Sunday, January 08, 2012

Abusing our utilitarianism: Bait-and-switch, and beating the drums of war

This morning, while reading the various and ongoing will-we-or-won't-we discussions about America and Iran, I thought about the dynamic now and the dynamic of 2002-early 2003 and was struck by their similarity. If it weren't so outrageous, it would be rather funny, really: Fool us once, shame on you; fool us again, shame and the New York Times. And, to be fair, shame on every single newspaper, network, blog, and radio program who aids in the spreading of baldfaced lies that promulgate the casus belli--the case for war. War that leaves hundreds of thousands of human beings--Americans and foreigners alike--dead and wounded; war that propels our national debt further into the stratosphere and plunges our national reputation deeper into the bowels of Hell.

They're doing it again, by the way. Robert Naiman has a post at Truthout entitled Judy Miller Alert! The New York Times Is Lying About Iran's Nuclear Program. An excerpt:

It's deja vu all over again. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is trying to trick America into another catastrophic war with a Middle Eastern country on behalf of the Likud Party's colonial ambitions, and The New York Times is lying about allegations that said country is developing "weapons of mass destruction."

In an article attributed to Steven Erlanger on January 4 ("Europe Takes Bold Step Toward a Ban on Iranian Oil"), this paragraph appeared:

The threats from Iran, aimed both at the West and at Israel, combined with a recent assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran's nuclear program has a military objective, is becoming an important issue in the American presidential campaign. [my emphasis]

The claim that there is "a recent assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran's nuclear program has a military objective" is a lie.

As Washington Post Ombudsman Patrick Pexton noted on December 9:

But the IAEA report does not say Iran has a bomb, nor does it say it is building one, only that its multiyear effort pursuing nuclear technology is sophisticated and broad enough that it could be consistent with building a bomb.

Indeed, if you try now to find the offending paragraph on The New York Times web site, you can't. They took it down. But there is no note, like there is supposed to be, acknowledging that they changed the article, and that there was something wrong with it before. Sneaky, huh?

But you can still find the original here.

Indeed, at this writing, if you go to The New York Times web site and search on the phrase "military objective," the article pops right up. But if you open the article, the text is gone. But again, there is no explanatory note saying that they changed the text.

This is not an isolated example in the Times' reporting. The very same day - January 4 - The New York Times published anotherarticle, attributed to Clifford Krauss ("Oil Price Would Skyrocket if Iran Closed the Strait of Hormuz "), that contained the following paragraph:

Various Iranian officials in recent weeks have said they would blockade the strait, which is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, if the United States and Europe imposed a tight oil embargo on their country in an effort to thwart its development of nuclear weapons [my emphasis].

At this writing, that text is still on The New York Times web site.

I have thought a great deal about our lamentable national gullibility, about how easily we fell, and continue to fall, for for these nefariously concocted casus belli, these distortions and lies and manufactured-out-of-whole-cloth threats that invariably lead to yet another epic conflict, to the draining of blood and treasure--ours and "theirs"--alike. And while I am fully aware that a certain contingency of Americans love a good war--especially if said war fulfills a need for vengeance on the part of the embattled and embittered--I also know that a much larger percentage of Americans would prefer having their tax dollars go toward American interests; would prefer that the minds and bodies of their children remain healthy and whole.

So why do we keep doing it? Why do we keep going along with it?

This had long baffled me. And then I read about a study, carried out by psychologists at Michigan State University, and I had a rather unpleasant epiphany. Read this, and then I'll tell you why I think we keep going along with it (and by "we", I mean, enough Americans so as to provide the White House and Congress the moral and electoral support for their warmongering) (emphasis mine):

At Michigan State University, subjects were placed in a virtual world setting of a railroad switch with the assignment of either pulling a joystick that would send a boxcar careening into a single hiker or choose to do nothing and watch as the same box car kills five hikers.

Out of 147 participants, 130 rerouted the boxcar into the path of the single hiker while 14 did nothing and three changed their minds at the last minute and decided to allow the five hikers to die.

Study researcher Carlos David Navarrete, an MSU evolutionary psychologist, said, "What we found is that the rule of 'Thou shalt not kill' can be overcome by considerations of the greater good."

The majority of the subjects, then, responded in ways that can be described as taking a Utilitarian approach--in short, they believe that the best course of action is the one which results in the greatest amount of good, or brings about the most happiness for the largest number of people. Those of us who took an ethics class or two in college might remember John Stuart Mill as one of the Patron Philosophers of Utilitarianism. Some of us have even quoted Mill from time to time--certainly we've carried the smooth and weather-seasoned stones that are his noble ideas around in our pockets; when faced with ethical quandaries, we've run our fingers over their cool permanence and been reassured.

But consider this: knowing that a significant majority of Americans fall into the "considerations for the greater good" camp--are Utilitarian, in this respect--all that anyone wishing to rally their support (support, in this case, for invading a sovereign nation) would need to do is frame his proposal in such a way--lying, if need be--that it meshes nicely with their desire to serve the greater good.

More aptly put: The psychologists in charge (the U.S. government, via propaganda in the national media) tell the volunteers (the American people) there are five hikers on the track who will be killed if they do nothing (there are nuclear weapons being developed by Iraq, and now Iran, and all kinds of death and epic destruction will occur it they're ever deployed; yellowcake plus metal tubes equals mushroom cloud!); however, they--the volunteers (the American people, its elected leaders, and its media)--can bring about a better outcome by operating the switch (supporting the invasion of Iraq, or Iran) and killing just the one hiker on the other track (destroying select targets and perhaps a town or two by raining some shock-and-awe down on them, and allowing our brave troops to serve their country by getting themselves wounded or killed, but we're only going after military targets and weapons factories--not civilians or anything like that--and there won't be that many wounded or killed. And anyway, we'll be out of there soon, probably within a Friedman Unit.)

The entire argument for utilitarianism, I am compelled to point out, hinges on the veracity of the conditions described. In order for people to be willing to pull the railroad switch and deliberately kill the single hiker, they must be certain that all the other conditions exist, and exist exactly as described. They must be certain the train really will kill the five hikers on the track if they do nothing. They must be certain that five hikers are even there in the first place. They must further be certain that their actions will only kill a singled hiker, too: if it is determined that the single hiker has suddenly morphed into more of them, or that the train, upon smacking into that hiker, will derail, roll down the mountainside, and take out a school full of children, say, I submit the majority of the volunteers--if not all of them--would be largely opposed to pulling that switch at all.

Truth is the first casualty of war, said Aeschylus.

The smoke-filled casus belli for attacking Iran continues to swell before our eyes, suffocating poor Truth yet again. But there is still time: time to drag the victim out into the air and sunlight; time to call out the liars in the press and the liars in Washington.


  1. Wow. Another post full of not only kick-ass facts but poetic writing.

    Brava, Deborah.

  2. 'Murkans will never become so analytical. Well written,Deborah.

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  4. We are like the grossly overweight person heading for the buffet at the Golden Corral for the fourth or fifth time....hopefully even they will at some point realize that they have had enough.

  5. It's the Trolly problem. But we have eliminated all those "soft" liberal arts/ethics/philosophy classes due to budget constraints.

  6. I wish I believed that "all those 'soft' liberal arts/ethics/philosophy classes" actually made a difference. And I say this as a proud bearer of a liberal arts degree and firm believer in liberal arts education in general.

    But in the real world, of justice and injustice and abuse and consequences, just as many 'liberal artists' as others have committed crimes and perpetrated injustices. The neocons/neoliberals are full of hoity-toity intellectuals who've read the classics. They still send drones to drop bombs on people. The Nazis, after a hard day of killing, used to go home to their families and spend the evening playing Schubert and discussing Goethe. Click the link on my name and you'll see one of them.