Complexity: What An Amazing Concept!

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When I was a kid in the 1950s, trying (I say in retrospect) to educate myself about history and politics, I soldiered through Winston Churchill’s multi-volume sets on the Second World War (I was impressed by the rhetoric: “In defeat, defiance. In victory, magnanimity”), and the History of the English Speaking Peoples. Churchill used broad strokes. There was good and bad, us and them, the Anglo nations and the others.

Wow, what a long way we haven’t come. George W. Bush’s first and last words on the September 11 attacks were that they were “evil”; everyone must choose between “us” and “them”; and his “broad coalition” is pretty much the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia. The Germans and French are thinking about dipping their toes in the actual action. How uncomplex the world is still made to seem.

Whatever the virtues of simplifying, you have to admit there aren’t many places to go once you reduce a huge mess to something like good versus evil. As we’ve seen this past week, the news on so momentous a subject starts to dry up. Wednesday’s The Globe and Mail had nothing of it on page one except a small piece on bioterror. It still suffuses our lives and global politics, but there seems little to say.

When the Taliban asked for proof of guilt before extraditing Osama bin Laden, George Bush replied, “There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he’s guilty, turn him over” — the brusque way he treated appeals from the 152 people executed when he was governor of Texas.

Yet dealing with that request could have been useful, not just regarding Osama bin Laden but in learning how terror cells operate, how controlled or autonomous they are, and so what countermeasures and expectations are appropriate. “I wouldn’t put it past him,” said the President this week, “to develop evil weapons to try to harm civilization,” adding he had no evidence. I sometimes wish he’d read the odd thing as well as consulting his instincts.

Pursuing complexity, on the other hand, means encouraging opposition and debate, which the U.S. loves in theory but, oh boy, you should have seen Ted Koppel introduce a recent Nightline on dissent. He tied himself in knots warning viewers they might not like what they hear, but America stands for free speech etc. On and on as if in terror himself. Eventually, they went to mild cartoonist Ben Magruder, mildly chatting.

This week on CNN's Talkback, a grad student from Berkeley raised the slightly complex issue of past U.S. support for Islamic fundamentalism. The host didn’t even let the talk radio motormouths on the show jump the kid, she leaped in with, “He already told you he doesn’t care why they recruited bin Laden.”

Yet if you try to avoid complexity, you may end up at best delivering mixed messages, since reality is complex. On the last Saturday Night Live, a sketch had Attorney-General John Ashcroft urging Americans to go about their normal lives calmly and, by the way, be ready for another terror attack any time!

In fact, most officials and politicians operate on two levels: the manure they spread for the masses and the things they say to each other. The latter is always more complex. Declassified documents from the start of the Cold War, for instance, show that America’s battle against the spread of evil Communist dictatorship was, internally, mainly about protecting mundane U.S. economic and strategic interests.

If you want a recent example, George Bush and Tony Blair said this week that peace in the Mideast is not essential to their war against terror. But everything they’ve done indicates they believe the opposite. The rhetoric relates to the policy, but in a complex, not simple, way.Governments are one thing, intellectuals should be something else. They’re supposed to help us think through complex matters.

Yet I’ve run into a number, like The Globe and Mail’s Marcus Gee or Hugh Segal at Queen’s recently, who seem very keen on reducing the terror problem to an encounter with evil. Is it because they’re scared apeshit like everybody else? Or is it that thinking this one through might require questioning assumptions they’ve held for a long time, like the beneficence and invincibility of U.S. foreign policy?

Grappling with complexity is a challenge for everyone, including the left. Sam Gindin, recently retired spiritual beacon of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union, has always had a deep attachment to the CAW’s extensive educational program, based in Port Elgin on Lake Erie. Workers go there and come away inspired by a new world-view that makes sense of this society from their standpoint, not just the bosses’.

I remember from my own years of organizing how transformed a young, bright worker can be by such exposure. The problem, says Sam, is they sometimes overdo it and think they can solve all problems with this shiny new key. The rest of the workers in the plant, when they return, look at them as if they’re from Mars. So the CAW is thinking of introducing an amazing new idea into its curriculum of workers’ ed. It’s called complexity.

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