|Oct/Nov 2003 • Salon
As I write, thousands of protesters are carrying out acts of political theater in Cancún, Mexico, where the latest global trade negotiations are going forward. The protesters say that the rich countries are conspiring against the poor ones. While I agree that the negotiators for the rich are indeed out to screw the poor using the power of the World Trade Organization, I won't call it a conspiracy.
Similarly, here at home, a lot of my more excitable friends are convinced that the Federal Government is involved in a conspiracy to curtail our Constitutional freedoms, using the USA PATRIOT act and the Department of Homeland Security as tools. Again, I agree that the Administration is indeed trying to castrate the Bill of Rights. But a conspiracy? Not really.
And people all over the world warn of an American conspiracy to subvert their sovereignty, control their wealth, and exploit their workers. Well, yes, those are all goals of American policy. But I won't call it a conspiracy.
Wander with me through some specifics.
I live within reach of a city big enough to have one of those free weekly newspapers that cover local events, with heavy emphasis on entertainment. Some of these papers also cover politics. Ours, the Dallas Observer, can often do both at once.
In the last few days, the city manager of Dallas fired the chief of police. The former is Hispanic and the latter is Black, and the result is great prodigies of posturing by self-anointed community leaders. Never mind. I will not give you the details, which are only of local interest, and not worth much of that. I bring this up only to steal a quote from the Observer's current article on the flap. "Don't look for a conspiracy," says the reporter, Jim Schutze. "Our system of government is too dumb for conspiracies."
That is probably true of our local system. Dallas is a city of more than a million, ruled by a city manager like some quaint village or chintzy suburb. There is also an elected mayor and an elected city council, who hire the city manager. The manager then spends much of his energy subverting the elected leaders. The mayor (a Jewish woman, to add some more opportunities for "community leaders" to take sides) is said to be gunning for the manager's job. This is indeed too dumb for anything as complex as a conspiracy. It's just a series of head-buttings. All of this permitted by the city charter.
The Federal Government, by contrast, is organized by the Constitution, one of the most durable and useful instruments of policy ever devised. It is not a dumb system. Alas, it is staffed from top to bottom by people who are too dumb to function, and (more ominously) by people too smart for their own good, and much too smart of the good of the public at large. By "smart" I mean skilled at self-advancement, not wise.
So it is probably no cause for surprise when it malfunctions. But we need not look for conspiracies to explain the catastrophes. According to some ancient wisdom that I heard lately, "Do not ascribe to malice what mere stupidity will explain." To which I will add, "But do not rule out malice, either." But conspiracies?
I have never been much of a believer in conspiracy theories. Sure, there are plenty of evil-doers out there, doing evil or trying to, but strictly speaking, they aren't conspirators. They lack the one essential element of conspiracies: secrecy. Yes, we have secret enemies, or rather enemies that operate in secret ways. Al Quaeda is all too real.
But we aren't talking here about some shadowy group of religio-politico-psycho bomb-throwers. We're talking about public entities like the World Trade Organization, the President's Cabinet, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security. My contention is that they may be stupid, they may be malicious, they may be both, but they are not, in any strict sense, conspiracies.
Nope, they're wide open. They don't just rattle before they strike, they tell you in advance whom they plan to bite.
Take the WTO. The current meeting in Cancún is but the latest in a series of conclaves called the Doha Round of trade talks, named for the city in Qatar where the series began two years ago. They won't be finished for a couple of years more. You can read their entire agenda on the Internet, or I am sure you can buy a printed copy if you like. Check with WTO.org for details. Drop them a line at World Trade Organization, rue de Lausanne 154, CH-1211 Geneva 21, Switzerland The web site for the current version of the agenda is http://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/dda_e/dda_e.htm#dohadeclaration.
I am not shocked at the idea that the trade agreements being worked out in this series of talks will favor the rich and exploit the poor. That's what capitalism does, and it's very good at it.
And of course they will try to sell the world on the idea that this will benefit everyone, lifting up the poor countries ("the developing world") by making them trading partners of the big powers.
Yes, and I will be swept into power and rule as a beloved and enlightened prince, on my rightful throne in a united Ireland. At the root of the problem is the mythology of "Free Trade." What the ideologues leave out is that "free trade" is possible only among traders of roughly equal power. The idea that we can have "free trade" with what we politely call developing countries is either a foolish fairy tale or a vicious lie. Take your pick.
The European Union? Sure, for all its problems, this is not a bad deal. But NAFTA? Come on. Mexico hasn't got a fraction of the power it needs to stand up to the USA—or even Canada—and it will get screwed.
So, of course, will American (and Canadian) workers. It's simply inevitable. It's already happened and it won't stop. And it will go on for the same reason that whole nations get the shaft: the system is designed to further enrich the strong and further crush the weak.
But it isn't a conspiracy. It's the announced policy of the people who are doing it. They may be stupid; if they believe their own talking points, they surely are. They are certainly malicious, in that they intend to stick it to the weak. But they aren't secret plotters. When you have nothing else to do, go to the WTO's web site and read it for yourself. It's all spelled out. Granted, they use language so twisted that it leaves you a little dizzy, and when they say that the poor will rise with the rich, they are lying, but you knew that. It's no secret. It is not a conspiracy, just Business As Usual, phrased in the familiar language of the marketing copywriter.
(Marketing is the art of convincing people to prefer Tiny Tasty Toasty Turdsies® to Luscious Little Lizard Lungs®. We're used to it. It isn't a conspiracy; it's what they teach in Business School. You can get an MBA in Marketing. Hell, I suppose you can get a PhD in it. We live in a wonderful country.)
So while my heart may be with the demonstrators in Cancún, my head isn't. They're up against, not a conspiracy, but a mere bureaucracy, and they will accomplish nothing whatever. Sorry. It's like protesting at the Department of Motor Vehicles. At least they're in Cancún, a nice resort town. I hope they get some beach time in. And the locals offer ecologically friendly tours now; everything is for sale, even virtue.
And that brings us to the next alleged conspiracy, the secret plot to destroy our civil rights. Well, it's only secret in the sense that the perpetrators use marketing jargon to describe what they're doing, calling the ugly beautiful and the useless necessary. But they can scarcely be accused of secrecy; the whole deal is a matter of public law. The USA PATRIOT Act gets the all-caps title because it's an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. That's some more of the marketing language I mentioned earlier. It's extraordinarily clumsy and heavy-handed, but that's appropriate to the contents and application of this disgusting piece of legislative evil. (Can you imagine the brainstorming that went into cooking up that title to fit the acronym? Can you imagine the souls of people who would participate in the process? You can't? Good.)
The Act's patron saint, Attorney General John Ashcroft, is—no kidding about it—a fascist. Look up any definition of this term you like and see. I did this for you in my last essay in this magazine, if you want to save yourself the effort, but I think you will find it instructive to work this out for yourself. Ashcroft is an evil presence in our public life. But he is no secret conspirator. He's out to take your freedoms and he tells you it's for your own good. That's open enough.
Its other public face, Tom Ridge, the head of the Heimatsicherheitsapparat, is hard to characterize as evil. He is, however, so stupid that he makes you cringe. Consider: the nation is attacked and badly hurt by fanatics, who could plausibly hit us again nearly at will. The President decrees and his minions devise a Cabinet-level department to defend us from such threats. He appoints Governor Ridge to head this mighty engine, a huge conglomeration of investigators and enforcers, probably the most mammoth bureaucracy ever put together by mortal men, dwarfing any Mandarinate the Chinese Emperors ever assembled.
So what does this nitwit do, after weeks of alleged study? He announces a system of color-coded warnings to tell us the degree of danger we face on any given day. Yellow? Partly cloudy with possibility of germ warfare, or something. Nobody knows what. Absolutely nobody knows what to do differently if the warning turns to Orange or Red. The public is given no useful guidance whatever. And in any case, the agencies which will allegedly respond to these various "threat levels" are given no money, equipment, or added manpower.
Now, that's stupid. But we can hardly call Tom Ridge a conspirator. He couldn't conspire to lead a group in silent prayer.
I've saved the juiciest bit for last. What of the American conspiracy to subvert the sovereignty of other nations, control their wealth, and exploit their workers? This is such an article of faith among those, both foreign and domestic, who always believe the worst about America that I hate to pick at it. But I must.
Yes, my children, it is the policy of the current Administration of the United States to do all those bad things. But it ain't a secret. They aren't trying to hide it. They're proud of it.
"They" in this instance are the originators and proponents of something called The Project for the New American Century. They are far from secret; they are a well-funded conservative think tank in Washington. You can read their own account of themselves on their web site, http://www.newamericancentury.org/, or contact them at 1150 Seventeenth Street, N.W., Suite 510, Washington, D.C. 20036, Telephone: (202) 293-4983 / Fax: (202) 293-4572. They will be happy to hear from you.
And they will be glad to tell you this, among other ringing statements of high purpose:
As the 20th century draws to a close, the United States stands as the world’s most preeminent power. Having led the West to victory in the Cold War, America faces an opportunity and a challenge: Does the United States have the vision to build upon the achievement of past decades? Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests? [What we require is] a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities.
Of course, the United States must be prudent in how it exercises its power. But we cannot safely avoid the responsibilities of global leadership of the costs that are associated with its exercise. America has a vital role in maintaining peace and security in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. If we shirk our responsibilities, we invite challenges to our fundamental interests. The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire. The history of the past century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership.
And on and on. Read all about it at their web site or (maybe better) at http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article1937.htm, which is a somewhat less enthusiastic site called Information Clearing House.
Wherever you meet the patriots of the PNAC, you will have no doubt where they stand. Not a secret plotter in the bunch. They are, in fact, naked imperialists and unabashed warmongers. They are the people who started the current war in Iraq, and they make no bones about it. The war is just what they have been advocating since their founding in 1997. And before that, some of their key players and leading thinkers were producing defense policy documents since the reign of Bush I. This policy, which was largely the work of Dick Cheney, with help from Paul Wolfowitz and Colin Powell, has evolved a bit to fit the changing circumstances, but the central theme remains: As in the PNAC's Statement of Principles quoted above, they believe and advocate that "The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire."
This doctrine took on flesh when Bush II gave the commencement address to the graduating class of West Point in 2002. Remember that one? That was the most public and most highly visible expression the doctrine had yet received. In it, Bush announced that pre-emptive war was no longer the unthinkable moral outrage of Pearl Harbor. It was our policy. Look out, world. We will make war when and where we will, with or without allies, and that's that.
In less than a year, Bush had carried this threat into action. We are still at his war in Iraq, and I fully expect our forces to be stuck there, and fighting in other Middle Eastern nations too, well past the term of the next President, no matter who he turns out to be. Grab that Tarbaby, and he grab you back.
Before I go on, I must send you to the library. Get hold of a back issue of Harper's for October 2002 and read "Dick Cheney's Song of America" by David Armstrong. He gives much more detail on the Cheney-Wolfowitz defense doctrine and the documents that contain it.
So: conspiracy? Not if secrecy is a necessary part of the definition. Stupidity? Dear God, yes, and by some mighty clever folks: Cheney, Wolfowitz, Powell, Rice, Perle, and their support group at PNAC—these are very accomplished players. But they are true believers, and that always involves a kind of voluntary stupidity. A true believer is not allowed to think in certain ways, to challenge certain assumptions. Indeed, it wouldn't occur to any of them to doubt the rightness of their plan.
Malice? It's hard to say no. A world-view that involves embracing pre-emptive war is impossible to defend, in my view. War is bad, not good. It may be the lesser evil, it may even be the least evil of a number of choices. But it's evil, and so are those who seek it out.
But they aren't conspirators. Not this bunch. They see no need for secret planning. Why should they hide? They have, after all, no shame.