President Mrs. Wilson

For the last 14 months of his second term as President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson was virtually incapacitated. His condition was kept secret from the American public and most of the government. His wife, Mrs. Wilson– Edith Bolling Wilson– effectively ruled for him, appointing and dismissing officials and advisors, and shielding him from the scrutiny of members of Congress and even the vice-president.

How does a person know if one is not competent? Woodrow Wilson, apparently, did not know he was incapacitated. Mrs. Wilson did not know that she was not qualified to run the United States of America.

The sky did not fall.

On the other hand…. The New York Times article (sidebar) by Morris makes the argument that history might have been radically altered had Mrs. Wilson properly notified the authorities that her husband was no longer capable of executing the office of President of the United States. Instead, in what is surely one of the most outrageous cases of hubris in history, she decided that she would just do it herself. These men! These cabinet secretaries and advisors and senators and staff… what do they know that I don’t know?

That’s what Morris’ article is about– how do you know what you don’t know? The answer, of course, is that you can’t know what you don’t know. In other words, if you are incompetent, you are not likely to have the faculties of good judgment that would allow you to accurately assess your own performance– by definition.

Think about this the next time you see Timothy Geithner or Lawrence Summers or Bernard Bernanke on TV. Think about this as Senators fall over themselves to eulogize Robert Byrd, Senator for over 50 years, who seems have been much beloved. Who loved him? The citizens of West Virginia who rhapsodize about all the goodies he brought them from the federal government, all the buildings and freeways and public squares now named for him.

Edith Bolling Wilson was careful, in her auto-biography, to insist that Wilson was mentally competent at the time, and that it was Wilson’s own doctor (who was dead when she published), among others, who insisted that humble little Edith Bolling undertake the task of relaying Wilson’s authentic wishes to the world. But Wilson’s doctor and chief steward, in their own accounts, were clear: Wilson had no capacity whatsoever to convey any wishes, authentic or not, to anyone, or to govern; his reason was impaired. Though he later improved somewhat, he was never the same person after the stroke as he was before it. Edith Bolling Wilson, however, issued numerous communiqués from her husband which were invariably written in her own tiny little script. No one else was permitted anywhere near him.

There was no way for any reasonable person to get past Mrs. Wilson to determine if it ever actually was Woodrow who was doing to governing.

It was a critical moment. The international treaty creating the League of Nations was up for ratification in the U.S. Senate. Senate Republicans, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, were against certain provisions of the treaty. But Wilson seemed to take a hard line: no compromise. He’d rather see the bill fail than make a few adjustments, or give the Republican’s a face-saving concession. Wilson– or Mrs. Wilson, concerned that anyone should perceive a vacuum of leadership, brooked no dissent, no argument.

The treaty went down in flames.

Vice-President Thomas Marshall would surely have agreed to some of the amendments proposed by the Republican opposition– as might have a healthy, rational, Wilson– and the treaty would have been ratified, and the might and influence of the United States might have saved the League of Nations from it’s cruel fate of impotence, ineffectiveness, and its ultimate collapse in the face of German aggression and French and British intransigence.

It is possible– perhaps even likely– that no stroke: no Hitler.

This is not the same as saying that Woodrow Wilson was indispensable. The tragedy of Edith Bolling Wilson’s deceit was precisely the result of her delusion that Wilson was indispensable, that no one else should be allowed to lead the country at a critical moment in world history –the same delusion held by Robert Byrd who should have retired years ago.

It should also be said that a responsible Cabinet minister or Secretary of State or General should have insisted that Mrs. Wilson step aside and allow accountable political leaders to determine if the President was capable of carrying out his duties.  If Mrs. Wilson had insisted on blocking access to her husband, they should have followed the law and removed him from office.

But you can see the difficulty.  Do you have the Secret Service arrest Mrs. Wilson?  What if Mr. Wilson was partly coherent?

Tonight, I watched a documentary on the Berlin Wall. There it was again– Eric Honecker, Chairman of the Council of State for East Germany during the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Honecker also did not know what he did not know. As Hungary opened it’s borders and Lech Walesa overturned the Polish government and Gorbachaev transformed Russia with perestroika, Honecker clung to what he knew: the totalitarian communist state.

As tens of thousands of East Germans marched in the streets, he ordered the police to crack down, like the Chinese in Tiananmen Square. His deputy, Egor Krenz, simply refused to transmit the order, and a lower echelon functionary inadvertently– I’m not making this up– announced that the borders were open, immediately. The guards, confused, confronted with streaming crowds of refugees, opened the gates, and the genie was out of the bottle.

The Unknown Unknowns

  • Marshal Petain did not know that he did not know how to fight a war in 1939.
  • He still had all the knowledge he needed, however, to fight another war in 1914.
  • The White Star Line did not imagine that a situation would occur in which the number of life-boats on board the Titanic would matter.
  • Richard Nixon did not know that his actual culpability for the burglary of the Watergate offices of the National Democratic Party Headquarters would not matter, but his discussion of the incident in the Oval Office would eventually lead to his impeachment.
  • Nicholas II did not know even the Russian peasants no longer regarded his position as the result of the direct intervention of God in the affairs of men.

Errol Morris in the New York Times

Eric Honecker

G20 Opium Wars

The biggest Security Theatre show in the world takes place in Toronto this week. The people who are supposed to represent us, the voters, will do everything they can to keep as much distance as possible between their lavish affair, their snack bars and drinks, their banquets and soirees, and us, the smelly, worried, unprivileged mob.

In fact, they clear the expressways so the cavalcade of bulletproof limos and security mobs can proceed from airport to conference center without having to meet the gaze of frustrated travelers. You wait so Obama can glide. You have to wonder if any of these leaders have the slightest clue anymore of what real life is like for their own citizens.

It’s not surprising that some terrorists out there might think it’s a good target: the display of monumental privilege must surely excite them. The fences and guns and helicopters — it’s all like a wonderful, violent opera.

It also creates a perception among the easily persuaded that these leaders are so important, so indispensable– such marvels of brilliant leadership and vision– that no expense can be spared in keeping them safe. In fact, every one of them is very dispensable— the graveyards are full of them, as De Gaulle observed. The security services don’t mind colluding with the politicians because, if politicians are important, the jackboots protecting them are necessary.

If you think, well, it’s a lot to put up with, but, after all, these meetings are important. No, they aren’t. The idea of public disagreement is so horrifying to the organizers that they have their cronies work out all of the language of all the announcements weeks before hand. If there is real disagreement, the announcements only cover the areas where they agree: we will improve the environment, encourage economic growth, seek justice and purity and the preservation of our bodily fluids. Amen. So, surrounded by security theatre, we have political theatre.

Have you considered… how come they don’t shut down the nation’s capital every time parliament is in session?

History is full of oddities.

In the 19th Century, Britain and other European nations were trying to develop a healthy trade relationship with China. Chinese ceramics, silk, and tea were in huge demand in Europe. Britain sent a delegation to the Qing dynasty to show them some of Europe’s most exciting new technologies to be offered in exchange. The Chinese were not impressed, and demanded silver instead. As supplies of precious metals began to dwindle, the European nations settled on a different product they wished to offer the Chinese. Wait for it: opium. Yes, the British East Indian Company was your local drug pusher.

Those crazy Chinese– they didn’t see the wonderful upside to this innovative trade relationship, and decided to ban opium. This led to the First Opium War, in which the European powers humiliated the Qing dynasty and forced it to sign a humiliating armistice, the Nanking Treaty, granting the European powers the right to brutally exploit Chinese markets and labour. The treaty also ceded Hong Kong to the British, if you’ve ever wondered why the British eventually ceded it back.

I’m always impressed by the righteous outrage expressed by oppressors when their victims summon the courage to fight back. The Boxer Rebellion was portrayed in the West as an attack on missionaries and Christian Chinese. The missionaries themselves only seemed dimly aware of their function as cultural emissaries of British and American imperialism. They didn’t see any problem with associating Christianity with gunboat diplomacy.

Another historical oddity:

In 1945 when Japan surrendered, Chiang’s Chongqing government was ill-equipped and ill-prepared to reassert its authority in formerly Japanese-occupied China, and asked the Japanese to postpone their surrender until Kuomintang (KMT) authority could arrive to take over. [From Wikipedia entry on Chiang Kai-shek]

This is not the only time an ally– a freedom-loving, democratic, liberal, enlightened, western power– actually asked the Japanese– spawn of Satan just moments before– to hold a population down so a new oppressor could take over for the old oppressor without the local people being given a chance to form a representative government.

Well, let’s all not get patriotic here. This is what governments do. They do it with far more sophistication and polish in the west, but they do it nonetheless: pin you down long enough to have your pockets picked clean. You can spot the patriots easily: they have flag pins in their lapels. They get teary-eyed when you play the anthem. They invite the press to view them touring the graveyards for the men they sent to die for your sub-prime mortgage, your derivative, your Enron stock, your gasoline.

You almost never find them in uniforms themselves.

Sophie’s Choice

“Almost no one knows — including Sophie and Stingo — that Nathan is schizophrenic.” From the Wikipedia entry on “Sophie’s Choice”.

The question is, if no one knows that Nathan is a schizophrenic, how does anyone know he is a schizophrenic?

First, I do want to make it clear that I think “Sophie’s Choice” is a fine book by a fine author. But I find this little episode silly. We’re supposed to give knowing nods to each other, aren’t we? Ahhhh! He’s a schizophrenic! No wonder. We were fooled because he was self-medicating.

In fact, Nathan has just been labeled. Nobody has to prove that he is anything now: he has a label. That is sufficient. A label is what you use when you can’t be troubled to find any specific facts or evidence for your belief. [In an unusually contrived episode of West Wing, that could only have been written by a writer with an unnatural dependence on his therapist, “Noel”, Josh Lyman is similarly glibly labeled as “PTSD”.]

So how would you know if it’s true– if you were a character in this fiction. How would you know if Nathan is a schizophrenic? Author William Styron needs the label for dramatic tension so he glosses over the question.

Is there some tattoo somewhere on his body that tells the discerning acquaintance: schizophrenic? No– some person with a degree on his wall, who may be a genius or an idiot– we’ll never know, for both of them have an equal chance of getting the degree (the Nazi party was full of degrees)– this person, by virtue of society’s capitulation to the pseudo-sciences, has decreed: Nathan is a schizophrenic.

You can lock him up now. Anything he says in his own defense is to be regarded as further proof of his insanity. The more justly he becomes angry at your attempts to pigeon-hole him, the crazier he is. But no one may question the sanity of the man with the diploma on his wall. He has science on his side. He had the audacity to give the first label, thereby shifting the burden of proof on the labeled. Nathan is deprived of the presumption of sanity.

If only it was science, or something, anything more credible. In my view, most of what passes for “psychology” is a religion in drag; it’s a religion that tries to hide it’s assumptions behind a veil of mangled statistics and manipulative language that always manages to give a plausible answer to the wrong question.

There is no greater arrogance in the entire world than to sit in judgment of another person’s sanity. Anyone who would do this should get his head examined.

And if only Nathan had had the foresight to get his diploma first– he, also, was a genius– he could have decreed his brother as delusional instead of the other way around. Just imagine the scene in which the brother informs Stingo that Nathan is insane. Imagine, if you will, that Stingo has been told in advance by Nathan that the brother is delusional: the scene would work perfectly, and the brother would come off as no less creepy, least of all for inviting a perfect stranger to secretly report to him on the private activities of his brother.

So the lesson is this: be the first to get your diploma, so that you can deem all those who offend your prurient sense of good order and propriety insane.

The power of labels. Stingo is too naive to actually question whether a label means anything. He assumes that psychiatrists have some magical powers that allow them to reduce the sum of a person’s behaviors to a syndrome which, like all good labels– including the star of David– shall subsequently determine the context in which all other behaviors are regarded. Nathan’s rage at an unjust world– a world with lynch mobs, or HUAC, or the inquisition, or Salem’s magistrates, or a KGB — around every corner– is the result, say the doctors, of his schizophrenia.

Or maybe it’s the only sane reaction to a world gone mad. To a world that shows no signs of learning from it’s mistakes. From a world that still embraces the passions of the mob.

[Upon re-reading this, it has occurred to me that someone might say, well, would you rather Nathan be allowed to do whatever he wants, including harm himself or others? That’s always the rejoinder, isn’t it? If you dare to challenge social orthodoxy, then you’re responsible for bad things that happen, even though these people never take responsibility for the failures of their own ministrations. So, just to clarify for the easily confused: no, I’m not advocating that people do nothing. I’m just saying that we often use labels to avoid grappling with complexity, and, in many cases, to justify drastic actions that end up doing more harm than good.]

Education Pimps

It is very hard to imagine anything nice or interesting about the University of Phoenix, a private, for profit university which has over 500,000 students. I imagine myself as a student at this corporate meat-grinder and feel depressed.

The problem is this: why would a for-profit corporation care about history, or philosophy, or literature, or music, or art? They would only care about it as something that can be packaged and marketed to impressionable young people as a component of a certificate which will entitle them to a good-paying job which entitles them to a home and a car and nice clothes and vacation trips to Europe where they can examine ancient artifacts and artworks and take digital pictures and post them to Facebook and make wise investments and retire and die alone. They would be as interested in history as Microsoft is interested in literature, or IBM is interested in music, or General Motors is interested in nature: only insofar as it can be used to sell a product.

The online versions of schools like the University of Phoenix are even more depressing. You take courses over the internet on your computer. You punch in and punch out. You fill in the blanks, check off the boxes, get your scores. Does this even remotely begin to teach you the process of thinking on your feet, or responding to situations and expressions, or learning to connect to other people?

The rats who run the University of Phoenix understand few things:

  • many potential students don’t have $100,000 to pay for a degree
  • the government has lots of money
  • students can apply for loans
  • students at the age of 20 or so have no real understanding of 2 things: a) what the real odds are of them getting that “high-paying” job the University of Phoenix claims will be theirs when they graduate, and, b), how hard it will be to pay off that student load
  • all of that money is just sitting there waiting for them to skim off most of it to line their own pockets