Monkey on a Tiger
By MAUREEN DOWD
There was a touch of parody to the giddy Democrat takeover this week: Nancy Pelosi indulging her inner Haight-Ashbury and dipping the Capitol in tie-dye, sashaying around with the Grateful Dead, Wyclef Jean, Carole King, Richard Gere, feminists and a swarm of well-connected urchins.
The first act of House Democrats who promised to govern with bipartisan comity was imperiously banishing Republicans from participating in the initial round of lawmaking. Even if Republicans were brutes during their reign, Democrats should have shown more class, letting the whiny minority party offer some stupid amendments that would lose.
Perhaps the Democrats’ power-shift into overdrive is a neurological disorder, or neuropolitical disorder.
If free will is an illusion — if we are, as one philosopher put it, “nothing more than sophisticated meat machines,” doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over — that would explain a lot about the latest trend in which everyone is reverting to type.
William James wrote in 1890 that the whole “sting and excitement” of life comes from “our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.”
But in Science Times this week, Dennis Overbye advised Dr. James to “get over it,” observing that “a bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.”
As Mark Hallett of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke told Mr. Overbye, “Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. ... The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it.”
That would explain why, after voters insisted that the president wrap it up in Iraq, he made a big show of pretending to listen, then decided to do a war do-over.
Is this just the baked-in stubbornness of one man, or is W.’s behavior evidence that he has no free will? Is the Decider freely choosing another huge blunder or is he taking instructions from his genetic and political coding, fearing that if he admits what a foul hash he’s made of Iraq, he’ll be labeled a wimp, as his dad was?
If W. is trapped on a tiger, he’s not the only one.
John McCain can’t get beyond seeing himself as a maverick now that he’s become a nonmaverick, a right-wing Republican urging an escalation of a hopeless war, even though he’s already lived through an escalation of a hopeless war.
“There are two keys to any surge in U.S. troops,” Senator McCain told an appreciative audience at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday. “It must be substantial, and it must be sustained.”
With the letter she and Harry Reid wrote to the president yesterday, warning him that “we are well past the point of more troops for Iraq,” Speaker Pelosi tried to exert her free will to stop the Surge. But the Democrats aren’t willing to take real action and cut off money for the Surge. They’re predetermined to want to have it both ways: not to be blamed for the war and not to be blamed for pulling the plug on the war.
Iraq has become a snake pit of factions failing to escape fate. Shiites and Sunnis have been fighting and killing each other for about 1,400 years over who was the rightful heir to Muhammad, and yet the entire American high command was somehow taken aback that Shiites and Sunnis can’t muster the free will to keep their country from disintegrating.
Could it have been kismet that there were Shiites taunting Saddam at his hanging? Maybe it was preordained back in the days when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and the British diplomat Gertrude Bell drew the boundaries of the modern Iraq that a security guy with a cellphone would capture the spectacle.
Despite all the talk back in the 2000 campaign about a robustly experienced foreign-policy dream team, it may have been destined that the Bush administration would be asleep in the run-up to the insurgency, just as it was asleep in the run-up to 9/11, to Katrina, to the occupation and to the refugee crisis in Iraq. Either all that was predetermined, or the administration was preternaturally negligent.
Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher who said a man can do what he wants but cannot will what he wants, would have understood W.’s nonsensical urge to Surge.
We don’t know if human beings have free will. We just know that human beings in Washington appear not to.