Significance for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

The Congress of the United States appropriated $18.4 billion to reconstruct Iraq. That's quite a bit of money. It amounts to about $730 for every person in the country. Think of your town or city. If somebody came in and gave $730 per person to carry out public projects, your town would be transformed -- that is if the money was actually spent on the projects. In Iraq, all reports indicate that the infrastructure of the country remains worse than it was when Saddam was in power. Less than half the money appropriated for reconstruction has actually been spent on reconstruction projects. And that half seems to have been spent badly. The Washington Post reports that the U.S. construction giant, Parsons, Inc., which was given a contract of $200 million to build 142 medical clinics will complete, at most, 20 of them by the time the money and the contract runs out. If you asked Karl Rove about this, what do you suppose he would have to say? There are, obviously, two main reasons why conditions are worse in Iraq than they were before the U.S. invasion. The amount of destruction wreaked on the country by U.S. military forces has been horrendous. Despite all the talk about smart bombs, in many areas we simply blew everything up. Now we see, increasingly, that much of the money U.S. taxpayers awarded to put the place back together hasn't been used for that purpose. Billions of it have disappeared down a hole titled "security," for which there has been little accounting. And, surely, hundreds of millions have been used to make individuals rich, a thing that always happens when lots of money is thrown around with inadequate accounting for it. Meanwhile, we are told that we can't afford a first-rate medical system here at home, and many promising research projects are being starved for funds. You can say all you want that this is simply part of the fog of war. But, it's clearly a fog that helps the few and hurts the many. And the few who are benefiting are fully aware of what's going on.

Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly, who is one of the few adept political commentators available to us now, says he's weary of hearing the Democrats attacked for having no plan for Iraq when it's clear the Republicans don't have one either. The Republican program comes down to asinine phrases like "stay the course." It's a good point. And building on it we should ask ourselves why the Republicans have no plan. It seems fairly clear that it's because Republicans have no sense of, or interest in, an equitable world. Their serious attention is focused on only one thing -- increasing the privileges of an already privileged class in the United States. To do that, they will sacrifice any other interest the nation might have. A program of plutocratic imperialism was the strategy they selected to advance their cause. And now that the strategy is hard to implement, because the world is a far more complicated place than they were ever willing to admit, they don't know what to do. So, they chirp away about staying the course, which in their case means continuing to be just as stupidly greedy as they always were.

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have published a paper on a Harvard web site which is stirring up a lot of heat. Titled "The Israeli Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy," it argues that advocates for Israel have too much influence in determining American diplomacy. You might think that since there are Israeli lobbyists, and they push their point of view like any other lobbyists do, that the degree of their influence would be a matter of opinion to be debated like other foreign policy issues. But that seems not to be the case. And everybody knows why not. Anti-semitism cannot be kept out of the argument. Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins, for example, has published in the Washington Post an attack on Mearsheimer and Walt that's more vitriolic than anything I've seen recently in that paper. He calls the Mersheimer/Walt effort a wretched piece of scholarship, inept, even kooky, academic work, and says that it reflects obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews. One of the tricky problems in politics is drawing a line between vigorous advocacy for one's belief's and desires, on the one hand, and becoming, on the other, so hardened about a debate that the power of thought is destroyed, The latter seems too often be the case in conflicts in the Middle East, and it will be unfortunate if it becomes the norm here in this country. Who has more influence than they should, is, obviously a matter of opinion and not one of fact. We need always to keep that in mind, and also to remember that in debate opinion is okay.

An issue that will be much discussed in the coming weeks, because of Scooter Libby's testimony to a federal grand jury, is whether the president or a high-ranking member of his administration has the right selectively to declassify information in order to push a political agenda. That's surely what the president did in the Valerie Wilson affair, and though it may not be illegal, it's clearly outside the purpose for which the classification system is supposed to exist. That system, of course, is a racket, used to cover up embarrassing tactics as much as it is to hold vital information away from the enemies of the United States. Since almost everyone understands it as such I suppose it could be said that any use of it that's not clearly illegal is part of the rules of the game. Still, it does seem unusually nasty to throw someone like Libby to the prosecutorial wolves simply for trying to carry out presidential initiatives which if they had become known would have backfired. The price that should be paid in this case is not a segment of Mr. Libby's life but, rather, a hunk of the president's influence. But, come to think of it, that hunk might be just the withdrawal that would cause the whole Bush edifice to crumble.

No one knows, of course, how many ancient documents shedding light on the thinking of people two millennia ago are yet to be discovered. But every time one is there's a flurry of speculation about what it means for traditional belief. An astounding fact of the modern world is the way belief structures about history, which are not based on historical evidence, persist alongside careful historical scholarship. In the New York Times article discussing the recent publication of the so-called Gospel of Judas, there's a statement relating it to the four traditional gospels which says, "The consensus of scholars is that the four canonical gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - were probably not written by any of the original disciples or first-person witnesses to the life of Jesus, although they were probably written within the first century." This is said in a matter of fact way, as though it were obvious to anyone who knows about these things. And, in truth, it is obvious to the great majority who know about them. Yet, a large percentage of those who call themselves Christians would consider the statement not only heretical but horrendous. All too easily we brush aside the gap between evidentiary truth and belief in a truth that comes from somewhere else. The difference is dismissed as a normality of religion. Yet, it has major consequences, the biggest one being that huge sectors of our population cannot talk to one another. If their conversation were hampered only with respect to arcane documents, that would be simply a minor disadvantage. But it is undercut in all respects, and because it is, political manipulation becomes rife. Resolving issues of truth, evidence, and faith is far more important than main stream journalism ever hints. So when something like the Gospel of Judas appears, we need to dig into its implications far more deeply than has been our habit.

Nanotechnology is not a subject many people think about. Yet over the next few years it could be more transformative than anything else going on in the world. It is the process by which small particles -- so small it would take ten thousand of them to be as big as the head of a pin -- are manufactured and used for an increasing number of functions. The implications for this technology are astounding. But also astounding are the unknowns and the dangers. The Washington Post has published an article by Rick Weiss reporting on investigations at Altair Nanotechnologies which are trying to figure out the health threats which may be involved in the industry. The truth is, nobody knows for sure, and very little effort is being made by the government to find out. What we are going to learn over the next decade is that our governmental attention has been hideously misdirected. The government, led by ill-read and manipulative politicians, is concentrating on third order problems and almost completely ignoring the most serious threats and the most glowing opportunities for the future. The stance the Bush administration has taken up till now on global warming is a good example. We continue on this course because few people with voices to be heard are raising the issues with the general public. And when someone does, he or she tends to be scoffed at in the manner that has dismissed Al Gore over the past several years. Until we learn that there are issues far more important to human life than the ones which appear in the headlines each day, we are going to be like lemmings scurrying toward the cliff. Nanotechnology probably is one of those issues and our continuing to ignore it is yet another example of America's abysmal intellectual failure.

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