One of my favorite anecdotes concerning modern China dates back to 1972 when President Nixon visited China and met with Zhou Enlai, the Premier of the communist state. Though the exact exchange between the two men is disputed, the story is too delicious not to tell.
While walking about the grounds of the Forbidden City, Nixon is said to have asked Zhou what impact he thought the French Revolution (1789) had had on Western Civilization. Zhou replied, “It is too early to tell.”
Even if this exchange did not take place exactly as I have told it (some who were present argue that Zhou thought Nixon was referring to the student riots in France in 1968), its widespread repetition and acceptance indicate at least the prevailing belief in the West that the Chinese take a much longer-term view of things than do we Americans. We seem not to think or strategize much beyond the end of the current fiscal year (for the government) or, worse, the fiscal quarter (for private enterprise).
A few days ago I heard a lecture broadcast on our local public radio station, KALW. It was a program from Alternative Radio, one of the very few sources of truly independent thinking about politics and social issues available today. Richard Wolf was giving a talk entitled “Naked Capitalism”. In the course of his talk, Wolf explained the fallacy underlying the idea of efficiency.
Efficiency, he said, is the idea that in deciding a course of action, one should weigh the costs entailed against the benefits to be gained. This method of making a choice sounds rational but it is, in reality, a chimera. No one can ever know all of the consequences to come from any proposed action. Unintended consequences will, in fact, always far outnumber the intended ones. Like the French Revolution, every action continues to have consequences ad infinitum. So a “cost/benefit analysis” (which is, I learned in training to be a stock broker, a standard sales tool) can never be complete and is not a formula for making choices.
Remember DDT? Eradicating mosquitoes and bed bugs, which carry disease and are annoying pests, seemed like a great idea to those who thought they could actually calculate ahead of time the costs and benefits of killing the bugs with DDT. Few imagined the environmental disaster that DDT would end up causing. Most people did not even see that disaster unfolding all around them until Rachel Carson published “The Silent Spring” in 1962.
This afternoon I awoke to another voice of reason, conscience, and knowledge telling me things that I did not know. I had barely opened my eyes when I turned on KALW and heard the last 15 minutes of another broadcast from Alternative Radio, “Community Rights”. This program was a talk given by Paul Cienfuegos. I caught only the end of the question and answer period but was stunned by hearing a number of things entirely new to me. In particular I learned that many federal laws that provide for what we take to be “rights”, including civil rights and the new health care system, are grounded in a single clause in the constitution, the interstate commerce clause. I also learned that the conservative members of the current Supreme Court are looking for ways to redefine that clause to limit its scope in such a way as to render health care and federally mandated civil rights unconstitutional.
Again I wanted not only to hear the rest of the talk but to tell you to listen to it too. (I have found that the Alternative Radio website at http://www.alternativeradio.org/ offers transcripts of its programs for only $3.00, a price even I can afford.)
I had two other thoughts as well. One thought concerned my speculation that the United States is quickly – at least in historical terms – going the way of the old Soviet Union. That is, the central government having bankrupt itself, the constituent republics or states will start to go their own ways as each struggles to establish full and competent government of its territories and population.
I have seen what I consider to be the beginning of this transformation take place over the last ten years or so. In 2006 Governor Schwarzenegger signed an environmental protocol with Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain, thereby arrogating to the State of California a power specifically reserved for the Federal government under the Constitution, namely the power to make foreign treaties and alliances. Similarly the assertion by a number of states of the power to legalize marijuana despite the federal government’s classification of the plant as an illegal substance provides another example of the Federal government’s impotence and irrelevance.
Beginning with Barry Goldwater (nominated for President by a Republican convention here in San Francisco just fifty years ago today) and flourishing under the Reagan regime, the conservative movement has sought to render Washington powerless, most effectively by making it bankrupt. It is time to recognize that they have succeeded. The United Staes of America is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
And here on the radio I heard the sound of its successor – or more properly successors – being born. The Community Rights movement is the ultimate grass-roots assertion of authority by the people themselves, rejecting the federal government established by the Constitution. If the world born out of the collapse of the US is anything like the one envisioned by Cienfuegos, the Republicans may come to rue the unintended consequences of their actions over the past half century.
The other thought I had was about the medium through which I encountered these ideas. I thought about how much more I get when I turn on the radio than when I launch my browser and go online.
Radio gives me the unexpected. When I turn on the radio, I have no idea what I am going to hear. Day after day I hear voices that I would never have sought out and learn things that I would never have known were there to learn about. The internet is a reference: when I want to know about a subject, a search engine will retrieve a huge number of sources from which I can learn about my subject. Radio, on the other hand, is a teacher: when I turn on the radio, I hear about subjects which I had not previously imagined discussed and explained by intelligent and informed people.
Even when I went to the Alternative Radio website, I would not have known to click on the program called “Community Rights”. The speaker’s name meant nothing to me, and neither did the title. But when I turned the radio on before getting out of bed, I heard ideas and information that were wholly new to me and which I immediately recognized as true and truthfully important. Knowing that I wanted to learn about “Community Rights”, I could then use the internet to gather the information I sought. But it was radio that taught me that the subject was there to learn about.
Thank you, Mr. Marconi.