Thursday, November 09, 2006
Otherwise sane and intelligent women used to go weak at the spectacle of craggy Donald Rumsfeld delivering his impatient wisecracks. In conversation with one weakened neocon lady and rummyphile, I realised that what they saw was an idealised image of male wisdom. But, in fact, Rumsfeld was displaying certainty, the antithesis of wisdom. He was certain the Iraqis would fall into the arms of the invaders and he was certain technology made small military units effective against mass insurgency. Behind these certainties was the larger certainty embodied in the neocon view of history - that American liberal democracy was a universal good and a historical end point. (Francis Fukuyama, once a card-carrying neocon himself, pointed out that to impose this certainty by invading Iraq was inconsistent since it defied another neocon belief in the limitations of government. This paradox may not be an argument against the invasion, but it should have modified its strategy.) An invasion of Iraq may have been right, but it could only fail if it was undertaken by leaders too certain to be flexible - ie Rumsfeld. In war, only pragmatists prevail. The issue is, therefore, certainty. Soon after 9/11 I attended a conference in Boston - see my account here - about historical determinism, the ideology shared by both Marxists and neocons. My contribution was to say that only the most hopelessly scientistic thinkers could convince themselves that we would ever be able to establish whether determinism or freedom was embodied in history and, indeed, the universe. It is unknowable. Happily, neuroscience seems to be coming round to this view. Adina Roskies - mysteriously described at The Garden of Forking Paths as 'unstoppable' - argues that no development in neuroscience will ever destroy our sense of ourselves as undeterministic. Her full paper, linked at the Garden, is worth reading. Rumsfeld had a deterministic mindset; it is the single most dangerous mental condition. In this case, it fatally compromised America's ability to do what she does best - deploying the natural pragmatism of her greatest minds to save the certain from themselves.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 7:56 am