Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep:
a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.
-- William Butler Yeats: "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen"
In 2003 the Ig Nobel Prize for Engineering was presented, somewhat belatedly, to the late Edward A. Murphy, Jr., and two others for their 1949 formulation of a fundamental law of engineering: "If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe, someone will do it." This is known as "Murphy’s Law" and it is parsed popularly as "If anything can go wrong, it will."
Perhaps George W. Bush should be considered for an Ig Nobel prize this year, for exhaustively demonstrating the workings of Murphy’s Law in many different disciplines.
In his State of the Union speech this week Bush said he wants us to "show our enemies abroad that we are united in the goal of victory."
? ? ? Which enemies abroad would we be showing that we are united? The Iraqis? Iranians? Muslims? Arabs? The whole world, friends and foes, has already noticed that the main thing we are united about is getting out of Iraq. We aren’t united about why we invaded, or what we have "won" there; we don’t agree about who should run the war or what would constitute victory, we don’t concur about who’s going to pay for it, how and when.
And victory over who? Our U.S. forces are not fighting the Iraqi Army – it’s supposed to be on our side. We aren’t fighting the people of Iraq – they’re the ones we’re liberating. Yet we are fighting "insurgents" mostly by killing Iraqi civilians, and our soldiers are being killed by civilians and soldiers we have armed, directly or indirectly.
We’re not even united on a philosophy/epistemology of the real world. Is the real world something substantial and unambiguous, or is it what we see? Or is it what we make of it?
This paradox is illustrated by the old joke about three umpires: The first umpire says he calls balls and strikes as they are. The second umpire says he calls balls and strikes as he sees them. The third umpire says there are neither balls nor strikes until he calls them.
Like Bush, many of us have a childlike belief that we can fix anything with some duct-tape, an election, extra Vitamin C, a few tactical nukes, a little more water in the soup, or 21,000 more soldiers.
Alas, ethanol in our gas tanks won’t do it. Vegetarian diets or planting trees are not solutions. Whining (from either side) over gay marriage or stem-cell research doesn’t help, nor does seeking therapies for Seasonal Affective Disorder (anyone who is not depressed this winter either can’t read or is not paying attention.)
Given that ...
A) we don’t know enough about the physical world – especially the long term consequences of global warming -- nor enough about human societies and cultures and how they impact ecosystems and affect our lives as individuals and communities;
B) we are not united on what is best for our nation, or what’s best for the planet;
C) we don’t agree on who is to be umpire, or what the game is;
D) there are far too many of us, with woefully inadequate social and governmental systems to manage ourselves even if we knew what we wanted;
E) there are enough nuclear weapons already in existence to destroy the planet;
F) assorted diseases are waiting in the evolutionary wings to exploit our next follies of recreation and/or consumption;
G) Murphy’s Law has not been repealed or disproved;
... I suggest that we
1) cut and run as fast as possible from Iraq; cut all expenditures for war, nuclear weapons, cyber-weapons, prisons and civilian surveillance, and run from practices of torture and detainment.
2) unite around our common goals and common dreams for health and welfare of the entire human family and the household of earth, and start walking steadily toward national goals of universal health care, free education, healthy and sustainable ecosystems, non-violence in international relations and conflict management, and economic and social justice for all.
Our most dangerous notions are that we humans, with our poor record of controlling our own appetites, ambitions and numbers, are competent to manage a small planet crowded with 6.5 billion sapient creatures, and that our high-tech toys like nuclear bombs and high-flown philosophies like fundamentalist capitalism are exempt from Murphy’s Law
The State of the Union? Dire. If we are not to continue to be weasels fighting in a hole, we-the-people and our Congress are going to have to oil the seized-up machinery of democracy and get it cranking again on the inequities, injustices and ecological and humanitarian challenges we face. I’m not sure we’re smart enough, wise enough or united enough to succeed, even if we are lucky enough to avoid the worst of the wrongs that Murphy’s Law will certainly deliver in the future..
But I am sure that if we don’t get out of the weasel-hole of Iraq, we won’t have much of a future.
Caroline Arnold served 12 years on the staff of U.S. Senator John Glenn and is now active in community and environmental affairs in Kent, Ohio.