Feynman’s Answers

This is quite popular online:

Feynman Questions

The late American physicist Richard Feynman started his career as a young physicist on the Manhattan Project, the secret U.S. government project to develop the atomic bomb. He would go on to win a Nobel Prize for physics in 1965 for his work in quantum electrodynamics, which he shared with two other physicists. I couldn’t tell you much about quantum electrodynamics, but I know that Feynman also attracted a lot of attention as a member of the U.S. government’s Rogers Commission, which investigated the tragic Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986.

It was Feynman who figured out what went wrong: the rubber “O-rings” that were used to seal the joints of a solid rocket booster failed to expand at or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and the temperature at the time of the shuttle’s launch on Jan. 28th, 1986, was right around 32 degrees F. Due to the O-rings’ failure to expand, gas escaped and turned into flame, heating the fuel tank until it ruptured and released liquid hydrogen into the atmosphere and exploded. Feynman and the commission also found a variety of other problems related to the O-rings.

In his own seperate report appended to the commission’s main report, as well as in media appearances, Feynman criticized NASA officials, who, he said, should have known about the O-rings, but they had ended up fooling themselves. They had not previously suffered any problems with other launches and so, reasoned NASA’s managers, things would continue to be hunky-dory. This blinded them to obvious flaws that had not previously led to disaster thanks only to mere chance.

They really should’ve known better, said Feynman. That nothing had gone wrong before was no excuse for those men of science, whose knowledge should have been their guide.

Those views did not win him many friends in Washington, where the unquestioned expertocracy rules all. No doubt these final words from his addendum to the commission’s report rankled the feathers of a D.C. bureaucrat or two: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

“Nature cannot be fooled,” implying, as emphasized by the bit about public relations, that human beings most certainly can be fooled, including scientists. We are all gullible and naive to some extent, and we all have our blind spots and shortcomings, including those with PhDs in physics who are employed by NASA.

Naturally, when people see the quote at the top of this post, they nod their head in agreement. For they instinctively understand that nobody has all the answers to everything and so there is always room for doubt and skepticism, for some more critical examination of people’s claims and ideas. And doesn’t agreeing with this very sensible insight show everyone just how open-minded you are, how liberal and tolerant you are toward contrasting and dissenting views?

But let’s be honest. A cursory glance across social media on any given day tells you that an overwhelming number of people really believe that it’s only other people’s claims that should be questioned, not their own. There are many, many people who sincerely believe that they really do have it all figured out, and there’s no amount of logic or evidence that could possibly persuade them otherwise.

“It’s all those morons out there who are polluting the world with silly and destructive notions,” goes this mindset, “and fortunately I’m far too intelligent to fall for any of them, and so I’m always prepared to set them right.”

Such people are a little too damn sure of themselves, in my opinion, and unfortunately they seem more numerous than ever. Even worse, they’re a little too intoxicated with their own moral righteousness. There’s no telling how much havoc such people can wreak on the world–indeed, how much havoc such people have already wreaked on the world throughout human history. It’s damn scary.

You can’t convince me otherwise.

 

Brendan O’Neill Doesn’t Want You to Talk About Conspiracy Theories

I have a new piece up at Medium.com offering my own theoretically conspiratorial take on the recent death of multi-millionaire financial guru and alleged teen sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. I speculate in the piece as to what people should really be focusing on in regards to Epstein’s mysterious life, never mind his death.

While poking around the internets during the writing, I came across this piece on the Epstein conspiracy theory mill by the British political commentator Brendan O’Neill of Spiked-Online. In it, O’Neill derides the open discussion of conspiracy theories.

I’ve always liked O’Neill. He is, as I like to say with my tongue in my cheek, one of my favorite commies. He’s one of the small handful of pundits who can actually scribble genuinely critical and logically coherent opinion pieces in this age of emotion-driven, brain-clouded hyperbole. And he’s always been a fearless advocate of completely free and unfettered speech. But I’ll have to respectfully take some issue with him on this one.

He starts off deriding the popular meme circulating through the right-wing web that the Clintons had Epstein murdered. Fair enough. It is indeed a theory entirely lacking in evidence. I make no such claim in my own piece. For what it’s worth, I think Occam’s Razor dictates that the creep did indeed hang himself. He wasn’t murdered by the Clintons or anyone else.

But O’Neill then goes on a rant against the discussion of conspiracy theories in general. My criticism is that he treats all of them equally.

Yes, many, if not most, of the conspiracy theories out there are batshit-crazy. Where did the whole “Clinton body count” meme even come from? So far as I can tell, it originated with the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Clinton Chronicles videos that he peddled on late night TV in the early to mid-1990s. Falwell tosses around all sorts of dark rumors about the Clintons, including accusations that they had various enemies murdered in Arkansas during Bill’s 12-year reign as that state’s governor.

So far as I’ve ever been able to tell, the foundation of Falwell’s rumor mill was laid by the infamous case of the double-murder of the two teenaged “boys on the tracks” in Arkansas during the 1980s. Journalist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard documents a solid circumstantial case in his book The Secret Life of Bill Clinton (terrible title, fascinating read) that the county prosecutor at the time, Dan Harmon, was involved in the boys’ murder and subsequent cover-up. The two murdered boys, Kevin Ives and Don Henry, may have stumbled upon a nighttime drug deal that involved Arkansas state or local law enforcement officers. This occurred during the same time that the infamous CIA operative Barry Seal was trafficking cocaine into the Mena, Arkansas airport as part of the “Iran-Contra” operation. Harmon was eventually arrested for dealing drugs some years later.

Though there’s no evidence to implicate the Clintons in the boys’ murder, Harmon was definitely a connected political player at the time who was jacked into the Clintons’ Arkansas machine. Thus, I suspect, the “Clinton body count” meme was born.

Anyway, everybody knows that the only person the Clintons actually had murdered was Vince Foster.

But I digress. What was I talking about? Oh, right. Conspiracy theories, and how Brendan O’Neill thinks discussing them is bad. They’re bad, says O’Neill, because the people who buy into them deprive themselves and others of agency. They become convinced that everyone is secretly manipulated by dark, sinister forces. They’re anti-democratic because they ultimately pacify people. Why bother organizing for any kind of change if the dark conspiratorial forces always prevail?

Pish. Posh.

Such people as O’Neill singles out for eating up the most absurd nonsense are the most easily duped who will believe almost any hysterical nonsense that Alex Jones shouts into his camera. (Ironically, such people now include, as O’Neill points out, members of the establishment liberal “intelligentsia”, who continue to insist that Vladimir Putin used voodoo social media ads to elect Donald Trump president.)

That doesn’t mean that mature adults can’t entertain the possibility that there really are people–in government, high finance, or otherwise endowed with enormous political privilege–who really do get up to some genuinely shady shit from time to time. Do they “control the world”? Nobody controls the world. But do these aforementioned privileged fucks occasionally get away with fucking over people less politically endowed than themselves? Absolutely.

The killer, though, is that the most sinister conspiracies are carried out right before our eyes: The false pretext for the Iraq War; the false pretext for intervening in Libya; hell, the false pretext for the first Iraq War; the Big Bank bailouts of 2008–the biggest heist carried out in U.S. history–and in broad fucking daylight right on our television sets–are just a few examples of the plots that have been carried out right in front of us in recent years. Most of us are just too duped by the daily propaganda of the usual news outlets to recognize them for what they really are.

And never mind about Jeffrey Epstein’s death–how the hell did he get that secret non-prosecution deal with the feds back in 2008? It’s not unreasonable to speculate that if he had lacked all of his high-flying social and political connections, they would have been more than happy to throw the book at him and make him into the poster boy of the evil denizens from whom they protect us and our daughters on a daily basis–oh what we would do without the ever-vigilant federal agents of law enforcement?!

So, sorry, Brendan, but the rest of us do intend to continue speculating, and to openly discuss our speculation, about what socially and politically powerful people do when nobody’s watching them, or caring enough to hold them accountable. It is sheer speculation, of course. But the difference between speculation about conspiracy theories and the kind of speculation that political commentators such as yourself frequently indulge in is only a difference of degree, not of character.

And it is, in fact, quite democratic in its own way. It’s the way we ordinary folk remind ourselves and one another that as the ruled, we need to watch out for what the rulers are up to. That they may only be interested in serving the public good rather than their own personal gain sounds a little too much like a, well,–wild conspiracy theory.

Farewell, Justin Raimondo

cc82a136-b0a4-4906-9361-b5a77d879359

Justin Raimondo, author and co-founder and longtime editor-in-chief of Antiwar.com, recently lost his battle with cancer at the age of 67.

Raimondo was not exactly a household name. He made an occasional appearance on television and radio, but most people have no idea who he was. And yet he and Antiwar.com have had a profound impact on the popular perception of the many U.S. wars that have been initiated since 9/11/01. His frequent critiques of the American war machine were devoured by a relatively small but dedicated niche audience, whose political views ranged across the entire spectrum from left to right, and who all shared his contempt and disdain for systematic mass murder by the state, and all the deception and convoluted moral gymnastics that go with it.

Those dedicated readers learned much from Raimondo over the years about that small but powerful clique of court intellectuals known as the “neoconservatives,” who acted as the bodyguards of lies to justify the criminal U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the endless U.S. war in Afghanistan, the destruction of Libya and much of Syria, and many other areas of the U.S. government’s lawless foreign policy. Many of those readers then distributed what they learned from Justin far and wide, which undoubtedly helped shape the skepticism of U.S. war and empire that is broadly shared by so many ordinary Americans at the present moment.

I only exchanged the occasional tweet with Raimondo; I never got to meet him, unfortunately. But I always detected a delightfully cantankerous and crotchety personality throughout his voluminous writing. As you read his razor-sharp broadsides at Antiwar.com, you couldn’t help but imagine that he was sitting right there next to you, chain smoking as he explained everything.

Looking at Antiwar.com’s obituary, to say that he was a complicated man containing multitudes would be an understatement.

Born into a Catholic family in Yorktown Heights, NY, he led a childhood so rebellious that he nearly got incarcerated in a mental institution by a prominent psychiatrist who later turned out to be a Soviet spy.

He decided that he was an Objectivist and libertarian at the age of fourteen; he even deigned to pen an article on Objectivism at that tender age, which was published by a New York newspaper. He was thanked for his efforts with a cease-and-desist letter from Ayn Rand’s attorney, which eventually led to him meeting Rand herself. Struck by his youth, she ended up encouraging his passion for writing and urged him to never compromise his vision.

He was a gay libertarian who was a fierce advocate of gay liberation in his youth but then developed some conservative sympathies as he got older, a man who alternatively participated in the presidential campaigns of Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. To his many critics, those elements didn’t seem to go together. But those seemingly incongruous pieces do in fact fit when you grasp the strategically evolving nature of how he developed his views. Dismantling the U.S. war machine and achieving liberty were always the foremost goals of his writing, which he largely learned how to do from his early mentor, the late Austrian school libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, who was also a persistent and intransigent opponent of American militarism.

Like Rothbard, Raimondo came to realize that in order to mount an effective challenge to U.S. militarism in the court of public opinion, you’re going to have to make an appeal to the ordinary working class Americans who have been sending their kids into the U.S. armed forces, only to see them return in flag-draped coffins or physically and/or psychologically crippled. In Raimondo’s view, too much of the antiwar movement, historically dominated by the political left since the Vietnam War, had become distracted with lifestyle and group identity politics to the detriment of their antiwar activism. And though politically divergent on many other issues, Nader and Buchanan were both aggressively critical of Uncle Sam’s globally interventionist foreign policy, Buchanan particularly so following the collapse of the USSR and Bush Sr.’s war to save the financial behinds of the emirs and sheiks of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein.

Raimondo’s reasoning also escaped the comprehension of his critics when it came to his treatment of Donald Trump. Though at first extremely hostile to Trump’s candidacy early in the 2016 election cycle, Raimondo recognized a new opportunity to strike a blow against the U.S. foreign policy establishment after Trump denounced the pretext for the Iraq war as a pack of lies at the GOP South Carolina primary debate in February 2016. He began writing more and more in defense of Trump’s campaign and then his administration, especially when it came to any apparent resistance by Trump to the mandarins of the U.S State Department and the Pentagon.

But it’s not my job or place to offer any apologetics on Raimondo’s behalf, nor do I have any desire to. I didn’t always agree with his observations and interpretations of certain events. In any case, the man wrote quite clearly and articulately on behalf of his own views. My point is only that there was one very important reason for Raimondo’s sympathies with the Trump phenomenon: He saw it as, potentially, a means to an end, that end being a rollback of the U.S. government’s sprawling, globe-spanning machinery of endless war. How correct Raimondo was about that is, in my own humble opinion, debatable. But the fact remains that Trump, though he did ratchet up Barack Obama’s intervention in Yemen, has not exactly turned out to be quite the warmonger that so many of his critics claimed he would be. Despite preceding press coverage to the contrary, it does not look as though there will be any U.S. war on Venezuela anytime soon, and when the hour arrived to strike Iran, Trump called it off at the last minute.

One could easily imagine Raimondo writing similarly in support of Democratic U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard right now due to her own opposition to the U.S. government’s idiotic and pointless regime-change wars.

That’s because ending U.S. foreign wars was always his number one political priority, and he happily took what he could get wherever he could find it, on whatever point of the political spectrum it could be found.

Justin Raimondo spent virtually his entire life fighting for one of the worthiest causes that any American could ever dedicate himself to: the rollback of, with an eye to someday entirely dismantling, Uncle Sam’s massive war machine.

And for that, there is no doubt that St. Peter embraced him upon his arrival at the pearly gates with the following words: “You did good, son. You did real good. Welcome, and enjoy your rest.”

ADDENDUM:

Aside from Anitwar.com’s wonderful obituary (and do read the whole piece to the very end), here are some other tributes to Justin Raimondo from people who knew and worked with him:

“How Justin Raimondo Made Me A Braver Writer” by Kelley Beaucar Vlahos at the American Conservative.

“In Memoriam: Justin Raimondo, 1951-2019” by Edward Welsch at Chronicles, to which Raimondo was a regular contributor for many years.

Scott Horton discusses Justin Raimondo’s legacy with Pete Raymond.

Horton also discusses Raimondo’s legacy with Tom Woods here and the future of Antiwar.com here.

A Disappointing ‘Vice’

I finally got around to watching writer-director Adam McKay’s Vice on Amazon Prime. I’d been eagerly anticipating a viewing ever since the first trailer came out but just never had the chance to catch it at the theater. I was overjoyed when my wife and I had a couple of hours to spare for a movie at home and she suggested watching it. And so we watched it.

And what a massive disappointment.

Vice is a rambling, chaotic mess. It can’t seem to decide what kind of story it wants to tell about Dick Cheney. There isn’t anything revealed about him that is particularly surprising or insightful, other than perhaps his wayward youth. (Something he has in common with George W. Bush.) Cheney was apparently something of a ne’er-do-well who lived under constant threat of abandonment by his wife, Lynne. It all changed, at least according to the film, when he went to work as an intern in Washington, D.C., and he happened to hear a welcome speech by a U.S. congressman from Illinois named Donald Rumsfeld. That was when Cheney decided that he was a Republican and wanted to spend the rest of his life in politics.

Some of the episodes of Cheney’s life that the film chooses to delve into seem a bit odd to me. Yes, it goes into the 9/11 attacks and his immediate push to at least partially blame it on Iraq, but it barely touches at all on his time as secretary of Defense under Bush Sr. Cheney was instrumental in pushing the U.S. into war against Iraq the first time as well, and under just as patently false pretenses as those that were offered for the second Iraq war. One of the most egregious humdingers was the claim that classified U.S. intelligence surveillance photos revealed that hundreds of thousands of Saddam’s forces were amassed along the Saudi border. That’s what convinced the Saudis to allow their country to serve as a base for the U.S. and its allies, from which they would launch their “Operation: Desert Storm.” (Osama bin Laden later cited the continued U.S. military presence on Saudi soil after the war’s end as one of his main beefs against America.) No such surveillance imagery has been confirmed to this day. It was simply a lie.

It goes completely unmentioned in McKay’s film, however. Instead, he spends time on Cheney’s efforts, in collaboration with anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, to roll back the estate tax. I don’t know, if I were making a movie about Dick Cheney, I would find Cheney’s manipulating the country into a war far more dramatically compelling than a subplot about tax policy, but maybe that’s just me.

McKay deserves some credit for at least making some attempt to humanize his subject, such as Cheney and his family grappling with his daughter Mary coming out as a lesbian at a time when social acceptance of homosexuals was not nearly as common as it is today, not to mention the political implications for Cheney in light of his conservative constituency. The film depicts him as being rather forward-thinking and unconditionally accepting of Mary as she is, and McKay understandably sees this as one of his subject’s redeeming qualities. But it seems almost tacked onto the film as an afterthought, as though somebody forced McKay to mention at least one thing about Dick Cheney that he found positive.

As far as Christian Bale’s performance is concerned, it looks like he got an Oscar nomination for doing an excellent Dick Cheney impression. 

Any good biographical film should seek to understand its subject, to try to find out what makes him tick, how he sees the world and his place in it. I can’t say that I gleaned anything of the sort from Vice.

Peace May Be Breaking Out in Afghanistan

By way of Justin Raimondo’s latest editorial at Antiwar.com (which I strongly urge you to read, and with an open mind), I’ve come across this latest development in the long and bloody war in Afghanistan, as recently reported by the Washington Post:

A first possible breakthrough in the 17-year Afghan conflict came in June, when a brief cease-fire during a Muslim holiday produced a spontaneous celebration by Afghan troops, civilians and Taliban fighters. The nationwide yearning for peace became palpable.

Now, in a development that could build on that extraordinary moment, a senior American diplomat and Taliban insurgent officials have reportedly held talks for the first time, meeting in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar and agreeing to hold further sessions. According to Taliban officials, they discussed reprising the truce in August.

Officials in Washington have not acknowledged the meeting, but the State Department confirmed that its senior official dealing with the Afghan region, Alice Wells, traveled last week to Doha, the Qatari capital, partly to “commend the government” for its “ongoing support for peace in Afghanistan.” Qatar has long hosted a Taliban political office.

This is quite significant, and hopefully bodes well for an eventual end to the endless war in Afghanistan, which dates back to at least 1978, when the Afghan army, sympathetic to the country’s Marxist party, overthrew the government of Mohammed Daoud Khan and executed his family. Daoud himself had seized power by means of a military coup several years earlier and ended the Afghan monarchy. After a subsequent series of Marxist-Leninist reforms that were despised by much of the country’s traditionally Islamic population, an Islamist uprising ensued, followed by a complicated power struggle. Soviet Russia then eventually moved in to support the country’s struggling government in late 1979, and the country has suffered a long, torturous, tragic series of wars ever since, of which the U.S. intervention that began in October of 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, is but the latest bloody chapter. Now going on 17 years, it’s been the single longest war that the U.S. government has ever prosecuted.

Even though Afhgan President Ashraf Ghani successfully mediated a cease-fire in June at the close of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, outright peace talks have always been elusive. The Taliban has insisted that they will negotiate only with the U.S., contrary to the U.S. government’s prior insistence that any peace talks consist exclusively of the warring Afghan parties. The Taliban makes no bones about who is the real sheriff in that country.  And even the hawkish Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has indicated a willingness to enter into serious talks with the Taliban.

There are no guarantees, of course, but this latest development seems a promising sign. It seems unlikely that the U.S. would accept any peace agreement that didn’t include at least some American military presence in the country, and whether that would ever be acceptable to the Taliban remains to be seen.

But let’s hope that we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

William Stephenson’s Role on the Devil’s Chessboard

I’ve just recently started reading David Talbot’s 2015 book The Devil’s Chessboard, his narrative of the shadowy CIA Director Allen W. Dulles. I’ve only just got through the first chapter, but as I understand it from the reviews that were written when the book was first published, Talbot builds a thesis that Dulles was the man behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

While I’m deeply skeptical of that theory (I’m fully aware that Dulles was up to all sorts of dark and twisted skullduggery in his long and murky career, but that doesn’t mean he was responsible for one of the most notorious events of 20th century American history), Talbot offers some very educational information so far.

For example, I knew virtually nothing of the Canadian agent for British intelligence, Sir William Stephenson. Stephenson was the man who was code named “Intrepid” by his friend Winston Churchill. He was also the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character. Fleming worked with Stephenson during his stint in British naval intelligence.

What’s interesting, and what I just never knew, was that, at least according to Talbot, Churchill, not long after the British evacuation at Dunkirk, dispatched Stephenson to the United States in 1940 for the express purpose of swaying a wary and isolationist American public to support U.S. entry into the war in support of the British cause, with President Franklin Roosevelt’s full support. Stephenson’s “British Security Coordination,” which was headquartered at Rockefeller Center, eventually  employed as many as 3,000 people.

“It was a remarkably ambitious covert enterprise,” notes Talbot, “particularly considering that England was operating on friendly soil.”

But then here’s what’s really interesting: Talbot claims that Stephenson was authorized to kill (“licensed to kill,” just like the fictional hero for whom he was supposedly the inspiration), not only German intelligence agents and members of a network of Nazi spies, but also “pro-Hitler American businessmen” as well. Stephenson had British assassination teams at his disposal to accomplish this. At one point Stephenson considered killing Dulles’ German business associate Gerhard Wetrick because of his activities lobbying for Hitler’s regime in the U.S., though Wetrick was eventually deported instead.

Talbot cites as his source an interview he conducted of John Loftus, who investigated Nazi war crimes for the U.S. Justice Department. Loftus also supposedly cites Stephenson’s authorization to kill in his 2010 book, America’s Nazi Secret.