opinion

"Blundering Toward War," and the Willing Suspension of Belief

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of the “willing suspension of disbelief” required by someone who reads a story they would ordinarily (in real life) discredit for being unbelievable - for example, tales involving fantasy. But in recent times we as a people have too often willingly suspended belief (not disbelief) in true stories we don’t want to believe are true. And believed things we shouldn’t.

In “Blundering Toward War,” an article in the June 3-10, 2019 issue of TIME Magazine, David French warns that the U.S. may be stumbling into “its worst war in more than a generation — without the congressional authorization required by the Constitution.” The threat of war with Iran is exacerbated by “a Chief Executive so erratic even his closest advisers feel the need to ignore his orders.”

If this is not enough to keep you lying awake at night, consider that North Korea is still on the radar screen and still poses a major threat to national security.

In his “speculative novel” titled The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, foreign policy scholar and arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis presents a nightmare scenario in which decisions by unpredictable leaders playing Russian roulette with nuclear weapons lead to the deaths of 1.4 million American citizens. The novel takes the form of a report by a commission charged with investigating what led to the 2020 war, posing questions including, “Did President Trump and his advisers appreciate the dangers of provoking Kim Jon Un with social media posts and military exercises? Was conflict inevitable, or did America’s leaders have the opportunity to avert it?”

I don’t believe either French’s article or Lewis’ book constitute fear-mongering. This administration has not earned our trust, and the consequences of erratic decisions (not to mention “mercurial” communications) could be catastrophic.

First, the Good News. Then the Bad. And the Importance of a Free Press.

Years ago, when Tylersville Road Christian Church in Mason, Ohio, held it’s annual Live Nativity, our pastor, George Reese, dressed as a shepherd, would begin his monologue with “Have you heard the good news?” The good news, of course, was the birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps George should have asked whether we’d heard the best news. There has never been better news than this!

At the end of a calendar year it is customary to look back and consider what’s happened over that year. The year 2018 was marked by many noteworthy things, many of which could be labeled “bad news.” As news consumers, we have an interesting relationship with news producers. In a 1979 study titled Changing Needs of Changing Readers, author Ruth Clark speaks of a social contract between news consumers and producers. This is an implicit relationship based on what consumers expect from the news and what producers pledge to their viewers and readers. While much is always said about a desire to see more good news on TV, it is important that we not be shielded from bad news. It would be impossible to address the negative things that happen in the world if we were never to learn about them. News producers not only have responsibilities in educating us about events in our communities, our country, and around the world, but also for objectivity and truthfulness and fairness.

I recently watched the movie The Post, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, which is based on the exposure of secret government policies about the war in Vietnam by Daniel Ellsberg, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. This information, nicknamed The Pentagon Papers, was leaked to the public to inform the country of the true facts of the involvement of the U.S. government in Vietnam. The news, of course, was far from good. But news organizations felt they owed it to the American people to share the news, even if it meant journalists risking incarceration and the collapse of The Washington Post to make it happen.

The controversy over the Pentagon Papers presaged the exposures of government secrets by WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. It is not my intent to dive into the pro’s and con’s in each of these cases. But I do support the concept of a free press. The press comes under attack on a daily basis, it seems, because it presents news that is not always favorable to people in power. Is every news item truthful? Is the press infallible? Of course not. Do we see a subversive infusion of “fake news”? Yes, we do, and because of that, citizens have a responsibility for carefully examining the veracity of news stories, particularly those that are inflammatory in nature. (See Bruce Bartlett’s The Truth Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Separating Facts From Lies and Stopping Fake News in its Tracks.)

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Nothing could be more patriotic than defending this freedom, and all the others spelled out in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The Assault on Truth

It is hard for me to think of something that has disturbed me more in the past couple of years than the assault on truth. I commend TIME Magazine for naming, as their annual “Person of the Year,” the courageous journalists and newspeople who have braved ridicule, assault, incarceration, and even death, as exemplified by a selected group that includes the murdered Jamal Khashoggi.

I am only two “degrees of separation” from a photojournalist who was ambushed and assassinated in Venezuela for his portrayal of life under Hugo Chavez. Chavez had the audacity to call the family and extend his sympathies. He asked what he could do for them, and they responded by promptly leaving the country.

Given the magnitude of the assault on truth we witness every day, I struggle to organize a commentary on this assault that fits the format of a blog post. It is simply too big an issue. So for now, I want to leave you with a comment on fighting this assault, and a quote (taken from TIME Magazine) that captures, for me, how very important journalistic truth is.

The greater the assault on truth, the more dire the need for critical thinking. I have started a list of books I have found helpful in pointing out how we, as informed citizens, can distinguish truth from falsehood, and how to hold accountable those who attack the truth.

Kofi Annan, late Secretary-General of the United Nations, had this to say:

“Freedom of the press ensures that the abuse of every other freedom can be known, can be challenged and even defeated.”

Bugs Bunny

From 1940 to 1964, Warner Bros. produced 170 cartoons featuring the iconic cartoon character,  Bugs Bunny. I grew up watching Bugs Bunny cartoons as well as many other cartoons produced under the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies labels. Thursday nights, when I was little, we watched "The Bugs Bunny Show." My father enjoyed watching Bugs Bunny almost as much as watching the Pink Panther. When the show moved to Saturday mornings, it was the centerpiece of all the morning cartoons.

Bugs Bunny is a culturally-recognized example of the "trickster" archetype. On one hand, he's a friendly character who doesn't go looking for trouble. But on the other hand, once someone brings trouble to him, they better watch out! He is quite adept at devising clever tricks to play on those who have wronged him.

A few years ago, I decided to apply my inherited fondness for making lists, and I constructed a list of all the Bugs Bunny cartoons, drawing on the book, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald. One by one, I checked off the ones I had watched. When I needed a few more to watch to complete the list, I found them on YouTube.

Going back to watching many of the old cartoons was spurred by a trend that concerned me. Many of the old Warner Bros. cartoons, including Bugs Bunny, were being censored before showing on Cartoon Network. A shotgun blast to a character's face would be deleted, for example. I surmised that some group of concerned parents were influencing network executives to edit the cartoons for anything that might - as these parents believed - have a negative influence on their children's behavior. As I looked into this, I discovered that there were some entire cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny that have been banned because they depicted not just violence but racial stereotypes. These cartoons are not shown on TV but can be found on DVDs or on YouTube. The DVDs released as the "Looney Tunes Golden Collection" are compilations that include some of these controversial cartoons. Each DVD shows a message at the beginning explaining that while some cartoons on the disk depict unacceptable behaviors such as racial stereotypes, they are included for historical reasons. But then, cartoons such as "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips," a World War II-era feature, can now only be found on YouTube. At the time this short originally came out, its treatment of the Japanese as our enemies was dehumanizing, an almost universal sociological factor in wartime. (This cartoon, as well as many others released in wartime, were intended as entertainment for adults, not children.)

And what have I learned by watching cartoons like Bugs Bunny over the years? I learned it's good to have sense of humor and not take oneself too seriously. I learned that being clever is better than being out-and-out mean. I picked up various expressions (like Yosemite Sam's "you durn idgit"), some of which have become so embodied in my day-to-day conversations that I don't even realize I'm quoting a cartoon character. (A recent meme on Facebook claims [tongue-in-cheek] that Bugs Bunny taught us that "revenge on my enemies should be quick, clever, and brutal.")

What did I not learn? I did not learn that shooting someone in the face simply turns their face black with gunpowder. Nor did I learn to think in racist terms. And enjoying the antics of an anthropomorphized rabbit who is said by some to be a "cross-dresser" did not interfere with puberty or my sexual orientation.

Like many others, I miss the "golden years" of animated shorts.

 

 

Killer robots? Not a joke, and I'm not laughing.

Breaking from my trend of reviewing a book I've just read, I have to get on my soapbox and ask, "Are these people crazy?" A "fully autonomous weapon" is one that can be used to kill a human being without human input.  The May 26, 2014 issue of TIME Magazine, page 9, informs us that over the past few years, "the U.S., the U.K. and South Korea have developed drones with technology that could be repurposed to create machines with the ability to open fire without human input."

Are you kidding me?  Has no one seen the Terminator movies?  Ever heard of Skynet?  This is insane.

The TIME article goes on to say that opposition groups have been pushing for "a ban on further developing or deploying the technology ..."  Proponents have pushed back, saying a ban would be premature, and in time the technology could be advanced enough to reduce collateral damage.

Collateral damage?  Is that the only thing we should worry about?  Of course not.  How about the fact that by distancing ourselves from actually pulling the trigger -- or pushing the button -- we make it even easier to kill without compunction.  "I didn't kill those people," an officer might say.  "The drone did it."  Or what if we make drones more and more intelligent, so they can autonomously do our dirty work, only to lose control over them?

Opponents of this technology are hoping the U.N. will issue a ban, but that could take years to materialize.  When a ban on blinding lasers was proposed to the U.N. in 1987, it took eight more years before the ban was issued and three more years before it went into effect.

I worry that the pace of technology development for military purposes may far exceed the pace at which governments can come together to agree on how to use or not use new technology.