liability, not an asset – and these days arguably a prerequisite for political street cred.


o … middle pre-Cambrian times when political candidates, even conservatives, did not engage in a race to the bottom to determine who was the most scientifically illiterate. I guess I lead too sheltered a life, but I do remember being shocked when, in 2008, in an early GOP debate, the moderator asked the candidates to raise their hands if they did not believe in Darwinian evolution through natural selection.  I do not remember if all candidates raised their hands, but I certainly do remember that most did, despite the volume of evidence for evolution being as great as that for Newtonian gravity. At the time, I more or less consciously chose to believe that the result was a consequence of the question being phrased negatively (" ... how many of you do not believe ... ") being slightly confusing. Well, you may now consider me duly chastised.  When I see Sen. James Imhofe of Oklahoma waving a snowball in presumptive refutation of global warming and climate change. And it is significantly less than comforting when I remember that Sen. Ted Cruz alleges -- he may well be right -- that there has been no significant warming of planet Earth for the past 17 years.  But in his case and in that of Sen. Imhofe, a mere 15 minutes watching Neil DeGrasse Tyson meanderingly walk his dog on the beach in illustration of the difference between weather and climate, would have worked wonders for the two gentlemen in terms of ecological education:  when either of them can cite peer-reviewed / -refereed literature in scientific journals stating that there has been no significant warming for 17 thousand years, then they will have the beginnings of a "contrarian" case.  But of course, the game being played is politics, early-21st-century style, not science. And it works because -- in a nation where roughly as many people disbelieve  evolution and the Big Bang as believe Jesus is returning in their lifetime -- the people are about as scientifically illiterate as the people talking to them. In fact, I strongly suspect that the Imhofes and Cruzes really do know better, and that they are leveraging the ignorance of their base to accrue political points ... which I find somehow even more depressing than the thought that the Imhofes and Cruzes themselves are ignoramuses. They are following a paraphrased version of Archimedes:  give me an ignorant electorate, and I will move the Nation.

Sen. James Imhofe ... without his "signature" snoball

Contrast this with the urgency with which Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy approached science as a vital component of the Nation's life, the former in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik I in 1957, and the latter in response to, among other causes, Yuri Gagarin's first-ever orbiting of the Earth only four years later.  I was only 8 years old when Sputnik jolted the Nation awake vis a vis matters scientific. But, even young as I was, I well remember how, almost in the same week, school curricula at all levels -- I was in elementary school at the time -- began to undergo tectonic changes in order to emphasize what we would call today "STEM disciplines".  We were anything but suspicious of, and hostile to, science in those heady days. Back then, we lusted for a manned-space-flight capability. Today, the loss of that capability -- the retiring of the space shuttle with nothing to take its place -- elicits only a yawn and a page-flip to the synopsis of the next Game of Thrones episode.

o ... a rational adversary

Say what you will about the old Soviet Union, it was at least a rational adversary.  By "rational adversary" I mean something simple to the point of lapidary clarity:  the leadership of the USSR did not want to die, nor did they want their country to die.  When I was doing consultant work for the American Defense Department and, through the DoD, for the NATO defense ministries, we could always count on a mutual fear of death.  That assumption was almost never explicitly acknowledged, nor did it need to be. It was always there informing everything we -- and they -- did.  In that regard, it was like the assumption in scientific texts that mathematics is always consistent:  unprovable and therefore implicit, but always critical. We did not want to start a war that almost certainly would mean the end of Western (=European) civilization, most likely world civilization, and the Soviets were no more enthusiastic about the idea than we were. That is not to say that such war was impossible:  we came perilously close in 1962 in Cuba, in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, and in 1983 in Europe with ABLE ARCHER.  (For the record:  all three are now mostly public domain.) But direct war with the Soviet Union, even conventional war, could escalate to a nuclear conflict, of which both sides had an entirely rational fear.


Those kinds of adversaries -- rational adversaries -- do still exist, of course. But rationality on the part of one's adversaries is no longer axiomatic, no longer a hard-core  "given".  Is Iran a rational adversary?  Well, probably, but ... North Korea? Not reliably so.  And ISIS?  Not only "No", but "Hell no" ... in my estimation.  The reliability of rationality on the part of one's adversary(ies) is absolutely critical to deterrence, because the ability to assume rationality is critical to the psychology of deterrence:  I may loathe you, but if I am certain beyond any rational doubt that you will always, even under the worst possible circumstances, retain the capacity to utterly incinerate me within 10 to 30 minutes, I will moderate my actions and my reactions accordingly, because I do not want to die. Hamlet was right:  "The dread of something after death ... makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of; thus conscience doth make cowards of us all". But how do you deter an adversary who is not only not afraid of dying -- but who considers death a reward, a prize, the supreme desidaratum, a badge of distinction? (Really now ... need I point out that such people actually do exist?) By definition of the very word "deterrence," you cannot. That is why I am optimistic that, in the long run, sociopathic jihadist pseudo- / quasi- / "para-" / "sorta-kinda-" / Islam -- ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, et al. -- will collapse into its own moral, political, and intellectual vacuum, like a black hole. But "in the long run" includes the possibility of apocalyptic carnage along the way. Nihilism takes no prisoners.

Have a nice day!

James R. Cowles

Image credits:

Spiro Agnew: public domain
Rick Perry: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Donald Trump: Michael Vadon, own work
James Imhofe: public domain
ISIS militant with flag: public domain
"If Jesus returns ... " sign carrier:  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic


  • Yes, very engaged by this right now. We each need sources of sanity, and for me, Sam Harris’ “Waking Up Podcast” is my chosen place. I find his ability to straddle all of this extremely refreshing. And your stuff is pretty good too Mr Crowles, thank you. There is an inability among my tolerant peace and justice friends for a true engagement with what we’re facing with a religion based death cult. And then there is the Malheur Wildlife Refuge takeover, and the connection with these types, Richard Mack and the like, with Trump rhetoric and “constitutional” Republicans, which Cruz and Imhofe cater to. Even collusion with “revolutionary” language among elected representatives. Can’t think about this every minute, would go nuts too.

  • First, a nit: my last name is COWLES, not CROWLES (no “R”) … yeah the Republicans are a cynical lot … well … all politicians are. It’s the way they roll. You ensure your electoral longevity as a politician by playing to the ignorance of your base, which in the case of the GOP means conservative fundamentalist / evangelical Christians. Conditions in the world and in the Nation are changing at unprecedented speed, and conservative religion feeds the fear of change with its apocalypticism and “end times” emphasis. That conduces to a desire for security, for “the good old days,” for stability and the security of tradition. (Remember that song from “Fiddler on the Roof”?) The GOP is the party of tradition, even when that tradition is flat-ass wrong, as it is on evolution, climate change, etc., the guiding principle apparently being that beliefs and traditions need not be informed by anything as inconvenient as mere facts and data.

    • This was — as always — GREAT fun to write.

      I have also scheduled on the Beguine side a “Skeptic’s” column about the RFRA laws being passed in States vis a vis LGBTQ people and their relationship, constitutionally, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That was an interesting exercise, too. It turns out that safeguarding equality of LGBTQ folks is not a simple matter of just adding the phrase “and sexual orientation” to paragraph (a) of Title II. Has to do with footnote 4 of “Carolene Products”, levels of judicial review, and “suspect classes”.

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