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September 28, 2005:
"Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages."
— Samuel Johnson: Idler #30 (November 11, 1758)
One of the finer points of Johnson's writings is that they are based on shrewd observations of human behavior, behavior which shifts little over time. Thus, much of what he wrote nearly 250 years ago still has the ring of truth.
In the spring of 2003, much of America believed (or wanted to believe) that invading Iraq was a good thing; credulity supported beliefs that there were weapons of mass destruction to be found there, little knowing that these beliefs were propped up by unreliable sources like the CIA's "Curveball" and echoed by Iraqi exiles longing for more power. Many did not believe, of course: I, for one, had seen plenty of evidence of information twisting by the Bush administration prior to the war on much smaller issues, and felt that our best source of information was UNSCOM inspectors, who really did need more time.
As the war progressed, threats to perceptions of our effort's beneficence — like the prisoner abuses in Abu Ghraib — were brushed off by the military as isolated events, when internal examinations would have revealed that there was a long chain of command that went up to Rumsfeld and Bush and the orders they signed. (Even today, witnesses to abuses in Iraq feel as if the investigators are trying to direct the investigations away from the brass and on to the troops.)
And yesterday, while it wasn't in the theater of war, former FEMA head Michael Brown testified before Congress that practically nothing which went wrong in the Katrina relief efforts was his doing. Another effort to play with the truth (see here and here).
Yes, people will always have vested interests in the truth. And many times people will play with the truth to either protect themselves, their interests, or perhaps even claim new advantages where none existed beforehand.
An alert people, however, have to recognize this, and be more skeptical of those who have special access to the truth.
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September 18, 2005:
"It is ... the faculty of remembrance which may be said to place us in the class of moral agents. If we were to act only in consequence of some immediate impulse, and receive no direction from internal motives of choice, we should be pushed forward by an invincible fatality, without power or reason for the most part to prefer one thing to another, because we could make no comparison but of objects which might both happen to be present."
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler #41 (August 7, 1750)
Imagine how differently we'd behave if we acted without consciousness of the consequences of our actions; sure, we can imagine what some of the consequences might be without a stored history of what's happened in the past, but without that history we can't really think of the "likely" consequences, and are forced to chose from a wide range of possibilities without understanding, really, what might happen.
And yet, for all the value of memory in giving us a rudder, there are some who seem to need more. Think of those who have the example of the past before them, and yet don't apply it.
In the case of the White House's evident failure to learn the importance of a rapid, nimble response from the lessons of 9/11 — demonstrated by their failure over Katrina — you have to wonder what it will take before they reject their blind fealty to the idea of small government. Actually, fealty is the wrong word, because as all fiscal conservatives know, the Bush Administration has been pretty good about maintaining a large, intrusive government when the political ends have seemed suitable.
People, of course, are not political ends. And while we hope that the early estimates that ten thousand might have died in New Orleans will not be borne out, we will always wonder how many deaths were unnecessary. Bush said that no one could have imagined the levees would be breached, yet he was warned of that the weekend before Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast. It was an eery echo of Condoleezza Rice's statement that no one could have imagined anyone would fly airliners into buildings: that same warning had been made, too.
Yes, memory provides us the opportunity to be moral agents. But if we don't utilize it, we may as well be the two cats under the dinner table: they'll feud over a fallen scrap, but soon groom each other, and feud again tomorrow night.
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September 11, 2005:
"The Church does not superstitiously observe days, merely as days, but as memorials of important facts. Christmas might be kept as well upon one day of the year as another; but there should be a stated day for commemorating the birth of our Saviour, because there is danger that what may be done on any day, will be neglected."
— Samuel Johnson (Boswell: Life of Johnson)
In the Eighteenth Century there were already doubts about the idea that Jesus was born on December 25. Shepherds out at night in December?
There's no uncertainty, however, about whether the World Trade Center was toppled on September 11 or February 5 or Halloween. It happened on September 11, and it's verifiable.
The question America grapples with, going forward, is how to observe the date and what its meaning is. Certainly there can be no question but that the nineteen hijackers and their supporters were horrendous criminals, myopic fools who couldn't discriminate between innocent civilians and the crafters of the American policies they hated so. Just as we revile our Lieutenant Calleys, we have to recognize that the participants in the September 11 plot (and other terrorist actions, whether they're perpetrated by Al Qaeda or the IRA or others) — they represent a different class of humanity. And we interpret the results of their actions differently than we do the results of earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes.
However, here in the US there seems to be an effort to sanctify the number of people who were killed on September 11, as if, were any tragedy to surpass the 3,000 killed that day, September 11 would be less meaningful.
But the meaning of September 11 doesn't rest on the number who died. The meaning rests on the fact that this was an act of human aggression; it was not an act of God, but an act of people who put their hate into action.
The biggest threat to the meaning of September 11, I fear, is that we learned too few of its lessons. When so many die, government should react with a singular vision to minimize losses in the future. It should put procedures in place so that first responders will be able to respond with sufficient resources to make sure that the absolute fewest number of people die.
It couldn't be plainer but that this hasn't happened. Even if 10,000 haven't died in New Orleans, even if it's only 2,999, do the math: as a proportion of the population, it's much greater than those who were in New York on 9/11.
We can observe the 9/11 anniversary just as well as anyone else. I was in the neighborhood, I saw people leap to a dark certainty, I walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge with ashes over me too. But if we can't do any better than we did in New Orleans at lessening the loss of life, then it's absolutely clear (to me, at least) that our ceremonies and observations and light shows are not enough. You'd like to think that at least, as a nation, we jointly resolved "never again!" With so many dying in New Orleans, is it fair to question whether or not the deaths in the WTC were completely in vain?
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August 28, 2005:
The desire of excellence is laudable, but is very frequently ill directed.
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler 66
Excellence comes with several price tags. We're familiar with the time and dollars which can be expended in pursuing excellence, and the concept of an "opportunity cost" is well known: could these resources have been spent more usefully in some other direction?
Time and money are not the only price tags, however. Among the others is the human cost: do we risk our employees' morale when we go down a path they think is foolish? And what about our peers: will they think us some kind of Ahab?
As the summer winds down, many building contractors are facing a Labor Day deadline to complete renovations in apartments. To minimize the inconvenience to residents, some buildings with wealthier residents limit renovations to the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day, a period when neighbors are more likely to be on vacation and less likely to be subjected to the noise and so on. Makes sense to me.
But I couldn't help but be struck by this part of a New York Times article on the subject:
On the one hand, you have to figure they bought the place for something besides the apartment, perhaps its location; why do I doubt it's because of the public school it's zoned for? And you also have to admit that if this is how they want to spend their money, it's a free country and they're allowed to. But I have trouble feeling that it's not a waste.
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