The Cold Equations

Most people would like to believe that the conclusions they reach about any given problem derive directly from the cold, hard facts of the situation.  Right-wingers in particular tend to think this way, and to pride themselves on their hard-nosed realism.  But as often as not, their supposedly hard-nosed solutions have more to do with ignoring the real facts than with confronting them head on.

One example is a story called "The Cold Equations," which appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1954.  The plot is the hokey old serum-to-Nome routine, but transposed to outer space and given an added twist:  Planet-wide epidemic.  Spaceship rushing with a cargo of antidote.  Cute girl stowaway.  Insufficient fuel to handle any extra weight.  What is one life against the fate of a planet?  Stowaway goes out the airlock.  Moral -- the laws of nature are relentless and unforgiving.

The editor of Astounding, John W. Campbell, loved this story and used to cite it frequently as an example of the way the universe really works.  But around the time Campbell died in 1971, a number of critics pointed out that launching a life-or-death mission without leaving any margin for error would inevitably have a lot more to do with greed and faulty planning on the part of the spaceship company than with any actual laws of nature.

Recent failures in real-life space missions support this analysis.  For example, on February 6, 2005, Slashdot reported, "The ESA/UK Commission of Inquiry into Beagle 2 has released their report on why the Mars lander Beagle 2 failed. While the report does not name a single cause for the failure, it does name several problems including the lack of funding, lack of margin in the design, and treating Beagle 2 as a scientific instrument rather than as a spacecraft. The report also made nineteen recommendations to prevent these sorts of failures on future missions."

That's the true scientific approach, as opposed to the false and sentimental scientism of "The Cold Equations."

The real reason John Campbell was so fond of this clumsily-written little story was not because it offered an accurate prediction of the future of space travel, but because it closely reflected his own conservative approach to the world.  The essence of that approach is that when anything goes wrong you can blame nature, or blame the victim -- which is the properly hard-nosed thing to do -- but you never, ever blame the corporation or government agency whose self-favoring policies created the situation in the first place.

A similar determination to avoid placing responsibility for failure where it belongs seems to have been at the root of many right-wing assumptions about the Cold War.

In 1958, a man named Edward Hunter testified before the House Unamerican Activities Committee on the subject of "Communist Psychological Warfare (Brainwashing)."  Hunter had been with the Office of Strategic Services in China during World War II, had worked as an employee of the CIA while passing as a journalist, and would later become a prominent member of the John Birch Society. He told the committee:

The Communist interrogators, as the brainwashers called themselves, sought to remove a man’s trust in his own side, and to convince him that he was being let down and even betrayed by his own country and relatives, especially by his wife or girl friend. The Reds sought to deprive him of all hope. . . .

They took sly advantage of our shocking failure even to make an attempt to communicate with our captured men, or to try to free any of them. Even a failure would have been better for morale than utter silence which, under the circumstances, looked as if we didn’t care. The Red indoctrinators built up this impression and fit it into their patter of selfish, imperialist America led by bloated Wall Street financiers who were using our people as cannon fodder.

They had a Roman holiday over our failure even to tell our men why they were being sent to Korea to fight. When I was in Korea as a foreign correspondent, a high Army officer once came to me and pleaded with me to tell him what he was doing in Korea. He knew that the Red propagandists were spreading their reasons for him to be there, even among his own men, and he had no answers to their questions. “Nobody tells me anything,” he said. . . . He was typical of those who were captured, who had not been told why they were fighting in Korea, or anything about the nature of communism. The Red inquisitors filled the gap for these men, as possibly their most effective work.

The conclusion Hunter drew from his study of brainwashing was that the entire nation was under assault by these same techniques of communist psychological warfare and needed to increase its firmness of will to resist them:
I have been watching developments under communism in other parts of the world, and now I see exactly the same developments here in America.

I see, primarily, as part of this softening up process in America, the liquidation of our attitudes on what we used to recognize as right and wrong, what we used to accept as absolute moral standards.  We now confuse moral standards with the sophistication of dialectical materialism, with a Communist crackpot theology which teaches that everything changes, and that what is right or wrong, good or bad, changes as well. So nothing they say is really good or bad. . . .

When we raise a young man to believe that at all costs he must get on with everyone, we have put him into a state of mind that almost guarantees, if he falls into the hands of an enemy such as the Communists, that he will react as he had been raised, to try “to get on,” because he must not be “antisocial.”  Being "antisocial" has become the cardinal sin in our society.  We have to again go back to characteristics of ours which made us, as individuals, say that what is right is right, and whether or not it is antisocial, makes no difference.

It is clear from these quotes that Hunter saw the vulnerability of American prisoners of war as a purely psychological problem, one needing to be addressed  by a society-wide return to rugged individualism and a belief in moral absolutes.  His argument must have seemed convincing to some, because that is precisely the prescription which the right has followed faithfully ever since.  An urgent sense of the need to stiffen the national resolve in the face of Communist psychological warfare lurks behind every one of its political positions to this day, from endorsement of traditional religion and "family values" to assaults on environment regulation and Social Security.

The right-wing agenda presently being imposed on America has generally been regarded as a hodgepodge of single issues, having more to do with political alliances of convenience than with any coherent ideology.  And yet there is no aspect of it that is not foreshadowed in this testimony from 1958.  Even the recent right-wing hysteria about the danger of tolerating gays appears to stem ultimately from Hunter's grim warning that the ability to be open-minded about another person's point of view provides an open road for Communist brainwashing.

The fact that this testimony can currently be found online at an extreme right-wing site, which considers it an "important document," suggests that its anticipation of present-day attitudes is no coincidence.  Perhaps due to Hunter's Birch Society connections, his analysis of the world situation and America's place in it has spread widely and become a bedrock article of faith for the New Right.

And yet, there are certain questions that might have led Hunter to very different conclusions if he had been prepared to consider them.  What if the Chinese were correct when they painted a picture of a "selfish, imperialist America led by bloated Wall Street financiers who were using our people as cannon fodder"?  What if there really was no good reason for our young soldiers to be in Korea, any more than there would later be reason for them to be in Vietnam or Iraq?  What if the real vulnerability of our prisoners of war was not that they had been taught in school to be friendly and agreeable, but rather that they had never been given any education in the underlying dynamics of history, to the point where even the crude Marxism spouted by their interrogators could come as a shock and a revelation?

If Hunter and his fellow conservatives had actually been as tough-minded and realistic as they prided themselves on being, they might have acknowledged the genuine limitations in American society, rather than blaming the victims for their personal lack of moral fiber.  But precisely because they were conservatives, they could not entertain the idea that a Marxist analysis of America might have something to offer.  That would have challenged their assumptions in ways they were not prepared to handle.

The need to preserve their entrenched worldview compelled these cold warriors to ignore the simplest and most natural conclusion -- that the soldiers knew from the start they were being lied to and exploited, and their captors merely gave them the vocabulary to express those feelings.  Because the ideologues of the right turned away from this obvious answer, they were forced instead to resort to an over-elaborate analysis involving insidious enemies, decadence at home, and a need for ever-greater militancy and stiffening of the national moral fiber.

The same limitation of perspective continues today and appears to be responsible for the inability of the right to admit that people in certain parts of the world might have every good reason to be pissed as hell over American policies towards them.  This persistent blind spot translates into self-justifying theories about "evil-doers" who "hate us for our freedom," theories which can be used to rationalize an endless string of wars abroad and political repression at home.

However, despite the bluster and saber-rattling meant to camoflage the facts of the matter, our real problems today are no different than the problems of fifty years ago:  The country is still run for the benefit of the wealthy, the poor are still pressed into service as cannon fodder, and the suppression of this basic truth gives rise to social distortions, an inability to analyze the situation clearly, and an overall weakening of the national will.

All things considered, it seems legitimate to ask how bad things will have to get before the right will finally be ready to give up its sentimental attachment to the well-being of the rich and pampered and become tough-minded enough to see the world as it really is.

Cory Panshin
February 2005

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