I HAD NO IDEA
Updated: Mar 22
We had a few graduate students over for dinner the other night and one of them said that “Catherine the Great was fucked to death by a horse.” We all laughed with bacchanalian good humor but she insisted that it was really true. Giving slight credence to this wacky college dorm legend was the recent and gruesomely true story of a local man who died of a perforated colon while being fucked by a horse just a few miles outside of Seattle. I got up from the table and went to my study and found several credible Internet sites thoroughly debunking the equine prurience of Catherine the Great. When I returned to the still boisterous dinner table with the news that Catherine the Great died of a stroke at the handsome age of sixty-seven, the young woman who had told the horse story refused to believe the mundane version (corroborated with modern forensic evidence) of Catherine’s death. She said, “I still believe my friends and they say she died fucking a horse.” A National Academy of Science research paper and the opinion of the British Royal Forensic Society had little impact compared with the authority of some punk rock friends of this woman’s youth ten years ago.
Are we sort of pre-programmed to be republicans or democrats, Unitarians or Catholics, Pit Bull lovers or Poodle enthusiasts or classical or pop music lovers? Can we make choices, or do we have everlasting predilections based on a bizarre set of ineffable, even genetic, preconditions? For example, I recently had breakfast at a place called Silence Heart Nest Café in a trendy part of Seattle. All the (female) waitpersons were dressed in colorful sarongs and shuffled gracefully around the room on soft sandals smiling serenely to customers as they took orders, brought food and filled coffee cups. The place was festooned with colorful banners of childlike drawings. The blue walls agreed comfortably with the white tables and flowers. It seemed nice enough but then I began to suffocate from the obedient pleasantness. On each table was a little box containing about twenty cards with spiritualesque aphorisms plagiarized from the likes of Gibran, Bartlett and other up-lifters.
One corner of this breakfast café was devoted to a Mr. Sri Chinmoy; the most noticeable item being a large photograph of him lifting a seven thousand pound barbell above his head with one arm. Mr. Chinmoy is the spiritual guru of this place. The people working here are his disciples. Two other pictures show him playing the cello and piano respectively. Why would anyone with a three digit IQ choose to believe that a 150 pound man of ordinary physique could lift three Honda Civics above his head with one arm? Again, the National Science Foundation or the British Royal Weightlifting Society would not be able to disabuse the followers of this Mr. Chinmoy of their belief in him as a uniquely endowed, spiritual person. Some people walk on water and others lift enormous weights. Go figure.
I have a friend who tells me with absolute earnestness that all of Sadaam’s WMD were taken out of Iraq right before the war in a mile-long caravan of Russian tractor trailer trucks. My friend looks at me and says, “Arthur, they are all buried in the Bekka Valley in southern Lebanon.” I look on the Internet, in bookstores, in newspaper indices and ask friends in academic circles and nobody has heard of such a caravan. As one friend said, “Arthur, we have AWAC and U-2 planes and satellite imaging devices which can spot a fly on a camel’s ass from fifty thousand feet. Don’t you think that Dick Cheney would be showing us footage of that caravan in his quotidian assertions of WMD in Iraq” The only mention of such a caravan is in the World Tribune, an online newsblog run by an editor with the Washington Times. Not one single credible person or publication has ever heard of this mysterious WMD caravan yet my friend insists that there was such a thing just as my other friend insists on her own Sophomoric version of Catherine the Great’s death and other people want to believe that Mr. Chinmoy can lift three automobiles above his head with one arm.
I remember my high school history teacher telling us that a small lie is often refuted but if one tells a lie that is enormous and outrageous people will be more inclined to believe it. As a sixteen year old I could not fathom what he meant in the context of 1930’s Germany. I.F. Stone used to go around the country lecturing and repeating a sort of mantra: “If you remember only one thing from this evening’s talk, remember these three words: all governments lie.” Indeed, it takes a great leap to realize that our government lies to us. We grow up in a tiny family government which, for most of us, is genuinely loving and sincere. The slightly larger “governments” we encounter for about twelve to twenty years in school are also not particularly inclined to duplicity, although very capable of it. And, for us Americans, the cursory, and wholly inadequate picture we get in school of our government and history inclines one more toward zeal than denigration (although Professor Zinn is doing all he can to disabuse us of our complacency). So, trying to convince American citizens who put their hands over their hearts and sing the “Star Spangled Banner” before every football and basketball game, that their government is lying to them and spying on them is about like trying to convince the Pope that there is a population problem.
For those of us Americans of middle age and older, it is safe to say that we were certainly not told the whole truth about native populations and slavery. We were lied to about the Mexican War. We were lied to about the Spanish American War. We were lied to about World War One. We were lied to about the Depression. We were lied to about Korea, Viet Nam, Grenada and Nicaragua. It is a fact that the there was no casus belli at the Pecos River in 1845. It is a fact that the Spanish did not mine the “Maine”. It is a fact that there was no casus belli in the Gulf of Tonkin. And today it is a fact that there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq in 2003 and yet, it seems, that there are about one hundred million people in the United States who want to believe all of these things.
Insisting, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, therefore justifying a pre-emptive war against a sovereign nation, is a chimera and flimsy rationale for continuing to support the presidency of George W. Bush. I think it is not a stretch to make the analogy that supporting Hitler in the early Thirties required a similar chimerical belief that the Jews had sold out Germany at Versailles and that the Jews were to blame for the depression. Get rid of the Jews and Germany could again become a great nation on the world stage. This is an enormous statement but, I ask, what was the point of the trials at Nuremberg if not to inform future generations that each and every one of us is responsible for what our government does? Millions of Germans have tried to convince themselves and us, that they did not know what was going on. “My goodness, we had no idea what was going on” they all say.
First, shortly after Hitler was elected, all Jewish shops were required to display the Star of David. S.A. men stood outside these shops discouraging entry. Jews were publicly called the Untermensch. Jews had to sit on the backs of busses and trains. In 1935 the Nuremberg Laws were passed which made Jews non-citizens of The Fatherland. All Jews had to wear arm bands. That was just the beginning and yet every German says he/she “had no idea” what was going on? What? You see a store with a grotesque race-designation sign in front and a para-cop standing in the doorway and you don’t experience revulsion? You read that the government just passed a law removing several million of your neighbors and fellow Germans from citizenship and you say you had no idea what was going on? At two A.M. you hear some noise and look out and see your neighbors being hustled into a van and driven away and you claim you had no idea? Maybe the fact that you were able to pick up your neighbor’s house “on the cheap” had a deleterious effect on your memory.
The United States is a long, long way from Nazi Germany and while comparisons might seem gratuitous it is worth noting that this is the first American government which, among serious thinkers, conjures up reflections of the Third Reich and Pinochet’s Chile. This is the first American government in which the word Fascism comes up regularly in intelligent discourse. Oligarchy is another word bandied about in liberal conversations. Oh my goodness, the “L” word! I think the calumny with which conservatives speak about the “L” word is another reason to be frightened. For anybody who is not frightened I suggest a quick look at the word “liberal” in any dictionary. It is a noble word.
Let us just cite a few things which we all know and will have to acknowledge ten or twenty or fifty years down the road. Something funny happened in Florida in 2000. This president sits in the Oval Office without a majority vote of the American people. No sooner taking the oath of office Mr. Bush declines the invitation to attend the Kyoto summit on global warming. After 9/11 this government facilitated the departure of several dozen Saudis closely tied to and even related to Bin Laden to leave the country. This government made pre-emptive war against a sovereign state on the basis of threats to our national security by Weapons of Mass Destruction in that country. We lied to the United Nations and spurned our closest allies in Europe. We now know that no such weapons existed. It is safe to surmise that by its unilateral invasion of Iraq, the United States has engendered the suspicion, if not contempt, of a billion Muslims around the world among which are a few million newly dedicated so-called terrorists. This president, who did not serve in Viet Nam, re-invoked the “dirty tricks” program of the Nixon era and committed libel against two United States Senators who were, in fact “decorated” Viet Nam Veterans. We know for a fact that this government has thrown away the moral compass with which we used to guide ourselves and the world, with its policies of torture and abandonment of habeas corpus and unwarranted electronic surveillance. This is the first Presidency since Hoover to actually decrease the number of jobs in America. This Presidency turned a surplus into a deficit. With the zeal of religious fundamentalism this government resists stem cell research. Somebody who works in this White House saw fit to “out” an undercover CIA agent. We know about the tax breaks for the rich and a parsimonious Byzantine prescription drug program for the elderly. This government claims we need more oil and therefore has seen fit to trespass on one of the earth’s few remaining wildernesses while refusing to put restrictions on fossil fuel consumption by the American public, most especially the gas-guzzling SUV’s.
We know all these things. Will we too tell our grandchildren and interlocutors that we had no idea such things were going on? I’m glad I’m not going to be around in twenty years.