Monday, January 30, 2006

The Second Childhood?
Development, Interrupted

Niranjan Ramakrishnan
Jan 30, 2006

After months of pointing out -- first the shortsightedness and then the criminality of the Bush Administration -- columnist Paul Craig Roberts has now begun to confront a deeper malaise, the idiocy of the populace. If true, this is a glacial problem and presages a catastrophe far worse than Bush's eight years. After all, leaders come and go, but the people remain. And Roberts has a point: there seems no bar to a coexistence between intelligence, education and knowledge on the one hand and complete idiocy on the other. But 'idiocy' is a rather harsh word. Perhaps childhood, or more properly, second childhood, is better.

Let me illustrate with an example.

The other evening I saw a movie, "Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang". It was about the how the US government had hidden information about low-level radiation arising from its nuclear tests in the Nevada desert, and the corresponding rise in cancer incidences among those living in the vincinity. There was a brief Q and A session after the talk. Saul Landau, the brilliant author and filmmaker whose gentle but perceptive answers were as educational as the film itself, was asked the following question: What are the rulers thinking when they engage in this kind of cover up? And why would anyone invest in a technology where the waste material is so hazaradous that it renders places unsafe for tens of thousands of years? [1]

Landau's answer (paraphrased) was that powerful people seldom admit mistakes. We tried to identify a few who did -- I mentioned Richard Clarke ("A Sorry Spectacle") and he mentioned Cy Vance. We did not waste time on the likes of Colin Powell and Robert McNamara, mute time servers when they could have done something, compulsive hand-wringers after their moment had passed. But the question goes deeper than that: Where do people who start wars, poison the environment for immediate gain and gratification, hock their country to keep interest rates low, plan to move? Mars? Unless that is their plan, their actions make no sense. American administrations may be beholden to Israel, but I don't think either nuclear radiation or global warming believes in the passover. Prophet and plebian are imperiled alike and with certainty.

Yet, we have Tony Blair proclaiming a fast push toward nuclear energy, and Iran insisting on its rights (to cancer?) Where does such idiocy spring from? Perhaps from an addiction to the mantra of growth, and development. "To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land, and read their history in a nation's eyes", has this not been the dream of every leader in history?

And in the last half-century, the nation's eyes have become key - "But it wasn't on TV, was it?" Hence the difficulty. Radiation, like global warming or disinformation, is a peril without a face. And in our image-driven times, something does not exist if it doesn't have pictures. Hence the insistence on Bush's photographs with Abramoff, as though that would somehow prove something that Abramoff's being on the transition team would not. This is perfect for a ruler. So, development. Make sure that everyone gets a TV.

The second is to keep them shopping, so their minds quit working. How else do you explain the poll in which, asked if domestic spying without a warrant was ok, there was such an equivocal response? Freedom to shop is all we care about (see Open your Wallets, not your Mouths).

The third is perhaps the result of the first two, the blithe unawareness of the addict to the immediately unobvious: Let me buy at Wal Mart, even if it is means my own job going to China tomorrow.

These are signs of regression into childhood. It takes children a few years before they learn the connection between cause and effect when the two are not in close proximity. It takes them some time to understand non-visual cues. And they need instant gratification. What Roberts sees is the fact that all three components seem present in large measure in America.

Fifty years of growth, development, unimaginable technological progress, all have led to a state where people are willing to surrender their rights.

Gandhi (whose death anniversary falls today) alone, among the leaders of the 20th century, saw the perils of mad devotion to economic progress.

"...Hinduism, Islam, Zorastrianism, Christianity and all other religions teach that we should remain passive about worldly pursuits, that we should set a limit to our worldly ambitions and that our religious ambition should be illimitable. Our activity should be directed into the latter channel..." (Hind Swaraj, 1909).

"...We notice that the mind is a restless bird; the more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied. The more we indulge our passions, the more unbridled they become. Our ancestors, therefore, set a limit to our indulgences. They saw that happiness was largely a mental condition. A man is not necessarily happy because he is rich, or unhappy because he is poor. The rich are often seen to be unhappy, the poor to be happy. Millions will always remain poor. Observing all this, our ancestors dissuaded us from luxuries and pleasures..." (Hind Swaraj, 1909)

"...We have retained the same kind of cottages that we had in former times and our indigenous education remains the same. We have had no system of life-corroding competition. Each followed his own occupation or trade and charged a regulation wage. It was not that we did not know how to invent machinery, but our forefathers knew that, if we set our hearts after such things, we would become slaves and lose our moral fiber..." (Hind Swaraj, 1909)

Thus did Gandhi see the plunge into consumer comfort as the first step towards the loss of freedom.

Yatha Raja, Tatha Praja (as the king goes, so go the subjects), went the old Sanskrit saying. Since this was before the Age of Democracy, we should modify it : "as the people go, so goes the leader". Hence the trend -- whether it is Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush (or even Gore or Kerry, although the former may now be revising his opinions) in America, or whether it is Narasimha Rao, Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh in India, the mantra of growth and development has us -- and them -- in its thrall.

"I can promise you nothing but blood, toil, sweat and tears" said another wartime leader, a real one. Ours promises low interest rates and personal savings accounts. What happened in between? We don't know. We were watching television.

Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at His blog is at A shorter version of this article appeared on Counterpunch.

[1] "The radiological half life of plutonium is about 24,000 years and the biological half life is about 20 years for liver and 50 years for skeleton. Plutonium deposited in the gonadal tissue is assumed to be permanently retained. See full essay "Plutonium" by Gary Masters (

[2] More quotations of Gandhi are available here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tales of Power

No, this is not about the work of Carlos Castaneda. It is about electricity, the stuff that flows out of the wires when we flip a switch. We take it for granted. At least conceptually, although the electric utility gives us a roulette wheel instead of a switch. Why do we need it?

We believe our industries need it, our life styles demand it. Over seventy years ago Henry Ford wrote to Mahatma Gandhi offering to electrify every village in India. The Mahatma wrote back politely declining the offer. For electricity could only be generated centrally, and such a concentration of power - both literally and figuratively – would only detract from freedom.

To return to the question, why do we need electric power? The widespread use of electric power has been known for a little over a hundred and twenty-five years. Man has lived on this planet for millions of years before that. But it was the logic of a particular pattern of industrialization that dictated the development of electric power. And it is only about a hundred and twenty-five years old.

Does the logic that gave birth to it still hold? The eminent scientist, philosopher and cyberneticist gave the nearly 60 years ago. He contrasted electricity – after the German fashion - as being “high current” or “low current”, high power or low power, the motors and machines of the industrial revolution on the one hand or the electronic, computer and telecommunication devices of the cybernetic revolution on the other.

Wiener foresaw vast changes in society and organization because of this revolution. Alvin Toffler – thirty years later - in his book the Third Wave returns to the same theme, calling future societies being like Gandhi, with satellites. No man is a prophet in his own land. And so it as been with Gandhi in India. We have castigated him by our actions, by adhering now to the Marxist or Fabian socialism, now to the capitalist road, each with an accent on vulgar materialism that is a characteristic of the industrial revolution. Gandhi had exposed the relentless illogic of mass production in another letter to Ford this time to point out that even if the world were satiated with cars, Ford would have to continue producing them!

What are some of the characteristics of a mass produced society? I was in the USA a few years ago visiting old friends who lived about an hours drive from New York City. Taking a suburban train to get there, I couldn’t help observing that there were a couple of hundred cars parked at each suburban station. Thousands of cars spent the better part of the day parked in a parking lot. What a tremendous waste!

Or take Los Angeles, for instance. You are driving on a highway which has six lanes each way going West, and each lane is full. It is morning so you are not surprised by the response to your query, “Where are all these people going?” which is that they are going to work. And every few miles you cross over another highway going North-South, each one with six lanes of traffic each way. You know the answer to my question: they are off to work too. Millions of people, driving and driven, practically the entire day either off to work or heading home from work; is this not a vision of madness? No wonder the folk singer Carole King sang a song ‘’…so far away, doesn’t anybody stay in one place any more...”

And this is what the rest of the world wants to emulate!

What are some of the implications of a switchover from high current to low current, from mass production to communication? Will we need anymore those gas guzzling creatures that endlessly ferry people back and forth in a parody of perpetual motion? Or the need to create those millions of cars that are parked at railroad stations and other parking lots? What is more, will we need any longer to pave over the country with asphalt to provide roads for the cars that we will no longer need for the people who will no longer need to travel endlessly?

And what of electric power plants which is where this story began? Need we worry
any more about fossil fuel based power plants which eat into nature’s capital while spewing smoke and dust into the atmosphere? Or about nuclear power plants that need to be run by the equivalent of people with ten heads and twenty hands – and are promoted by a man whose name sounds like the name of an ancient with such a physiology, a grotesque parody of the phrase “yesterday’s men” – to control all the things that can go wrong?

Go in peace, people of Kaiga.