Friday, June 11, 2004

Once I was blind, now I see

Andrew Sullivan lists out the contemporaneous reactions of Arthur Schlesinger, Strobe Talbott and many leading journalists toward Ronald Reagan's attempt to actively confront the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Reagan's more thoughtful critics objected to the rollback policy as an abandonment of the policy of containment in place since the end of the Second World War. But the majority felt Reagan's policies were beneath serious rebuttal. The very attempt was dismissed as "weird"; a "national hallucination", a mutant form of "McCarthyism", a "primitive" reaction from an "evangelical" who in any case was "mindless" when he was not being "pathological". Sullivan concludes:

"Rest in peace, Mr. President. And know that after all these years, you were right - and all these people were clearly, emphatically, embarrassingly, wrong."

The interesting question is why they were so wrong. One possible answer is that Reagan's critics were themselves unconsciously in the grip of a "hallucination", which prevented them from seeing the facts as they were. We now know that the Soviet economy was a sham; its vaunted armies were hollow; its hold over subject peoples increasingly tenuous. But at that time many believed the opposite, and not just the editorial desk at the New York Times. When Tom Clancy published the Hunt for the Red October in 1984 it was premised around the existence of a Soviet super submarine whose missiles posed an existential threat to American defenses. Russian fighters were so good America that had to send Clint Eastwood to steal one in Firefox (1982); Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas being too primitive to come up with an equivalent on their own. It's hard to remember how downbeat, how beaten America was in 1984, nine years out of the fall of Saigon; four years after the shock which took oil prices to $80 a barrel in 2002 terms; four years after Iranian Revolutionary Guards seized a US embassy without Washington being able to do a thing about it. Theatergoers anted up to watch Red Dawn, starring a young Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, whose plot featured a Soviet invasion of the Continental United States:

Cast your mind back to the 1980s. The Soviet Union suffers its worst agricultural crisis in fifty-five years. Communist Cuba and Nicaragua each reach troop strength levels of 500,000, infiltrating and fomenting Marxist revolution in Mexico. The Green Party takes control of the West German government and bans American nuclear missiles on German soil, leaving Europe undefended to Warsaw Pact troops in the East and causing the eventual dissolution of NATO. In Colorado, on a crisp, clear autumn morning, Soviet paratroopers who infiltrated the country on passenger planes drop from the skies on an unsuspecting little town in the heart of America, thus starting World War III. When the war starts, a group of teenagers in Colorado escape to the neighboring mountains where they eventually wage a limited guerilla war against the Russian, Cuban, and Nicaraguan soldiers occupying their town. This is the premise of John Milius's 1984 film "Red Dawn."

Today Arthur Schlesinger's assessment of Reagan, written with such serious and deluded assurance, has something of the air of those scratchy old newsreels showing a turkey-necked Neville Chamberlain fluttering a paper bearing Herr Hitler's signature. Funny now but nobody was laughing in 1938, and Chamberlain waved his paper to the cheers of the crowd. James Lileks, hardly a stupid person, honestly relates the contempt he then felt toward Ronald Reagan's policies:

It’s 1983; I’m working at the Minnesota Daily, in the editorial department. Smart friends, common purpose, and by God a paper to put out! It gets no better when you’re in your 20s. We didn’t hate Reagan; we viewed him with indulgent contempt, since he was so obviously out of his depth. I mean, please: an actor? As president? (This from a generation that got its politics from “All The President’s Men.” This from a generation that would later embrace Martin Sheen as the ne plus ultra of all things presidential.) He was in a movie with a talking monkey, for heaven’s sake. That was all you really needed to know. “Bedtime for Bonzo,” you’d say with a smirk or a conspicuous rolling of the eyes, and everyone would nod. Idiot. Empty-headed grinning high-haired uberdad. Of course he was popular among the groundlings. It would be laughable if it weren’t so typical - he was just the sort of fool the voters could be trusted to elect.

Reagan was worse than stupid – he was conspicuously indifferent to our futures. It was generally accepted that he either wanted a nuclear war or was too dim to understand the consequences. It went without saying that he didn’t read Schell’s “Fate of the Earth.” It went without saying that he didn’t read anything at all.

"It was generally accepted" is an oblique reference to a "consensus" so pervasive as to be imperceptible; a thing so ingrained in popular opinion, like the flatness of the earth, that given a choice between believing our eyes and rejecting conventional wisdom, we preferred to cast away our sight. "And none so blind," Jonathan Swift once said, "as they that won't see". Wikipedia defines "groupthink" as:

a term coined by psychologist Irving Janis in 1972 to describe one process by which a group can make bad or irrational decisions. In a groupthink situation, each member of the group attempts to conform his or her opinions to what they believe to be the consensus of the group. This results in a situation in which the group ultimately agrees on an action which each member might normally consider to be unwise.

Janis's original definition of the term was "a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action." The word groupthink itself is intentionally reminiscent of George Orwell's coinages (such as doublethink and duckspeak) from the fictional language Newspeak, which he portrayed in his ideological novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Groupthink tends to occur on committees and in large organizations, and has been cited as a contributing factor in the Vietnam War, Bay of Pigs Invasion, both the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, and the bankruptcy of Enron.

Sophisticates unwittingly paid Reagan a compliment by calling him a cowboy, by which they meant gunslinger, instead of in the more accurate sense of a man able to see nature without blinders; to know things for what they were. Although Ronald Reagan has left the nation a huge legacy of achievement still it would be incomplete and his bequest to posterity less final if we forget that his greatest strength was to think for himself and dare to do the same.