What You Should Think About Mount Rushmore

June 3, 2011

“Monuments are the grappling-irons that bind one generation to another.”

–Joseph Joubert

This nation, since the final months of George Washington’s Presidency, has been troubled by a partisan divide.  It is in the nature of any self-governing people to take sides as disagreements about policy give rise to factions in politics.  Unlike most other authentic democracies, ours seems afflicted with a craving for simplicity in these disagreements.  Even journalists are often inclined to dumb things down so that, in presenting “both sides of the story,” they prop up the false narrative that a complex issue can be understood from only two perspectives.

Thoughtful people know better than to embrace false dichotomies.  Because so many Americans assume the duty to actually cast a vote is much more important than the duty that ought be its prerequisite — to form a rational fact-based opinion that would make such voting well-informed — false dichotomies have become the norm in our political life.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, the divide was crystallized.  It was Republicans who championed progressive values, social justice, and modern thinking; while the Democratic Party took its strength from supporters of traditional values, racial segregation, and fundamentalist religion.  The bipartisan oligarchy offered a neat and simple way for the political process to address a reality that was rarely ever neat or simple.

In a dance that could hardly be described as delicate, these two parties traded places during the 20th century.  Little by little, the Democrats who once opposed emancipation and largely withdrew from Congress during secession were transformed.  Today they are aligned with positions that support bettering the plight of minorities and broad exercise of the powers of the federal government.  Little by little, the Republicans who once preserved the Union and promoted emancipation as a matter of principle were transformed.  Today they are aligned with positions that oppose efforts to alleviate hardships experienced disproportionately by minorities.  They so vigorously oppose the exercise of federal powers that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some actually suggested that the timely deployment of emergency relief assets was an abridgement of states’ rights!

In 1927, this dance was already well underway.  President Calvin Coolidge was among the first of our national leaders to promote the absurd belief that the private sector is innately and consistently more efficient than the public sector.  He earned public support in part through arguments like, “government ought to be run more like a business.”  He firmly believed, to the extent there was any concern about Wall Street speculation at all, that this was a matter to be settled at the state level.  His unwillingness to act in this realm was clearly a key factor in the severity and duration of the Great Depression.  Even so, it was through his rhetoric that the very institutions established to create space for Americans to enjoy liberty became branded as impediments to that exercise.

Yet Calvin Coolidge was still a very different man from the sort of anarchocapitalist ideologues the Republican party embraces in the 21st century.  He understood that what differentiates partisan zealots from one another is far less important than what unites as all as Americans.  He understood that working together as a whole would propel this nation forward far better than working against one another across a political divide.  Even in the midst of unprecedented poverty and unemployment, he was not in complete denial about the value of taking action to uplift public morale and renew pride in what greatness could rightly be attributed to our nation.  It was with this in mind that he worked with Congress to approve funding for the sculpting of Mount Rushmore into a national monument.

Of course, President Coolidge was not entirely above the partisan divide.  For his part in the negotiations, he insisted that the monument feature two Republicans and one Democrat along with George Washington.  In this way he showed partisan favoritism without taking the project so far into that realm as to make it unpopular with people outside the Republican base.  Thomas Jefferson was an obvious choice, for he was both the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and a prominent supporter of so many other measures crucial to the establishment of liberty as an American value.  Abraham Lincoln was also an easy pick, since he alone had served and died as a President determined to keep these states united in the face of a real threat to that unity.  The original sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, selected Theodore Roosevelt for the fourth figure — a perhaps not-so-subtle dig at the cozy relationship between government and big business that Roosevelt once so boldly opposed.

Gutzon Borglum would not live to see his great vision completed.  Work on the mountain began in 1927 and continued through the fall of 1941.  The man who conceived and planned this project would die in the spring of that year, leaving it to his son to continue the work.  Originally, Mount Rushmore was intended to depict the four former Presidents from the waist up, alongside a panel commemorating the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and a variety of our nation’s territorial acquisitions.  Due to funding constraints imposed by acts of Congress subsequent to the original authorization, young Lincoln Borglum was only able to apply some finishing touches before concluding work on the monument as a carving of the four faces in place there today.

In spite of all this time and effort, the final cost of Mount Rushmore’s sculpting was less just under $1 million.  Even adjusted for inflation, this is less than the cost of three hours of funding for the war in Iraq.  A site that has inspired millions of Americans, a marvel that is known throughout the world, was less expensive than 1/20,000th of the effort made to replace Saddam Hussein’s regime with something else.  Even more remarkable, in spite of the obvious dangers of sculpting the face of a mountain, not a single worker died during the construction of Mount Rushmore.  There is simply no way to compare that with the cost in human lives lost in pursuit of eliminating the non-threat Saddam Hussein’s government posed to American national security.

There is no doubt that the United States of America can achieve great things.  We once enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world, all measures of quality of life in constant ascent, while we helped to vanquish the Nazis, subdue Japanese imperialists, and even sent explorers to the surface of the Moon.  Yet there can be no doubt that something changed in our national character during the final stage of the Cold War and the years to follow.  Some of us no longer seem to want rising standards of living.  Some of us no longer seem to care about exploitation by the elite nor suffering among the downtrodden.  The “square deal” and the “fair deal” have given way to the “raw deal.”

This has coincided with a shift in national priorities.  Today funding for artistic pursuits is routinely criticized as “government waste.”  The small-minded among us attack scientific grants as “pork barrel spending” and receive approbation for what any honorable American would instantly recognize as shameful conduct.  We allow ourselves to be limited by the words of the petty and the deeds of the ignorant.  Yet it was not always so.  Given sound national priorities, the United States is a nation that will prosper like none other.  Fiction tells tales of people from a future dark age, gazing up at Mount Rushmore and asking, “how did human beings ever do that?”  I sit in the present, knowing full well what we as a people can accomplish, and ask, “why did we ever stop doing that?”

What You Should Think About Patriotism

October 14, 2007

“There are two Americas. One is the America of Lincoln and Adlai Stevenson; the other is the America of Teddy Roosevelt and the modern superpatriots. One is generous and humane, the other narrowly egotistical; one is self-critical, the other self-righteous; one is sensible, the other romantic; one is good-humored, the other solemn; one is inquiring, the other pontificating; one is moderate, the other filled with passionate intensity; one is judicious and the other arrogant in the use of great power.

–J. William Fulbright

Well before terrorists transformed the New York City skyline, America’s loudest political conservatives made no secret of beliefs that their kind had a monopoly on patriotism. With a shocking national trauma came much greater zeal in these assertions of patriotic supremacy. The sense in those claims has always been elusive. On an obvious level, confusing ideological conviction with national loyalty is problematic. Yet there are much more subtle and insidious problems with this phenomenon as well.

A public stirred by strong emotions may be so moved as to accept arguments that it is innately patriotic to agree with national leaders. The powers that be are presumed right without any regard for the particulars of their positions and actions. This creates a situation where no distortion of fact nor abuse of power is subjected to adequate public scrutiny. The greatest virtue, and the greatest strength, of popular rule is discarded in favor of a paradigm that conflates a nation with its present regime.

Clear understanding can come through direct experience. Hermann Göring lived long enough after the fall of the Third Reich to share what understanding could be gleaned from his role in history. During the Nuremburg Trials, psychologist Gustave Gilbert was able to engage the former Luftwaffe chief in extensive frank conversations. In one exchange, Gilbert seemed confident that democracy would prevent any American President from dragging the nation into acts of imperialist aggression. Göring disputed the notion that popular rule could restrain such belligerence, “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 danger. It works the same way in any country.”

At the very least, wars in Viet Nam and Iraq validate that insight from a doomed Nazi aviator. The rationale for waging full scale war in each instance was simply not credible. False narratives crafted by White House media experts generated public support for each misadventure. Deliberately misleading language or even outright lies were not subject to sufficient public scrutiny. Warnings of dire threats from remote corners of the world were at odds with verifiable facts. Still fears swept over our nation. Promises of a swift military campaign paving the way for a rosy future ranged from implausible to absurd. Yet they were passed along by esteemed journalists as if they were the result of sound informed analysis.

Years enough have passed that the hindsight on Viet Nam is nearly universal. The domino theory characterized capitalism and democracy as fragile flowers that would certainly be crushed by the indomitable power of communism and fascism unless vigorous military action was taken. Nonsense it may be, but it was a foreign policy doctrine that spawned all manner of affirming editorials and even scholarly works of support. It was just one among a legion of lies that only brought America to war because sound skepticism was denounced as anti-American sentiment.

Just as the Soviet Union was real, so is Al Qaeda. Just as Viet Nam was no stepping stone to Kansas, the road to terrorizing the U.S. homeland did not run through Iraq. That past tense is appropriate, because today the many thousands of Iraqi widowers and orphans know the deepest of miseries, all courtesy of Uncle Sam’s bullets and bombs. It is reasonable to think that a small portion of these tragic victims should become consumed by hate, willing to sacrifice themselves as tools of mayhem. There can be no doubt that today Iraq is home to many terrorists dedicated to making Americans suffer.

Yet, as with the domino theory, arguments that prewar Iraq posed a serious threat to U.S. national security were bogus on their face. After all, Al Qaeda’s foremost priority was to eliminate secular governance throughout the Middle East. Saddam Hussein presided over one of the strongest secular governments in the region. Christians, agnostics, and even atheists were all protected under his regime. He was a brutal tyrant, but in that regard he was one of many. Some others continue to enjoy the active support of America’s present administration.

It was reasonable to assert that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. On the other hand, “he has to go” was the peak on a mountain of nonsense that would have collapsed if only a healthy measure of skepticism had been applied. As with Viet Nam, the call to make war against a non-threat was infused with both great urgency and absurd optimism. Pundits supporting the aggression predicted a total price tag of one or two billion dollars, likely to be repaid within a year or two by a gratefully liberated Iraq. Anyone who disputed that American troops could expect spontaneous gifts of flowers and candy from Iraqi civilians was ridiculed as anti-American and ill-informed.

Misguided appeals to patriotism blinded the nation to the realities of pending disaster. Thousands of our own soldiers have joined tens of thousands of slaughtered Iraqis in paying the ultimate price for this war. Yet it has done much more to degrade conditions in Iraq than to improve them. Hopefully one day that territory will be a better place to live than it was under Hussein’s Baathist regime. Presently the reverse is unmistakably true. As for the two billion dollar price tag — we should be so lucky that a week passes without spending that much on Operation Iraqi Freedom.

As it happens, Thomas Jefferson never said or wrote, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Yet history does reveal that there are instances where dissent against leadership provides a service to country while support of leadership constitutes a disservice. The American Revolution took place to give free people a chance to live in a society where the head of state wields limited power and is not regarded as a personal embodiment of the nation itself. Strains of imperialist monarchy return whenever an American President or his supporters use patriotism as a shield against reasonable critiques of flawed public policy or inaccurate public information.

Supporting a President does not make you a good American. Opposing a President does not make you a good American. Making your best effort to become informed about relevant issues, then expressing your earnest opinion without regard for its relationship to any President’s agenda — now those are the deeds of a good American. Leaders, the great as well as the terrible, will come and go. The same is true of policies. So long as the nation endures, service to it demands conscientious honesty. To do less, be it out of fear or hatred or even something as simple as a desire to conform, is to fail profoundly as an American patriot.

What You Should Think About Civilization IV

October 13, 2007

“When I was a kid, I went to the store and asked the guy, ‘do you have any toy train schedules?‘”

–Steven Wright

Since it took me all of one week to break the “tradition” of being lighthearted on Friday, I will atone with a game review. Yet this is no wild departure from my usual fare. Civilization IV is the current generation in a line of computer games that have been decidedly cerebral from the beginning. In fact, the roots of the franchise are in a tabletop gaming line developed by Avalon Hill. That enterprise blended traditional military wargaming concepts with a sort of creativity many would associate with today’s shareware and open source gaming communities.

However, the original Civilization PC game was a commercial product. It also may earn a place of note even in distant historical reviews of electronic entertainment. Just as 8-bit graphics were becoming the new standard and digital audio cards were symbols of gamer status, Microprose released a turn-based game with simple tiled graphics. Still, it was colorful, and at the time the MIDI musical score seemed impressive.

Much more impressive, even today, was the gameplay. While the precursor board games involved playing various types of cards and moving tokens about to claim territories in a particular region, computerized Civilization was much more ambitious. Starting with a small wandering tribe, a player was charged with raising up a great civilization. “Greatness” could be defined as governing an overwhelming majority of the world’s population, using military might to eliminate or subdue all rivals, or even being the first to launch a viable colony ship toward Alpha Centauri.

Obviously there is complexity in simulating all those sorts of competitions ongoing at the same time. Interrelated models of agriculture, industry, and commerce cover the basics of human endeavor. Once your tribe has settled down to found a city, the population can be assigned to work the land. Excess food eventually produces population growth. Industrial efforts may raise armies, buildings, or local civic institutions. Commercial output can be apportioned between taxes to maintain the fruits of industry, luxuries to keep large populations content, and research to develop new technologies.

Perhaps none of this is all that impressive to people who play computer games in 2007. In 1991 it was the stuff of hardcore academic simulations. To see it all so colorfully presented, in various contexts all strong on the fun factor — it was a marvel to experience. Building on geographical approximations of Earth (or particular regions) or even from a randomly generated habitable planet, all manner of strategies were viable. A creative pacifist might trade generously and focus on science while maintaining a token army of border city garrisons. An aggressive militant might tax heavily and emphasize conquest, staying competitive technologically by seizing spoils from rival nations. The game was pure realpolitik — it only made judgments as to what was effective or ineffective, never what was morally right or wrong.

Of course, it was not perfect. Given the high standards countless excellent products have created in the intervening years, the original Civilization may seem quaint today. Yet its successors would keep apace with the industry and break new ground along the way. Civilization II offered a much increased scope, and it followed the mid-90s trend of incorporating live action video sequences into game play. Civilization III took a step back in terms of breadth in order to reduce the extremes of persistence and coordination required to run sprawling empires in its predecessor. Relatively recently, Civilization IV emerged to offer even keener focus on strategic elements while at last taking the franchise into the realm of 3D graphics.

There are historical simulations with more detail and accuracy than Civilization permits. There are also computerized wargames that offer more adrenaline and spectacle than Civilization. Yet I believe for personal computers there are no truly intellectual games that can rival its fun factor, nor any outright thrilling simulated conquests that can rival its depth. The latest version expands greatly on the development of world religions while also adding significant detail in several other areas. This is to say nothing of the expansion packs* with their innovative features like spreading culture through multinational corporations or their exotic scenarios like Zombie Apocalypse.

I believe Civilization can rightly be described as intellectual because it combines the best of abstract thought experiments with many of the better features of a macroeconomic simulator. Of course it is not a perfect representation of any point in real history. However, it does make possible learning by trial and error — all too often the same process real heads of state use to work toward proficiency in their jobs. Every strategy can be answered with a variety of strong responses. Even in single player games, foreign leaders have distinct personalities, thus posing distinct challenges as rivals or allies.

Among other things, it teaches the staggering interdependence of factors in any society. Few people are surprised to find that slight disruptions can have far-reaching consequences in a modern industrialized nation. Yet even in ancient times, a regional food shortage or an untimely budget crunch could trigger a much bigger crisis. Sometimes a faction simply fails to get traction, or becomes marginalized by crippling defeat. Even so it is not uncommon to see 2-4 superpowers vying for victory. Each rival must be monitored carefully to avoid being blindsided by a sudden Space Race victory . . . or a surprise attack.

Even nuclear weapons have been a part of Civilization from its first computerized incarnation. A major industrial push can produce a great project. In some cases these may be Wonders of the World, like the Colossus of old or the Three Gorges Dam of today. Others will simply imbue a civilization with a new capability. For example, building the Internet accelerates scientific research throughout your entire civilization. Each faction may pursue the Manhattan Project, though it is also possible after someone has constructed the United Nations to take action to prevent nuclear proliferation.

It may sound complex, but the wonder of Civilization rests on a something near to paradox. The above paragraph just glosses over a few details — a molehill of complexity visible on the mountain of it offered up in a standard game. Yet it is not an activity that demands advanced education or exhausting concentration. It surely provokes thoughts, including a deep one from time to time. All the while it still manages to be a game that actively celebrates the joy of gaming.

Perhaps the best way to sum it all up is to describe one significant symptom of becoming a Civilization enthusiast. Known to some as “one-more-turn-itis,” it is the inability to step away from a viable game even when real life beckons an individual not otherwise entangled in gaming addiction. Each turn brings with it new information to assess and new decisions to make about the fate of a hypothetical people placed in your hands.

Be it in the Bronze Age or Space Age, be it about civics or religion, be it about colonization or militarization, be it about making new friends or dispensing with old enemies; Civilization transcends ordinary gaming with an experience that will draw you in and keep you there. Best of all, it does this chiefly through a rich buffet of food for thought. Much like chess, it is a game that is easily learned yet difficult to master. If you want a break from the real world, but you don’t want to take a break from stimulating your mind, it is hard to recommend anything above Civilization IV.

*I haven’t actually installed the expansion packs, as I’ve made a promise to myself to save them as a treat for when I’ve achieved an American win under specific conditions (actually, default everything but for raising the difficulty level.) I have done this leading several other peoples, but for some reason I have yet to orchestrate a proper victory with Industrious and Organized Americans. Only then will I let myself see precisely how cool Civilization: Warlords and Civilization: Beyond the Sword happen to be.

What You Should Think About Iran

October 11, 2007

“With a library you are free, not confined by temporary political climates. It is the most democratic of institutions because no one — but no one at all — can tell you what to read and when and how.”

–Doris Lessing

False narratives thrive on oversimplification. Take the recent debate about Armenian history. The Presidential stance on a formal recognition of genocide in an old Turkish-Armenian conflict amounts to, “this could make the war more complicated, so we need to avoid it in order to support the troops.” Really?!? Supporting American soldiers in the field means denying genocide? If polled, would the men and women presently in harm’s way over there affirm that they wish genocide to be denied on their behalf?

Of course, the real irony here is that this relentless obsession with Iraq has placed the White House in the position of emulating the behavior of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Perhaps the American administration has not disputed the numbers or context of wholesale slaughter perpetrated against the Armenian people. Then again, Ahmadinejad’s own “Holocaust denial” was also less a dispute of historical facts and more a semantic ploy. Neither denial deserves praise, yet both seem only to strengthen their perpetrators’ popularity within their own increasingly narrow base of support.

What is real, and what people really say, often is not reflected accurately in public perception. In some instances this is due to quirks of human nature, commercial media, or a particular culture. Yet in some cases it is because political operatives succeed in popularizing misinformation for the express purpose of preventing the public from understanding what is wrong with a particular policy or proclamation. For example, the infamous “Axis of Evil” speech told a tale of Iran from the late 1970s. For quite some time up until that speech was given, Iran was a much different place. Government censors exercised a light touch, principles of secular governance were broadly popular, and a wave of liberal reformers were set to take power in the next election.

Frightened people look to strong authority figures for comfort. The unprovoked outburst of rhetorical hostilities from the world’s lone superpower was cause enough revitalize religious extremists at the core of the last Iranian revolution. A traumatized Iranian citizenry largely acquiesced to a new wave of censorship, the disqualification of many reform candidates from pending elections, and even a resurgence of militant nationalism. Deep down, an overwhelming majority of Iranians long for the liberty and prosperity of a non-theocratic republic. Yet when warnings about the Great Satan are validated by actual threats of wrath and ruin delivered courtesy of Uncle Sam, it is hard for Iranian progressives to motivate any sort of actual progress.

Just over the border is a nation-sized chamber of horrors illustrating why the United States is so damn scary to people in nations like Iran. Against all reason and tradition, American aggression has transformed Iraq into a seething cauldron of raw violence. The idea that the United States might rain down fire upon Iran, or even invade outright, should seem ridiculous to all concerned. Because instead it seems plausible, the usual nonsense that anti-American nationalists around the world always spout is suddenly much more sensible. Supporting theocracy and rapid military growth may not actually be wise choices for Iranian citizens at present, but the threat from the U.S. provides some reasonable ground to support the right wing of Iranian politics.

To truly understand how all this came to be, it is important to look back some distance in Iranian history. Recognizing that foreign nations were extracting tremendous wealth from Iranian oil fields while paying virtually nothing more for the privilege, President Mohammad Mosaddeq plead with the United Nations for an opportunity to renegotiate petrochemical rights. Rather than succeed in connecting the people of Iran in some reasonable way with a share of the proceeds from extraction of their nation’s natural wealth, President Mosaddeq would soon find himself deposed and imprisoned.

His only crime was to do as Hugo Chavez has done more recently — kick out foreign profiteers in order to see to it that the people of his nation could partake meaningfully of the wealth generated by pumping oil from public land. While Chavez merely faces a campaign of demonization in American media, Mosaddeq and the Iranian people saw and end to healthy democracy in that nation. Some might say that the Shah who took command in his place was a truer reflection of what the people wanted. Of course, propaganda like that is flatly contradicted by the end of his reign.

Americans too old to remain in the “young adult” demographic probably have clear memories of the Iranian hostage crisis. Public outrage at the role the United States played in installing the Shah meant that the popular revolution to overthrow him was rife with anti-American hostility. By sheer force of numbers, rebels were able to seize control of the American embassy. Fifty-two workers and guards were taken hostage and held for 444 days. This was not some random burst of outrage or a question of “hating freedom” as the sitting President might contend. Americans were targeted because of overt support for the coup to install the Shah.

Of course, some people became very rich from all this mess. That does not justify it in the least, but it may have justified the act in the minds of those involved with it. The Shah’s government continued to support the depletion of Iranian oil fields with little more than token compensation to the nation or its people. In essence, his position as head of state was one of the largest corporate kickbacks in history — his reward for making this form of economic rape possible.

American manipulation of Iranian government is only one of many complaints fueling anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. Funding the Israeli Defense Force without so much as an unkind word for their most brutal operations also generates ill will. That dovetails with a grave miscommunication that convinced Saudi royalty being the U.S. would vote against a UN resolution to place much of inhabited Palestine under the control of the newly formed state of Israel (our ambassador did just the opposite.) We may talk about being in favor of democracy and freedom. Yet in the Middle East our reputation for inflicting unwanted regimes on harmless, and virtually helpless, people results from a track record of doing precisely that.

Even one amazingly successful liberation from tyranny would not offset the installation of so many autocrats. Heck, our government still remains fiercely loyal to the leaders of Saudi Arabia — a 21st century monarchy where crime and punishment is largely a matter of draconian religious law. In order to truly understand Iran, I believe it is best to make some effort to understand how the people of Iran see us. Some do understand America’s core principles and our history of championing freedom in the abstract. Still, most Iranians probably understand better than the average American just how much our government has done to promote oppression in the name of waging the Cold War . . . and sometimes for no better purpose than to increase profits among a few well-connected energy companies.

If we do not become entangled in the misrepresentations espoused by White House foreign policy “experts” who have consistently revealed themselves to be detached from any sort of underlying reality, we can begin to reach for some underlying reality of our own. There we find the people of 21st century Iran well aware of the crossroads at which they stand. Most wish to walk the path of civil liberties with a political process open to all ideologies and organizations. Yet that path remains barred by giant American sabres, rattling with so much sound and fury. It was entirely predictable that our belligerence would instigate and perpetuate the heavy political censorship of newspapers, television, and books inside Iran.

The people of Iran will not surrender to the terror of a threatening superpower anymore than the people of the United states would surrender to the terror of Al Qaeda. However, they would make many choices in harmony with George W. Bush’s stated goal of democratizing the region — if only they were given enough respite from American threats to start voting more out of hope and less out of fear. History reveals with surprising clarity just how much worse outcomes are when the politics of a nation become stuck in panic mode.