Squishy vs. Non-Squishy: Some Thoughts on the 2nd Anniversary of Sept. 11th

The Thinker by Rodin

Right before the latest Iraq war started I posted an entry castigating George W. Bush for substituting ideology for critical thinking. It seemed clear to me that he viewed the war on terror as a war of good vs. evil. I don’t know anyone, including virtually all Republicans, who would seriously dispute my analysis. Bush himself said as much many times. “You are either with us or against us” on the war on terrorism, was one of his more memorable post 9/11 quotes.

But I’ll cut Bush a little slack today because I believe that anyone who truly follows an ideology shares the same fatal flaw. I hope I am not ideological although I am aware that I tend to follow certain principles that may be seen as ideological. I find the whole notion of good vs. bad as simplistic and broad brush painting. Except, possibly, I have come to believe that following any ideology is, by itself, a form of evil. It may be the only form of evil.

This begs the question of what I mean by “evil”. The dictionary is not too much help because it can’t provide an objective definition. “Morally bad or wrong; wicked” is the first definition that I find. Almost everyone would say that terrorism is evil, but there are lots of disagreements about whether, say, abortion is evil. My definition won’t be any more objective. In this case I am asserting that a closed mind is evil because it narrows the list of options for dealing with a situation. It is my belief that in most human endeavors flexibility is a good thing because ambiguity is always present.

The Iraq quagmire could have been handled better. An impartial assessment of the facts, rather than a biased assessment, would have informed our leaders that Saddam was a bad man but at best a small threat to our national security. From this information a leader truly concerned about our national security would realize that perhaps our resources on the war on terrorism were better directed elsewhere. In any event ideology tightly constrained the list of available options for dealing with Saddam. It tied our own hands.

Now there are some advantages to an ideology that are pretty compelling. For one, it simplifies choices. We have all had that experience of going to the store for, say, a frozen pizza, and felt overwhelmed by the variety and variants of pizzas. This can make it hard to figure out what you want because you have to look at all the pizzas and all the options and pick the pizza that will seem to make you happiest. Life would be much simpler if there were only one kind of frozen pizza, it was good, and it came in plain, pepperoni or supreme. Instead I have to think about lots of options like: do I care about total calories, saturated fat levels, texture, type of cheese, etc. But in general, Americans seem to embrace choice. I doubt we would be happier if we were all living in drab Soviet era type apartment complexes. It would, however, be simpler.

Another advantage to ideology is it eliminates ambiguity. You don’t have to sit and dwell upon your options for hours, days or weeks. You can take immediate action because you know the path that you must traverse. This worked, apparently, for George W. Bush. The choice in Iraq was apparently clear more than six months before we invaded, because that’s when our forces started assembling in Kuwait. There was no need to dither and wring our hands about what to do. Pick Plan A. There was no Plan B.

I may be doing some broad brush painting myself but in trying to understand human behavior I find it easier to categorize people into two types: those who can deal with ambiguity and those who can’t. Squishy people vs. non-squishy people. On a macro level it seems that in our society the quest to dominate in the realm of human values comes down to whether the squishy or the non-squishy people are in charge. Currently with Congress and the White House in Republican hands, the non-squishies are in charge.

Non-squishies tend to be absolutists and linear thinkers. They don’t have to be conservative or Republican; we just see a lot of these types lately. Marx and Lenin were certainly non-squishies, just on the extreme left side of the house. One sign of a non-squishy type is when it becomes hard sometimes to distinguish someone on the extreme left from the extreme right. I realized recently that no less than Dennis Kucinich and Pat Buchanan were on the same side: they both want NAFTA repealed. Some liberals on the far end of the spectrum are so politically correct they will repress the speech of those who cannot be politically correct. In that sense they are not that removed from John Ashcroft, who recently made some statements suggesting that if you didn’t believe in the Patriot Act you were un-American and aiding and abetting terrorists.

Non-squishies also can have the tendency to believe two or more completely contradictory ideas. It is most obvious, I think, in religion. A truly devout Catholic, for example, believes that the consecrated host is both bread AND the real physical body of Jesus at the same time. In politics many Republicans believe tax cuts will solve the federal government’s balanced budget problem.

Clearly I find myself in the squishy side. We squishies are comfortable with ambiguity. That’s not to say we embrace ambiguity, we can just deal with it. I, for example, realize that Saddam Hussein is a very evil guy. But at the same time I refuse to say he is completely evil. In Saddam’s Iraq women had opportunities that had been denied to them for generations by less secular governments, and most likely will disappear with whatever eventually emerges in a new government. Benito Mussolini was a fascist but he also got the trains to run on time, something appreciated by the average Italian. We squishies usually see shades of grey where non-squishies see either black or white. We are cognizant that the reality of something or someone depends on how you view it. In general we want to look at it from a variety of perspectives before coming to a conclusion, and our conclusions are often tentative, and subject to change as events unfold.

It’s not always easy being a squishy though. We are often seen as weak kneed and pansies, people with no backbone and indecisive. We don’t think that is the case. We just see lots of complex systems around us. We realize actions have lots of unanticipated consequences and that before actions are taken we need to carefully anticipate these consequences and be prepared for the consequences. Consequently I was warning about the dangers of Iraq, and feeling like a lone voice in the wilderness, back in February and March. Sometimes we squishies do get it wrong. Sometimes we overanalyze a situation to the point of paralysis. Sometimes following your instinct is the smartest approach.

But following an instinct and following an ideology are two different things. An instinct is an authentic feeling you have that often cannot be expressed on the basis of evidence. If your spouse is cheating on you, you can often pick up the vibes although you cannot point to anything particular. When you follow an ideology you are essentially following a pack. “Jane down the street thinks we should invade Iraq. I like and respect Jane. I think we should invade Iraq too!”

To me it’s a no brainer that as our population increases issues become more complex because there are more participants. Behavioral possibilities can grow exponentially with the number of participants. So I think it’s important that we evolve to become better at being squishy people, because it helps us behave better to the reality of our world and society.

I often feel like I am at war with the non-squishies. I don’t hate them, I just want them to see the light. I suspect they feel the same way about me. I hope that recent events will convince more non-squishies to embrace their squishy side, particularly today, on the second anniversary of 9/11. I would hope we are learning from our war on terrorism that there are things we can do to change our own behavior which make it less likely we will suffer these sort of tragedies again. I know that terrorists often have their own bizarre and non-squishy rationale for killing innocent people. But I also think somewhere in that terrorist propaganda are a few valid points. For example, maybe our society is a bit too commercial and capitalistic, and we all need to be more spiritual in our own way and less consumptive. And perhaps that will make us less of a target, and take us some place where we need to go.

One trying aspect of being a squishy is to try real hard to be open to listening to other points of view. I can’t claim to have completely mastered this virtue. I have a particularly hard time listening to non-squishy points of view, perhaps because I hear them constantly and the rationale never changes. But I do try. I would hope that some day the non-squishes could also learn to listen better to us squishies too.

Economics 101 and Iraq

The Thinker by Rodin

One of the more useful courses I took in college was Economics 101. Surprisingly, I retained a few nuggets of gold from that course I took some 28 years ago. One nugget was the notion of a sunk cost. For those of you who never took economics, or conveniently forgot about sunk costs after taking the exam, the economic dictum basically says that any money you spent on the past is irrelevant if it no longer meets your current needs. The present matters, not the past. Perhaps it is better stated as: don’t continue to pour more money down a black hole.

The tendency to do so anyhow is very human. You can invest years trying to repair a marriage that cannot be repaired because your spouse has no interest in repairing it. Of course you want to believe it can be repaired. You can build your house on a fault line and keep pouring concrete into the foundation to raise it up again. We want to think, “If I spend just a little more to fix something, it will be fixed right this time.” When the expected result doesn’t happen we spend a little more and a little more, or perhaps tinker along the edges, but the solution we seek continues to fail us in the long term. Hope springs eternal.

The key to making these judgments is to understand when an implemented solution is fundamentally flawed. If you can analyze your approach objectively, you can determine when you have a sunk cost and when you don’t. Once you lose your objectivity though the consequences get dangerous and increasingly costly, and endeavors can turn into pure folly.

Those of us old enough to remember Vietnam remember that the Johnson Administration was going to stop communism from spreading in Indochina no matter what the cost. By 1968 we had over half a million soldiers and airmen in Vietnam. There were over 800,000 men in the South Vietnamese Army too. B-52s were blitzing Hanoi and bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail.

The Bush Administration is engaged on the same sort of myopic thinking. Last night President Bush pulled a rabbit out of his hat. Apparently the $75B he asked for earlier isn’t quite enough to do the job needed in Iraq. But now with another $87B we are going to solve the problem. For $87B we can win the war on terrorism in Iraq, rebuild its infrastructure, and bring peace, security and democracy.

I have of course a few questions that are unlikely to be answered for the Bush Administration:

– Why wasn’t $75B enough?
– Since $75B wasn’t enough how can we trust you when you state that $87B will be enough, given your track record?
– If we spend $87B and the situation has not markedly improved, are we going to spend more money?
– If we spend the money and the situation does not markedly improve, do we have an exit strategy? Or is the strategy to spend whatever it takes in money, lives and time to win this war?
– How do we know the money will be spent wisely?
– If this strategy did not work in Vietnam why are you certain that it will win in Iraq? What is the probability of long term success or failure and what assumptions did you use, if any?
– If you are certain this strategy is going to work, why hasn’t it worked in Afghanistan where similar tactics are being used but have not achieved the desired result?
– Can our military and police force in Iraq truly stop a war on terror if a police and interdiction force can’t stop a drug war which has lasted now for over 30 years?
– Has anyone polled the Iraqi people to see if they want a western style democracy?
– If the Iraqi people democratically voted for us to leave immediately, would we withdraw?
– Given the long history of ethnic and religious conflicts in Iraq, what makes you think in the short term we can do a better job of managing it than Saddam did?

I do know this: the $75B allocated already, unless we get out immediately, is a sunk cost. It’s largely been spent and won’t be coming back. I and future generations will be paying the interest on this money that so far has brought no discernable results except for Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. It hasn’t resulted in the find of weapons of mass destruction. It hasn’t kept the lights on or the water flowing reliably for the citizens of Iraq. It hasn’t ensured public safety; indeed the streets of Iraq are now much more dangerous than before we started this war.

We can’t afford to lose this one, Bush is telling us. We could not afford to lose the Cold War either, but we lost in Vietnam and still won the Cold War. Why is withdrawing or losing this skirmish in the war on terrorism mean we’ve lost the war? Couldn’t it also mean that we could use our resources more effectively somewhere else to win the war on terrorism?

In reality the American people don’t care very much about the people of Iraq. It’s not that we wish bad things to happen to them, it’s just that we don’t really believe that what happens there affects our national security. In reality it is not we (the American people) who cannot afford it to lose in Iraq. Rather it is Bush who cannot lose face and admit he made a mistake and waged a war on false pretenses. This $87B means we are essentially hedging a bet to cover Bush’s ass for his miscalculations and mistakes.

In a way, the money is going into the coffers of his reelection campaign. But let’s not fool ourselves. If Iraq was no threat to our national security before we invaded, it probably isn’t one now. It may turn into one by giving terrorists and people who hate our country an easy way to lash out at us. But if we withdraw, that easy target goes away.

A better example of what awaits us can be seen on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. For more than 30 years Israel has occupied these Palestinian areas. The more they try to root out terror, the more terror they get back in return. It appears that there is a force greater than the best military in the world. It is the human spirit. Short of being able to read the minds of everyone on the planet, there is no way to tell friend from foe. If sufficient numbers of people are against us then success in Iraq is impossible. In that case we should realize our money was wasted and is a sunk cost. I believe that point has been reached. Any economist worth his salt would say bring our soldiers home.

Critical Thinking? Who needs it, we’ve got ideology!

The Thinker by Rodin

Ugh. This is one of those days when maybe I just should have stayed in bed. Reality is too depressing to deal with some days, but never more so than today.

Ideology is dangerous. If you have ideology, you don’t have to worry about whether an action is advised or ill advised. You know you are right because your ideology tells you that you are right. That’s the sort of immovable force that is George W. Bush. Morality has become a substitute for critical thinking. Circled by his coterie of advisers who only reinforce his inclinations, he does not feel dissent. When antiwar protesters come to town he is conveniently at Camp David.

In the process we are getting a lot of Orwellian newspeak. The latest one is “diplomacy”. In the old days diplomacy meant getting together with those of differing opinions, talking out your differences and coming to a joint consensus. Yesterday in the Azores, Bush said he would give diplomacy one more day. But make no mistake, he’s not going to compromise anything. Basically the U.N. Security Council either agrees with him or he goes to war without the U.N. This is diplomacy hard at work, folks.

When you have ideology you can conveniently overlook a number of facts that would otherwise be irritating. You can excuse our wretched job of nation building in Afghanistan. Our appointed president there controls, at best, the city limits of Kabul, and only because a lot of foreign troops are patrolling the streets. You can overlook the fact that the United States promised aid and democracy to Afghanistan that we did not deliver, yet remain supremely confident that when our troops take over Iraq we will instill democratic values and Iraq will become a shining beacon of freedom in the Middle East. You can overlook those pesky little ethnic and religious rivalries that have been going on for generations between Iraqi and Kurd, Sunni and Shi’ite.

If you have ideology you can pretend that our forces spread out across Iraq won’t be a target for every fanatical Muslim in the region, and there are plenty. You can pretend that because we can “liberate” Iraq that the Iraqi people will love us, even though they hold us responsible for years of sanctions. You can ignore the minor problem that Muslims will consider our occupation something like a holy war, and that they will see us as Christians on a Crusade.

This is what “your either with us or against us” gets us as a nation: virtually the whole world is against our preemptive war. Close to half of the American people are against it too. This sort of attitude causes only further polarization, making compromise impossible.

I am deeply ashamed of our president, and aghast at what our country is about to do in the name of peace. We will not have peace, we will only be throwing more gasoline on the fire. Why do they hate us? We will be giving them plenty more reasons, rest assured.

Please tell me this isn’t happening. Please tell me this is all a bad dream.