Factual information is out of fashion. American society now devalues it. Subjective attitude and opinion are considered to be as worthy as accurate renderings of reality. Many wear their ignorance as a badge of honor. The ultimate freedom for them is to avoid needless bother in knowing the truth and distinguishing it from falsity. Some of this behavior is calculated and intentional; much of it is blind indulgence of convenience and prejudice. These behaviors are commonplace among our officials, politicians, commentariat, and the citizenry at large. Insulation from any sense of shame helps perpetuate it. So, too, does the widespread absence of accountability.
Then there are those who acknowledge that there is such a thing as useful information in the abstract but operate on the lazy belief that if it's available somewhere on your computer or smart phone, there is no reason to lodge it in your grey cells. This last trait is most widespread among the young although by no means limited to them.
In this essay, I make the case for information retention by examining five examples
1. The United States Constitution -- above all the Bill of Rights or first 10 amendments. Article Four stipulates that...
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The freedom to be secure in one's domicile and communications from intrusion by police authorities has been under heavy attack since 9/11. Two successive administrations have mounted a series of programs, abetted by innovations in electronic methods of surveillance, have launched a series of draconian programs which have voided fourth amendment protections of much of their practical value. All these trespasses have been declared legal and constitutional by the White House, the Department of Justice, the heads of our intelligence agencies and obedient federal courts.
Here is what General Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA), declared before a public body in 2005:
"the phrase 'probable cause' is not in the fourth Amendment. If there is any amendment to the Constitution that we are familiar with at the NSA, it is the fourth." If there's any Amendment to the United States Constitution that the National Security Agency is familiar with, it's the Fourth."
That is an outright lie -- one that he told repeatedly. None of the MSM reporting on his remarks pointed that out. The vast majority of listeners took Hayden's statement at face value. Doubtless, they had only foggiest idea of what the fourth amendment actually says and/or were too lazy to check it. Hayden, by no means a stupid man, found it convenient to misstate the amendment's wording to justify the illicit spying on Americans he was conducting.
The benefits of having the facts at one's disposable are three-fold. First, they immediately tell you that the high official up on the stage addressing a crucial civil liberties issue was engaging in gross misrepresentation. Second, in reaching for a bowdlerized version of the Constitution, he was trying to hide something that he otherwise could not defend. Third, the stark evidence of this public lying would alert you to subsequent lies on the same subject by General James Clapper, his successor, before the Senate Intelligence Committee, by CIA Director John Brennan, and by President Obama himself.
Lesson: do not accept instruction from authority figures without checking. Shameless lying nowadays pervades our public life
2. Afghanistan. A few weeks ago, President Obama held a White House ceremony to mark the end of the Afghan war. A neat photo-op lapped up by the media. Yet, the factual truth is that the United States' military engagement has not ended and will not end. Yes, on several occasions the President had stated that American forces numbering about 10,000 would remain in place to train the Afghan national Army and to provide passive Intelligence support. That has changed, though -- officially. The President announced late last year that our forces would continue to participate in search-and-destroy missions and to operate attack helicopters (not just drones) on an 'as needed" basis. That has been confirmed by recent reports of American troops leading raids, and by statements of newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
Therefore, the United States' war-fighting role is not over. Whatever one thinks of the policy, the important thing is that the President has gone back on a solemn pledge that he made to the American people. He obscures the fact by hosting a ceremony to mark an ending that is contradicted by his actions. And he has felt no obligation to explain why the reversion. The MSM and the political class have ignored this shell game -- in part because their brains had forgotten what was said earlier.
Lesson: Keep an attentive, skeptical eye on the news and try to retain the basic facts
3. Habeas Corpus is the oldest and most fundamental of civil liberties. Dating from the Magna Carta in the Anglo-American tradition, it is enshrined in our Constitution. The principle denies government authorities the right to arbitrarily detain citizens. Most of our criminal jurisprudence flows from this ensconcing of habeas corpus. There is nothing more hallowed in word and deed.
Yet the Congress has passed, and President Obama -- the constitutional law professor -- has signed into law legislation that directly contravenes that principle. The... Act requires the Executive to apprehend, imprison and detain indefinitely any person who it judges to be a threat to the safety and security of other Americans, i.e. a potential terrorist. These actions involve no due process whatsoever, are to be kept secret, and even the victim's family members kept in the dark. In short, persons are to be "disappeared" as in Argentina under the military Junta, as in the old Soviet Union, as In North Korea today.
An ignorant Congress, an ignorant MSM and an ignorant public thus shred our most basic civil liberty without public debate. Although there is no guarantee that fuller awareness of what habeas corpus is and has meant would have prevented Congress and Obama from this blatantly unconstitutional act, such knowledge might have agitated the public and given our rulers pause.
Lesson: Read the Bill of Rights carefully and the entry on it in Wikipedia
4. Vietnam. The 14 year war in Vietnam War was the greatest, and most costly, strategic failure in American history -- at least until Iraq. The casualties were ten X as high; civilian deaths in the millions, even if the diplomatic price was far smaller. American society was traumatized by Vietnam. Still, in the best American tradition of turning optimistically to the future -- going forward, the veil of amnesia was drawn over the war. It is barely studied in schools. It is largely ignored by students of international relations. It almost never passes the lips of our leaders. Hence, its lessons for our more recent misadventures in the Islamic world have been totally missed.
This willful ignorance has had profound effects in encouraging errors and deceitful actions to go unremarked. Here is a short list of things from Vietnam that might have profitably remembered. The United States government lied its way into war by fabricating the notorious Tonkin Gulf incident -- just as the Bush administration lied about WMD and Saddam's alleged links to al-Qaida to win support for the invasion of Iraq. That's one. The United States committed atrocities on a large-scale in Vietnam. My Lai, the most infamous, was not unique. The killing of civilians, in some places and some times, verged on becoming a sport. Indiscriminate shelling and bombing of villages killed many more. Torture and rape were commonplace. By comparison, we followed Marquess of Queensberry rules in Iraq and Afghanistan. That, though, was due less to conscious adherence to higher moral standards than to the nature of the combat, the enemy and the terrain. (See the comprehensive, documented account by Nick Turse Kill Anything That Moves. There also are a number of documentaries that recount atrocious events and programs confirmed by interviews with participants).
Three, the promiscuous use of massive firepower was to the net advantage of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese. It elicited popular support and served as a recruitment mechanism just as our use of violence in the "War On Terror" has served as a recruiting sergeant for various violent jihadist groups. The United States prosecuted the Vietnam War on automatic pilot even for years after it became obvious that our objectives were unachievable. Today, we stay on the Afghanistan treadmill despite the President's inability to articulate what a satisfactory outcome would look like. Deja-vu all over again!
Lesson: The lessons to be taken from Vietnam are so numerous and so profound that every dutiful citizen owes it to himself to immerse himself in its history.
5. Founts of Wisdom Former Secretary of State and CIA Director Robert Gates' recent memoir is worth reading and its contents worth retaining. It serves two purposes. It is a salutary reminder that the reflections of public men are self-serving in the extreme; therefore, any statement in them should be taken with a large dose of salt. Gates presents himself as a wise, experienced senior statesman endowed with exceptional probity of judgment. From this lofty perch, he casts aspersions at those who have disagreed with him or somehow crossed swords with him. He goes out of his way to be dismissive of Vice-President Joe Biden whose judgment on all matters foreign is disparaged. He writes: "I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades." Biden's mortal sin was to argue against the Pentagon plan in 2009 for a drastic increase in American troop levels in Afghanistan open-ended in time, of which Gates was the architect and chief promoter.
Gates, the self-declared cynosure of sound judgment, said this about Mikhail Gorbachev in January 1991: "Mikhail Gorbachev is a 'drugstore cowboy' who has shown his true Bolshevik colors." (Quoted in Condoleezza Rice and Philip Zelikow Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft ) That was more than a year after the disintegration of the USSR's Eastern European empire and the reunification of Germany as a member of NATO. The incident that provoked Gates was when hard-liners of the dying Soviet Union broke up demonstrations in Vilnius, Lithuania. Gates also is the man who skewed CIA intelligence assessments of Soviet capabilities and intentions so as to serve the personal agenda of CIA Director William Casey in the Reagan days.
The second reason to be attentive to Gates' record is that he is issuing oracular pronouncements about prospective future American military engagements. In a speech before West Point cadets in February of last year, he declared unequivocally:
"In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa 'should have his head examined."
This is from a man who was an ardent backer of the invasion of Iraq and the instigator of the Obama escalation in Afghanistan.
His new-found skepticism is a piece with other such imperative warnings that senior public figures have made in the wake of one military adventure after another. In the train of the Korean War, one heard from all sides: "Never again a war on the mainland of Asia." Within little more than a decade we were up to our waist in Vietnam. That war led to a similar chorus admonishing us to avoid at all costs another such quagmire. Then came the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters.
That has been followed by a medley of Gates-like alerts that it would insane for any President to do something similar. How long will this new pledge last? So long as the United States sees itself as a global power with unique interests, unique capabilities and unique virtue -- one that is committed to maintaining full-spectrum military dominance in every part of the globe -- its half-life is very brief.
Lesson: Whatever comments about candidates, other persons, events or policies are made by Robert Gates should be scrutinized against this backdrop. The same skeptical attitude should be taken in reading other memoirs by public figures.
Concluding Lesson: We cannot trust our public officials to level with us. Their encounters with truth-telling are incidental. It follows that we must enable ourselves to test their veracity and the probity of their judgments by retaining a large inventory of factual knowledge by which to assess both.
We're on our own.