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The weblog description is a misquotation from Steve Aylett's Indicted to a Party: What to Do, Who to Blame.
 
The weblog title links to the "No Country Redirect" version, for whatever that might be worth.
December 17, 2006
Crackpot Realism

From C. Wright Mills, The Causes of World War Three, 1958:

Most cultural workmen are fighting a cold war in which they echo and elaborate the confusions of officialdoms. They neither raise demands on the elites for alternative policies, nor set forth such alternatives before publics and masses. Many intellectuals do nothing to fill the political vacuum; indeed, as they fight the cold war, they proclaim, justify, and practice the moral insensibility that is one of its accompaniments. Technologists and scientists readily develop new weapons; preachers and rabbis and priests bless the great endeavor; newsmen disseminate the official definitions of world reality, labeling for their publics the shifting line-up of friends and enemies; publicists elaborate the "reasons" for the coming war, and the "necessity" for the causes of it. They do not set forth alternative policies; they do not politically oppose and politically debate the thrust toward war. They have generally become the Swiss Guard of the power elite -- Russian or American, as the case happens to be. Unofficial spokesmen of the military metaphysic, they have not lifted the level of moral sensibility; they have further depressed it. They have not tried to put responsible content into the political vacuum; they have helped to empty it and to keep it empty. What must be called the Christian default of the clergy is part of this sorry moral condition and so is the capture of scientists by nationalist Science Machines. The journalistic lie, become a routine, is part of it too, and so is the pretentious triviality of much that passes for social science.

The thrust toward World War III is not a plot on the part of the elite, either that of the U.S.A. or that of the U.S.S.R. Among both, there are "war parties" and "peace parties," and among both there are what can be called crackpot realists. These are men who are so rigidly focused on the next step that they become creatures of whatever the main drift the opportunist actions of innumerable men brings. They are also men who cling rigidly to general principles. The frenzied next step plus the altogether general principle equal U.S. foreign policy of which Mr. Dulles has been so fine an exemplar. In crackpot realism, a high-flying moral rhetoric is joined with an opportunist crawling among a great scatter of unfocused fears and demands. In fact, the main content of "politics" is now a struggle among men equally expert in practical next steps -- which, in summary, make up the thrust toward war -- and in great, round, hortatory principles. But without any program.

Programs require that next steps be reasonably linked with principled images of a goal. To act toward goals requires that the next step be consciously worked out in terms of its consequences, and that these consequences be weighed and valued in terms of the goal. Lacking a program, the opportunist moves short distances among immediate and shifting goals. He reacts rather than inaugurates, and the directions of his reactions are set less by any goals of his own that by the circumstances to which he feels forced to react out of fear and uneasiness. Since he is largely a creature of these circumstances, rather than a master of independent action, the results of his expedient maneuvers and of his defaults are more products of the main drift than of his own vision and will. To be merely expedient is to be in the grip of historical fate or in the grip of those who are not merely expedient. Sunk in the details of immediate and seemingly inevitable decisions to which he feels compelled to react, the crackpot realist does not know what he will do next; he is waiting for another to make a move.

The expectation of war solves many problems of the crackpot realists; it also confronts them with many new problems. Yet these, the problems of war, often seem easier to handle. They are out in the open: to produce more, to plan how to kill more of the enemy, to move materials thousands of miles. The terms of the arms race, once the race is accepted as necessary, seem clear; the explicit problems it poses often seem "beyond politics," in the area of administration and technology. War and the planning of war tend to turn anxiety into worry; perhaps, as many seem to feel, genuine peace would turn worry into anxiety. War-making seems a hard technological and administrative matter; peace is a controversial and ambiguous political word. So instead of the unknown fear, the anxiety without end, some men of the higher circles prefer the simplification of known catastrophe.

The official expectation of war also enables men to solve the problems of the economic cycles without resort to political policies that are distasteful to many politicians and to large segments of the American public. The terms of their long-term solution, under conditions of peace, are hard for the capitalist elite to face.

Some of them, accordingly, have come to believe that the world encounter has reached a point where there is no other solution but war, even when they sense that war can be a solution to nothing. They have come to believe this because those in control in each of the countries concerned are trapped by the consequences of their past actions and their present hostile outlook. They live in a world filled with events that overwhelm them. They know of no solutions to the paradoxes of the Middle East and Europe, the Far East and Africa except the landing of Marines. Being baffled, and also being very tired of being baffled, they have come to believe that there is no way out -- except war -- which would remove all the bewildering paradoxes of their tedious and now misguided attempts to construct peace. In place of these paradoxes they prefer the bright, clear problems of war -- as they used to be. For they still believe that "winning" means something, although they never tell us what.

It is because of such bewilderment and frustration, based on the position and the interests of the power elite, that I assume that there have been and are in the U.S.A. and in the U.S.S.R. "war parties," risen who want war; and also "peace parties," men who do not want war. Some men want war for sordid, others for idealistic, reasons; some for personal gain, others for impersonal principle. But most of those who consciously want war and accept it, and so help to create its "inevitability," want it in order to shift the locus of their problems.
From William Greider, Who Will Tell the People?: the Betrayal of American Democracy, 1993:
In the 1950s, when the Cold War temperament was enveloping the thought and language of American politics, the sociologist C. Wright Mills derided what he called "the crackpot realism of the higher authorities and opinion-makers."Absurdities were cloaked in technocratic jargon and passed off to the public as brilliant insight or the fruits of sophisticated intelligence.

The ability of national-security experts to describe reality in arcane ways that ordinary citizens could not easily test for themselves, much less challenge, was a central element of power in the Cold War era and one of its most debilitating influences on democracy. "Crackpot realism" consumed trillions of dollars and built enough nuclear bombs to destroy life on the planet.

Huge, secret bureaucracies were created in government to discover the hidden "facts" about the dangerous world around us, especially the machinations of the Soviet empire, and to shape national-security policy accordingly. Much of this knowledge was considered too sensitive to share with the public, but provocative details were regularly communicated in the form of warnings about new "threats" that had emerged - deadly new missiles pointed at America or revolutionary stirrings in Third World countries said to beinspired by Moscow. The history of the Cold War is a series of such alarums, based on espionage and classified documentation, and of the subsequent events that refuted them.

Given the insular nature of American society, most citizens had little real knowledge of distant nations and no independent way to evaluate the government's description of reality. In the absence of clear contradictory evidence, people generally were prisoners of what the government authorities told them about the world. They accepted what the spies and analysts had discovered about the enemy, at least until the war in Vietnam devastated the government's authority. The alternative - questioning the president while the nation was atwar - seemed unpatriotic.

"Crackpot realism" has flourished right up to the present time and the Central Intelligence Agency was a principal source for it. As late as 1989, as Moynihan observed, the CIA reported that the economy of communist East Germany was slightly larger than the economy of West Germany an intelligence estimate ludicrously debunked a few months later when the East German regime collapsed and its citizens streamed westward in search of jobs, consumer goods and food. The following year, the CIA corrected the record by abruptly shrinking the threatening dimensions of East Germany by more than one third.

The same gross exaggeration was repeated; year after year, when the CIA made its estimates of the Soviet Union's awesome capabilities. The 1989 analysis claimed that the growth rate of the Soviet bloc exceeded western Europe's. But then the CIA had solemnly reported for four decades that the Soviet economy was growing faster than the U.S. economy - almost half again faster. The result, it said, was a formidable industrial power second-largest in the world and much larger than Japan, according to the CIA.

If that were true, this nation was an adversary rightly to be feared, since it had the economic capacity, not only to match the U.S. arsenal, weapon for weapon, but to achieve something the experts called "superiority." Hundreds of billions of America's dollars, even trillions, were devoted to forestalling that dread possibility.

Of course, it was not true. It was not true in the 1950s and it was especially not true in the late 1970s and early 1980s when America launched another massive arms buildup. Some journalists and scholars had been making this point about the Soviet economy for many years, pointing out the decay and malfunctioning that was visible despite the Soviet censors. But U.S. official authority and propaganda always succeeded in maintaining the enemy's strength.

When Gorbachev opened the Soviet society to full inspection, what western experts saw more nearly resembled a Third World country than a major industrial power. Its economy was a crude joke compared to the high-tech industrial systems of Japan, West Germany and the United States. The Soviet Union, aside from its size, was not second strongest in the world or third, probably not even fourth or fifth.

Americans, in other words, were propagandized by their own government for forty years. Were citizens deliberately deceived or were the CIA spies so befogged by their own ideological biases that they missed the reality themselves? This is one of the questions that a post Cold War debate might take up for closer examination.
Jim Henley on a Wall Street Journal column by Daniel Henniger, 'bout a month ago:
[Henniger wrote:] One might have expected most of the disagreement to center on the doctrine’s assertion of a right to pre-emptive attack. Instead, Iraq’s troubles have been conflated with a general repudiation of the U.S.’s ability to abet democratic aspiration elsewhere in the world.
“Abet” by killing people. That’s what is being repudiated.
As stated, the doctrine’s strategy is “to help make the world not just safer but better.” Some conservatives have denounced the “better world” part as utopian overstretch. Beyond that, the document lists as its goals the aspirations of human dignity, strengthening alliances to “defeat” terrorism, working with others to defuse regional conflicts, promoting global growth through free markets and trade and “opening societies and building the infrastructure of democracy.”

It is mainly the latter – the notion of the U.S. building the “infrastructure of democracy” that now, because of the “failure” in Iraq, attracts opposition across the political spectrum...
“Building the infrastructure of democracy” by killing people. That is what attracts opposition.
We are backing the country’s political mind into the long-term parking lot of isolationism, something fervently wished for at opposite ends of the U.S. political spectrum.
“Isolationism” in this kind of talk means a reluctance to travel long distances in order to kill foreigners. Lack of enthusiasm for travelling long distances to kill foreigners will get you labelled a xenophobe.
Like the Europeans, we may talk ourselves into a weariness with the world and its various, unremitting violences. No genocide will occur on American soil, but the same information tide that bathes us in Baghdad’s horrors ensure that Darfur’s genocide will come too near not to notice. Too bad for them, or any aspiring democrats under the thumb of Russia, China, Nigeria, Venezuela or Islam’s highly mobile anti-democrats. We’ve got ours. Let them get theirs.
The utter fatuity of this barely merits notice, let alone contempt. Henninger wants to trick you into believing that if you’re not killing foreigners, you’re not relating...

Nobody who cares about effective, sustainable US policy or about effective promotion of liberty abroad can afford to let the Henningers of the world conflate “supporting freedom” and traveling a long way to kill foreigners. It is the most important lie they tell.
Arthur Silber, also from November:
The first issue, one whose importance cannot be overestimated, is the American public's willingness -- indeed, I would argue its eagerness -- to defer to alleged "experts" in the foreign policy field. As I have done several times before, I must turn to Barbara Tuchman's masterful work, The March of Folly, for the explanation of what is wrong with this view:
Acquiescence in Executive war, [Fulbright] wrote, comes from the belief that the government possesses secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn "not upon available facts but upon judgment," with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. Congress and citizens can judge "whether the massive deployment and destruction of their men and wealth seem to serve the overall interests as a nation."

...

The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, "We ought to all support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against." This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs. "Foreign policy decisions," concluded Gunnar Myrdal after two decades of study, "are in general much more influenced by irrational motives" than are domestic ones.
I have argued this point many times over the last couple of years, and I remain utterly astonished at how resistant to this incontestable truth most people remain. The resistance can be seen even in the writings of many people who are deeply critical of our invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The source of that resistance is easy enough to understand, even though the failure to acknowledge this truth is gravely and dangerously wrong. We prefer to believe that our leaders act rationally, and that they know what they are doing. Tragically, as the overwhelming debacle of Iraq has again demonstrated, neither of these propositions corresponds to the facts.
See also Mr Silber on Peter Beinart. And just for the hell of it, here's some finely honed abuse of a columnist it would be a compliment to call a crackpot realist. Roy Edroso on Ralph Peters:
"One begins to suspect," Peters says, "that all too many on the left enjoy pitying Darfur as they wait in line for their lattes" -- not like the General, whose violent, blinding headaches of true empathy cannot be relieved by latte, but only by human gore, Jack Daniels, and the destabilization of the entire world:
The killing will never stop until we stop pretending that every dictator or junta seizing power is entitled to claim sovereignty over the millions who never had a voice in choosing their government. After the oppression of women, the sovereignty con is the world's greatest human-rights abuse. And for all of its damnable incompetence, the Bush administration understood that one great truth.
If this sounds familiar, it is not only because you once heard a bum screaming it in Tompkins Square Park, but because it was the lunacy du jour in the run-up to the Iraq War, when people like Lee Harris were talking about "the end of classical sovereignty," whereby nobody gets to call themselves a State unless we say they're a State.

...

This is why the General ... blames libs and latte-sippers everywhere for the dead/raped/tortured Africans, rather than the Bush Administration, which has some actual military means but has chosen to blow it all on destabilizing nations such as Iraq. In fact, Peters wonders why lefties haven't "formed a new Lincoln Brigade to take on Sudan's Muslims fanatics." I would seriously consider joining such a Brigade if the General will consent to lead it. The training sessions alone -- sequestered in our offshore quonset huts, watching the general snap the neck of a Thai prostitute, endless showings of Zulu -- would be worth the price of the ticket, I imagine. And once we landed in-country, we could always sell our allegiance to the highest-paying warlords, and thus give Sudan a real taste of American democracy.


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