Today's Note From a Madman

Thursday, June 2, 2005


Today is the 18th birthday of Bonnie Rachael Greenberg, my daughter I just wanted to say, in print, HAPPY BIRTHDAY BONNIE.


I received the following from a reader, now a contributor. Carroll S. Rankin, of Palo Alto, CA is a World War II veteran. He has earned the right to speak his mind, and I think its my duty to print, without editing his words. So here goes:




Oh, wad some power the giftie gi’e us

To see oursel’s as others see us…

-Robert Burns


            Somewhere in the blizzard of rhetoric that followed the election, in which everyone tried to explain why the one side won and the other side lost, one of you was quoted in the press as saying: The problem with you people [obviously addressing those of us who had just lost the election] is that you live in a world of reality.  We create our own reality”I think it was Karl Rove, but I can’t prove it because I can’t find the clipping.  If you think it was someone else, you could look it up and let me know if I am mistaken.  (Note: October 17, 2004, Without a Doubt, By RON SUSKIND –NG)


            In any case, I pondered that statement from November until now and I kept thinking: it is true (!) and it must say something fundamental about why the republican and the democratic views of our world are so vastly different.  In what ways, I asked myself, does a real reality differ from a manufactured one?  Then I remembered another quote from about the same time. Someone said: The public relations people are in charge of the republican message and, as we know, their modus operandi is deception. I believe this is also true. It was the advertisers [now “public relations”] who, long ago, invented and fostered the use of the euphemism to deceive the unwary.


Full realization of the degree of deception in the use of euphemisms hit me hardest just as WWII ended.  The Army Air Corps with which I had been flying combat missions was, I thought, engaged in fighting a WAR. My orders were signed by Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War.  Now, the Air Corps was becoming the Air Force and the orders were coming from the Secretary of Defense. It seemed incomprehensible to me at the time.  But then all I needed to do was look back to my vivid memory of the time and milieu in which the seeds of World War II were being sown.  There was a thing the press referred to as “The Big Lie”.  It served to demonstrate the theory that if you tell a lie often enough and loud enough, it will eventually be believed.  One has only to stop and think a moment how many millions of people think it was Saddam Hussein who destroyed the World Trade Center to realize just how effective the Big Lie can be.  And if you think there was anything defensive about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, you still believe in the Tooth Fairy.


We know, of course, of numerous examples of the relatively harmless use of euphemisms in advertising.  A pre-owned automobile is obviously to be preferred over a used one.  But, again, let us stop for a moment to analyze and think about the meaning of those words. Which ones tend to tell us something –the truth, for instance – about the car’s condition?  On another subject: Which person might you sympathize with, or tend to reject out-of-hand:  an illegal alien or an undocumented worker?


Aha, maybe finding the difference between a real reality and a manufactured one depends upon which one contains a kernel of the truth.  An example of the truly harmful – even malevolent – euphemism immediately springs to mind.  It was in a cartoon that appeared during the other Bush war, the one called the Persian Gulf War.  The image is now permanently burned into my memory circuits.  It depicted a recognizably Muslim woman leaving the smoking scene of extensive bomb damage, carrying a dead child, and saying: “…and this collateral damage was only six years old.”  It was your military who invented that euphemism to justify the killing of civilians but it seems lately to have gone out of style because YOU have taken a further step into malevolence by outlawing pictures of bodies, wounds or flag-draped caskets. I guess the days of counting body bags, as practiced during the Vietnam War, and which, some would argue, may have influenced those who ended that war, are gone forever.   Yep, you guys sure do create your own reality.


        Truth, it has been wisely said, is the first casualty of war and I believe we can all – particularly those of us who have experienced combat - agree that deception can be justified in the process of denying the enemy any information that would give him an advantage over us.  In the case of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, however, it was the American people who were deceived, given erroneous information, and frightened into approving actions they might otherwise have refused to support.  In my opinion, there is a huge difference. 

Memorandum to Condoleezza Rice: can you tell me whether, when you invoked the specter of a mushroom cloud in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, you were dealing, in your heart, with the honest-to-God truth or creating your own reality?  (footnote to your exchange, along those lines, with Senator Boxer, during the congressional hearing on your nomination: I think you impugn your own veracity when you tell a lie – or even twist the truth to fit your own purposes.)


        Before this turns into a diatribe, and before I get to the question I really want to probe; namely the role of government (or gummint, as Ronald Reagan called it) in our lives, there is another matter that may seem trivial, but that I believe is significant and must first be cleared up so that we can understand each other.  Now that Iran’s nuclear capabilities seem to be getting increased attention in the daily news, there will surely be more discussion and I believe clear understandings among us will be essential to that discussion.  Mr. Bush, you and ex- president Dwight D. Eisenhower are the only people I can think of who have insisted upon referring to these matters as nukular.   The field of science that we are speaking about is nuclear physics, so called because it is concerned with the nucleus of the atom.  Since the atom does not have a nukulus, I want to point out, with all due respect, and in my opinion, that referring to bombs, proliferation, enrichment, “yellow cake”, aluminum tubes and other aspects of the subject as nukular displays a profound ignorance.  In plain language, it sends a message, certainly to me, and I think also to the whole world, that you do not know the first thing about (a) physics, (b) chemistry or (c) what the hell you are talking about.  From what I have read, I gather that your advisers have not corrected this error on the grounds that it suggests a folksiness in your persona.  But in my view these matters are NOT to be treated lightly and they are anything but folksy.


        From a B-24 bomber, I saw the devastation at Nagasaki when it was not more than a month old – still warm, symbolically – and still hot from the standpoint of radiation.  None of the people on that airplane, who also saw that utter destruction could, I believe, ever treat the subject with anything but awe and for you to even consider it a remote possibility that another nuclear device might be exploded is to me inconceivable.  It is terrorism in its most abhorrent form.  Yet, only this week some idiot member of the House of Representatives proposed “dropping a nuke” on Syria so, as he said, “…we wouldn’t have to worry about Syria any more.”  In the minds of some of us, this sort of thing is known - in our reality – as Genocide!  I wish the author of this proposal could be assigned the task of finding out when the areas around Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl will again be habitable. 

Mr. Bush, in one of your early State-of-the-Union speeches, you called for a new, more powerful, nuclear device you called a bunker buster. If you were not planning the invasion of another country like Iraq and the blasting of that country’s leader out of his hiding place, why would you need such a weapon?  Is this the future you have in mind for me and for my family?  If yes - or even if no - don’t you think you owe it to me to let me know?  Mr. Cheney, did you know something the rest of us didn’t when you said, during the campaign, that if we don’t do the right thing in November were gonna get hit again?  Or was that a created reality?  And to Mr. Bush again: when you were crowing about your political capital, and how to spend it, you were asked about starting the war in the confirmed absence of WMDs in Iraq.  When you “responded” that the people have spoken, were you fully aware that approximately half of us did not vote for you?   What kind of “mandate” is that?


        Now, finally, I come to the subject where I believe euphemisms and created reality, otherwise known as fantasy, are the predominant means of your attempts to communicate.    Republicans I have known like to characterize their basic philosophy with the slogan: “…that governs best which governs least.”  I have tried my best to understand what that really means.  When I parse the phrase, - though I am no expert in language arts - it comes up every time as nonsense.  What is being said, I think, is “…that governs best which intrudes least.”  And I can go along with that.  Could anyone possibly disagree if we declare that as our national objective, adding that the last place we need governmental regulation is in our bedrooms, and the next-to-last place is in our children’s classrooms?  But now that the 15-year-old Schiavo case was suddenly deemed a crisis, requiring government intrusion, perhaps we will need to add that the third-from-last place we need governmental interference is in our hospital rooms. If we then add the wording of the first amendment, all bases relating to national purpose would, it seems to me, to be covered. (While we are on that page of the constitution, I have a question: Why do people who quote the second amendment to justify carrying guns, omit the first 13 words of that statement?)


        On balance, it seems that ample grounds for agreement are at hand.  My problem, however, is I seriously doubt that those of you who say you believe in having the smallest - or possibly no - government really believe what you are saying. You justify the huge deficit, for example, among many other factors, as tending to starve and weaken the government until Grover Norquist can “drown it in the bathtub.”  Now, there is a prime example of a manufactured reality.  But another image springs to mind. I visualize the situation as Grover leaves home on the morning after the bathtub drowning and there is no government.  In my mental picture, he resembles our most primitive ancestor, walking out of his cave, dressed in his bearskin, to begin the day’s hunt for the evening meal. There is of course no sidewalk and no street in front of his abode. If there were, and if there happened to be a pothole in the street, Grover would have only himself to notify to get busy and fix the street.  And if there were a street-light with a burned-out bulb, he would have only himself to notify about the chore of replacing the bulb. The aforementioned evening meal might present another set of problems. It would probably take more than one guy to track down and kill a woolly mammoth, or a saber-toothed tiger, or whatever kind of big birds or chickens were around in those days. Once killed, it would probably be more than one guy could eat.  So something of a cooperative nature might have to be done and Grover might find himself participating in a common effort resembling, in many ways, the one he despised and had so recently drowned in the bathtub. 


        There are too many similar examples to list here of things one would have to do without if every one of us were strictly “on his own”.  I believe we are best served when we have some sort of organization to do those things for all of us that are impractical, or maybe impossible, for us to do alone and individually. Ronald Reagan used to vilify us as “tax-and-spend democrats.” But if we stop to think, and look at the reality, isn’t that what government does? Collect money from all of us and spend it doing those things that are impractical for us to do alone and individually. What we have to do is keep the process on track and responsive to the will of “We the People.”

All right, all right, I can hear you saying, how come you’re doing all this bitching without laying out your program for setting everything right?  Well, I think I have alluded to my answer in many of the things I have said in this letter. I have no illusions, however, about the efficacy of what I propose and we are probably at least one, maybe two, generations too late if we start right now.  It seems too obvious and too simple to restate but I believe that the truth is the key. But we will need to revise our language and our thinking to look for the truth in everything we say and do.  I have gone on at length about euphemisms but, for good or ill, they are now ingrained in our efforts to communicate with one another.  This is why, I believe, we must pause, think and try to find the truth in what is being said as we try to communicate. 


        I feel compelled to lighten up a bit on the subject of the truth lest we get too serious here, so I’ll finish on a personal note, with an anecdote:  When Franklin D. Roosevelt died, I was busy with the business of dropping bombs on the Japanese out in the South Pacific. The war was showing some faint signs of winding down but the second atomic bomb had not yet been dropped and I felt that our new commander-in-chief might not be up to the job he had so recently inherited. Harry Truman fooled me, however. He found the resolve to fire the imperious Douglas Mac Arthur and later grew feisty enough to be known as “Give-em Hell, Harry.” Asked about it by a reporter, President Truman said:  No, were not gonna give em Hell this time, were gonna tell the truth and they’ll think its Hell.


         I just wish the Bush Administration would start telling us the truth about weapons of mass destruction, how much longer we will be in Iraq, the environment, “Clear Skies” and “Clean Air/Water” legislation that allows polluters to go on polluting,  “getting to the bottom (versus the top)” of problems such as torture in military prisons, their real intentions for Social Security and their vision of my – and my grandson’s - future.  Meanwhile, I’ll just go on using the pictures of the surface of Mars for a glimpse of the end of the road I believe we are now on. 


*     *     *     *     *

            This is an open letter. I have written it because I must say what I think. I feel so deeply and so sincerely about what I am saying that I cannot remain silent.  My plan is to send this to everyone I know and to others who I think might be interested.  My hope is that if someone agrees with something I have said, and feels so inclined, he will pass it along to wherever he thinks it might do some good.  If you do not agree with me and if, as Joe Lieberman says, we can disagree without being disagreeable, and, if you are so inclined, let me know where I am in error.  But, please, do not pass along another republican slogan – I have, I believe, seen or heard them all. And I hope we can deal with the issues, not - in what seems to me to be the Karl Rove doctrine - change the subject, attack the qualifications – even the personal honesty and integrity - of the questioner and brand any dissention as obstruction. 


-Carroll S. Rankin


More from Carroll S. Rankin:


Here is a piece he wrote in response to some Memorial Day questions in the Mercury News:


CARROLL S. RANKIN, Palo Alto -- Army Air Corps, 1942-45, South Pacific


What is your most vivid memory of the war?

My 29th combat mission when I saw -- on the day before the Japanese surrender papers were signed -- the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, the devastation from the B-29 fire-bombing of Tokyo, and the total devastation from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.


How would you explain to a 10-year-old what happened in World War II?

I could never explain to a 10-year-old what happened in World War II. I started writing my memories of it, and how I reacted to it, for my grandson when he was 12. He will soon be 25, and I haven't finished yet. Maybe before I die, he and I will both understand war and World War II in particular.


What is the legacy that you and your comrades have left?

An abiding aversion to war. Today, I deplore the actions of Bush & Co. in taking us into Iraq. ``Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.'' As a draftee, I felt that greatness, if any, had been thrust upon me.


-Noah Greenberg

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-Noah Greenberg