With Marc Thiessen's new book out, and Liz Cheney's attempts to McCarthy the so-call "al-qaeda seven" (yeah, I'm turning "McCarthy" into a verb; these days it seems necessary), it is important to think about what we mean when we talk about being moral actors.
Why shouldn't we take every possible step that might reduce - even a little - the threat of terrorism? Why shouldn't we torture people, or lock them up for years without trial? Because it would be morally wrong, and morally weak.
Look to Thomas More and Alan Greenspan for an illustration of moral weakness; look to Lise Meitner as an exemplar of moral fortitude. And then decide whose team you'd rather play for.
Have you seen this thing, The Tudors, on Showtime? I've watched the first two seasons via NetFlix and, hmmm, yawn for the most part. It's entertaining enough to keep in the background, but it's really not much more than a lavish, big-budget, period-piece soap opera. I think it probably gets a lot more viewers who are interested in that sort of stuff but don't want to admit it to themselves than it otherwise would, because those viewers can always say 'Hey, I'm learning about history. So it's educational.'
Um, no. Yeah, there really was a Henry VIII and there really was an Anne Boleyn, etc., etc., but in order to make the history more of a narrative, they have had to add, omit and change quite a few things around. History isn't as neat as a well-told tale is, and they are still trying to present a well-told tale.
But, I'll give this to 'em . . . . the producers have at least made me curious enough to look up the actual history based on the things that are presented on my computer screen. So, yeah . . . I guess I'll give them that. If you go ahead and take the next step of actually looking up the stuff they are talking about, then I suppose the show can be considered educational. Or, at least, a prompt to education.
Anyway, one of the main characters in the first two seasons is Thomas More. You remember him, one of the first modern political philosophers, the guy who wrote Utopia. He is an interesting dude. One of the first self-proclaimed "Humanists," More believed sincerely in the sanctity of the human conscience. Although he was Henry's great friend, Henry insisted on setting himself up as the head of the Church in England, and More could not bring himself to swear an oath that would have acknowledged Henry - and not the Pope - as the head of the Church. So, Henry had More's head cut from his body. That'll show 'im!
More refused to swear the oath because it was contrary to his own conscience, contrary to what he believed. More didn't oppose Henry - he had retired from public life - but he would not give Henry an acknowledgement that he, himself, did not believe in. More made himself a martyr to his own core conviction that no man may coerce another's conscience. Pretty impressive.
But . . . not really. While More professed this belief in general, and while he obviously believed it applied to himself, he found out that when he was in a position to do something about it, he gave in to the thrill of power. More served for a time as Henry's chancellor, and while in that position he apparently experienced no difficulties in forcing others -- those who disagreed with him about the Church, those who taught that men could find God without the intermediaries known as priests, bishops, cardinals, popes -- to either recant, or else be executed. More believed in the sanctity of human conscience, but when he had the power to coerce the conscience of others to further his own ideas of what is right and proper, he betrayed this "core conviction" again and again and again.
Alan Greenspan is another example of how easily humans do this.
Greenspan was an acolyte of Ayn Rand – Ayn Rand the original, the actual human woman. He worshipped her and was a devotee of her belief in "Objective Materialism."
(Full Disclosure: Like a lot of people, I was too, for a while. I came across Rand back when I was in High School, and her ideas really appealed to me, not least because they were so clean, so clear, so black and white. Then I got older and I learned a lot more about the world, and I realized that in order to make her model of the world work she had to leave out a whole shit-load of stuff that you just can’t ignore in the real world. So then I realized that her ideas were naive, and recognized that the only reason they originally had appealed to me was because I had been naive too. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have been exposed to Rand, and most of ‘em report the same thing: yeah, I really liked her when I was a kid, but then I grew up and realized how adolescent she is.)
But not Greenspan. Greenspan was a believer. And one of the things he firmly believed was that the government should take no action to affect the free market in any way. Not "few" actions, not "minimum" actions . . . no action whatsoever. The "market" is self-correcting, and any government interference can only distort its efficiency. Trust in the market at all times. Greenspan believed this.
PBS "Frontline" did a great show some time back called The Warning. In it, they recount how back in the late 1990’s a woman named Brooksley Born had been head of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. As head of the CFTC, she learned about – and became concerned about – the trading of derivative securities and the utter lack of regulation of those derivatives. She started making noise about setting up some regulations to rein this stuff in.
Alan Greenspan heard about this, and invited Born to lunch. During that lunch he told her that they "would probably never see eye-to-eye about government regulation." Born asked Greenspan what he meant by that, and he replied, "Well, you probably thing the government should do something about fraud, right?" Um, yeah. "No, it shouldn’t. Look, banks and financial institutions aren’t going to commit fraud, because if they did no one would trade with them again and they’d go out of business. And if someone does commit fraud, that should be their punishment. Getting the government involved is just going to be inefficient and screw things up. Let the market take care of itself."
Let the market take care of itself. The government shouldn’t even punish fraud. Man! This guy believed.
Until recently. Of course, Brooksley Born turned out to have been prescient, and it was the unregulated trading in derivatives (mortgage-backed securities, naked collateral debt obligations) that leveraged a significant but manageable housing bubble into a full-scale financial meltdown. Greenspan had retired by then to write a memoire and bask in the undeserved accolades of someone who had been in an important position at a lucky, lucky time to be there, but after the financial meltdown he was summoned back to Congress to testify about how this situation came to be.
When there, he admitted that there had been "a flaw" in his conception of how the world worked. It was quite remarkable, actually. An eighty years plus old man was forced to admit that his mental conception of how the world worked had always been deeply flawed, even though it had seemed to make sense all of his life until that point.
I’d actually give him kudos for acknowledging this, if it wasn’t for the fact that what he was acknowledging was so fucking simple. Really, Alan? It never occurred to you that if people can cheat, and steal, and deceive in order to get money they are not entitled to that they will? That never fucking occurred to you? That occurs to five-year olds, Alan, you dimshit.
But, here is the main thing: Alan Greenspan, for all of the fact that he really, really believed the government should never interfere with the functioning of a free market, spent the most important decades of his life doing exactly that. The man was the head of the Federal Reserve Bank, for fuck’s sake. His sole job was to step in and regulate interest rates as necessary to keep a rein on inflation. If he thought the market was overheating, he would raise interest rates. If he thought the market needed a boost, he would lower them. He spent decades doing exactly the opposite of what he believed in -- because he could -- and got (undeserved) plaudits for it.
Once again, we have a man who deeply, deeply believes in something, but when the reins of power are given to him he chucks that belief over in order to effect what he personally considers is the right outcome.* * *
The test of one’s beliefs about how one should interact with others is not how loudly you proclaim them (Greenspan) or even whether you are willing to die yourself rather than avoid the consequences that will be visited upon you if you don’t violate them (More). The test of one’s beliefs about the moral way to behave is whether you abide by those beliefs even though adherence to them means terrible things might happen if you are wrong. (Heresy, for More. Double-digit inflation, for Greenspan.
Are you really willing to bet everything on what you think is the right thing to do? Do you really believe in what you believe?* * *
That is why I have such a crush on Lise Meitner. Lise Meitner was a young Jewish, Austrian physicist who had been recommended to Otto Hahn, a chemist, as an assistant early in the 20th century; it was thought that she could help him check his maths.
Eventually, Otto and Lise started attempting to create larger elements. At the time, uranium was about the largest naturally occurring element known, and they wanted to see if they couldn't create even larger ones. (Today, of course, the periodic table is chock-a-block with lab-created elements – but not then). The idea was that if they could fire a neutron into a uranium atom, and get the neutron to "stick," then they would have a larger, "lab created" element.
But the rise of Hitler and the Nazis put Lise and any institution with which she was associated at risk. As the pogrom advanced, scientists across Europe began extending invitations for Lise to visit, to get her out from under the Nazi government – but that same government turned all those invitations down. Eventually, a colleague from Holland met her for a seminar and then illegally smuggled her back to Holland. From there she eventually made her way to Sweden.
But even from Sweden she kept up her correspondence with Otto, who was asking her help with some puzzling lab results. It seems that his experiments kept producing elements of radium and barium – even combined, both were much lighter than uranium, and therefore the opposite of what had been hoped.
Then, one day, hiking with her nephew (another physicist) Lise was struck by a sudden insight. What if, she thought, the neutron didn't stick to the uranium atom – which was already known to be unstable anyway. What if the uranium atom split into smaller elements?
But how could that possibly be? asked her nephew. The amount of energy necessary to split apart any single atom – while not huge on our scale – would be massive on the nuclear scale; where would this energy come from? It would require at least 200 million electron-volts.
Scribbling quickly, a back-of-the-envelope kind of nucleic notation, Lise decided that the kind of "fission" Otto had described – the breaking of one large atom into new, smaller atoms of a different type – necessarily meant that about 1/5 of a proton's mass would have been lost.
And, according to Einstein's mass-energy equivalence equation, that amount of mass translated into just about 200 million electron-volts.
An empirical proof of Einstein's "thought experiment." Mass translated directly into energy.
E does equal m • c2. This was the first empirical proof of Einstein's famous equation.* * *
Lise got screwed, though. Under pressure from the Nazi regime, Otto claimed the discovery of nuclear fission as his own, and was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize for it. Lise got barely a mention, and even that was only in his speech where he mentioned her, in passing, as his "lab assistant."
Still . . . Lise is one of those historical women with whom I am in love. As World War II engulfed the planet, she was asked to help out with America's Manhattan Project. A lot of Allied scientists had quickly grasped the possibilities that nuclear fission had opened up, and had decided that it was really, really important that the Allies be the ones to develop a nuclear bomb.
Lise and her nephew were both asked to help on the Manhattan Project. Her nephew – terrified of the Nazis – agreed. Lise refused.
And, hey, don't get me wrong. I've got no brief against the scientists that worked on the Manhattan Project (in fact, I've got a great regard for Feynman; if you have the opportunity to check out his account of the Project, do so). And I completely understand why, faced with what really looked (prior to the advent of nuclear technology, at least) like the closest thing to the End of the World as We Know It, the very best and brightest of our species would want to work on the Project.
But I love the people who chose not to. The ones who could foresee the Pandora's Box that was being opened up, and who said, "No. I will not be responsible for that."
It was a very selfish decision, I think. 'Selfish' not in the sense of 'greed,' but in the word's literal sense – 'self-oriented.' To decide – no matter what the consequences, no matter what the pressures, no matter what exigencies are presented – that for the sake only of one's own conscience you will not do this thing. The decision to place your own morality above everything else.
Beautiful.* * *
The constant sniping that has become a cottage industry among so many conservatives these days about Who Can Keep America Safe? needs to be understood in the same way. God! I am so sick of listening to these people tell us that "the most important job the President has is keeping us safe."
(Did you see Jon Stewart’s interview with Marc Thiessen? Thiessen said something along these lines and Stewart’s response was pitch-perfect: "Really? ‘Cause I think it is actually the upholding of our laws and Constitution.")
As a people – as a moral force – Americans have to be a lot more like Lise Meitner, and a lot less like Alan Greenspan . . . or even Thomas More. Y’know what? If belief in the rights enshrined by our Constitution, if belief that torture is antithetical to who we are as a people and is something that never can be condoned . . . if those beliefs make us less safe, then we should embrace that lack of safety. We should have the courage of those convictions, we should announce to the world that we are just Bad-Assed enough that we are willing to take on that little additional risk that comes from, y’know, refusing to torture people.
But if we are really more like Thiessen and Liz Cheney, if the thought of any additional risk to ourselves is too much for us, if the thought of that risk – not the fact, not the inevitability, but just the risk – that something bad might happen, someday, somewhere, to one of us, is too much for us, if that thought is so so ball-cringingly terrifying that we are willing to, y’know, torture people just to be on the safe side . . .
Well, hell, let’s just admit it then. Let's admit that we will mouth words of praise to the "rule of law," and to our "Constitutional principles" . . . but we don't really believe in those things. We're all too willing to chuck 'em out a window the moment adhering to them might pose the slightest bit of risk to our poor, delicate selves. Let’s just admit that we are a nation of cowards, and moral weaklings, and get it over with.
But . . . Personally? I don’t aspire to be Alan Greenspan. Lise Meitner is so much cooler.