Number 331 May 31, 2006

This Week:

Quote of the Week
Off the Front Page: U.S. Kills Civilians, And Plans to Kill Thousands More
Imagining a Different Philosophy: Part III in the "How Ideas Affect Policy" Series


This week's "Quote" of the Week is in honor of the third installment of the "How Ideas Affect Policy" Series.  I want to encourage you to take the time to imagine how the world would look if we were to organize it in accord with a different philosophy and ideology.  Oh, the places you'll go in your imagination if you try this!

‘Til next week,


"Quote" of the Week:

Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own.  And you know what you know.
And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go.

That's the beginning of "Oh, The Places You'll Go" by Theodor Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss.

Off the Front Page: U.S. Kills Civilians, And Plans to Kill Thousands More

First of all, an item that had been "off the front page" is now being seen ON the front page.  That item is the killing of innocent civilians--a.k.a. "murder"--by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In truth, most of the killings of innocent civilians remain off the front pages.  But, still, many  readers of the newspapers may now have heard of the Iraqi town of Haditha, where U.S. Marines apparently went on a rampage last November 19th and murdered perhaps two dozen innocent people.

There are a number of interesting things about this story.  One interesting thing is the difference in coverage in the U.S. media versus that in the foreign media.  Contrast, for instance, the May 29th headline on the story in the newspaper The Australian: "U.S. Killing Field Captured on Film."  Here's the headline--same day, same story--from the Chicago Sun Times: "Sometimes with the Heroism Comes the Horror."

There's another interesting thing to note about the coverage that has been seen since Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha--a former Marine--stated on May 18th that the Marines in Haditha had "killed innocent civilians in cold blood."  If you go back and look at U.S. newspapers from the time (late November) you will find exactly one article on the event, in the New York Times.  That article was relegated to page 15 and, typically, quoted only official sources, who reported the official story, which was that "15 Iraqi civilians and a marine were killed Saturday when a roadside bomb exploded in Haditha."

The London Independent reported on March 26th that "Although the mayor of Haditha led a protest delegation to the local Marines camp soon afterwards [in November], the official story did not begin to unravel until an Iraqi human rights group obtained a video, shot by a local journalism student..."  See what journalism CAN do?

Continuing the pattern wherein there is no "story" except for the official story, all of the current coverage of the Haditha massacre (in the past two weeks, that is) has been based on leaks from, or anonymous quotes about, an official Pentagon report, supposedly soon to be released.  A different official story!  At least we're hearing something about this massacre.  Now.

Meanwhile, the news that "at least 16 civilians were killed in air strikes by American-led forces" in the Afghan town of Azizi on May 22nd made the front page only in the Belfast (Ireland) Telegraph.  Nowhere in the U.S. were the deaths considered front-page news, which is why the name "Azizi" probably doesn't sound familiar to you.  And Azizi is hardly unique.

Perhaps even more important than reporting the murders of innocents after they occur is reporting  the deaths that can be expected to occur in the future if certain policies are pursued.  These deaths, after all, could still be prevented.  That's why it was such a huge crime that the U.S. media failed to report--on the front pages, or anywhere--on the mid-February release of a scholarly study written by Professor Paul Rogers and published by the Oxford Research Group in England, called "Iran: Consequences of a War."  The Associated Press story that went out--and was completely ignored by the U.S. media--reported that "A U.S. air assault on Iranian nuclear and military facilities would likely kill thousands of people, spark a long-lasting war and push Iran to accelerate its atomic program..."  If any Nygaard Notes reader can find a news article talking about the innocent Iranian lives that would be lost were the U.S. to attack that country, please tell me about it.  I can't find any.

Read the Iran report for yourself (since you won't find it in the media) at . Then contact your elected officials and tell them what you think.


Imagining a Different Philosophy: Part III in the "How Ideas Affect Policy" Series

PHILOSOPHY:  What I am calling "philosophy" in this series is perhaps really "moral" or "metaphysical" philosophy. (According to the Oxford English Dictionary, at least.)  That is, it has to do with the fundamental assumptions or beliefs about the nature and causes of things.  In the political and social context, I'm particularly talking about what we believe about the fundamental causes of human behavior.  To put it simply, what are my beliefs about what makes people do what they do?

IDEOLOGY: A "system of ideas or a way of thinking" that forms the "basis for an economic or political theory or system."  Ideology, says the Oxford English Dictionary, is what justifies actions, and is "maintained irrespective of events."

In Part 2 of this series I talked about the generally-agreed-upon idea that in order to successfully deal with the scourges of vaccine-preventable and other infectious diseases we will need  "innovative federal policy."  Then I pointed out that most of the ideas we ever hear about this have to do with giving corporations some sort of "incentives" (i.e. money) to do the job.  "Can't we do better than this?" I asked, and answered my own question by saying "Yes, we can."

The way to do it is, first, to understand that the very unimaginative--and ineffective--ideas that seem to be the norm in this culture in recent years are based on a certain philosophy and the ideology that goes with it.  This philosophy and ideology have been consciously and systematically promoted and reinforced for over 40 years.  (For more on this, see my "Website of the Week" in next week's Notes.)

The second way to do better is to begin working toward a general acceptance of a different philosophy, and the ideology that goes with that.  This social transformation is what I'm talking about this week.  Mysterious?  Maybe, but give me a few minutes, and I think it will be a lot less mysterious.

What I said last week is that the philosophy that is currently the "conventional wisdom" in this country is egoism, and the ideology that goes with it is what I have called "Individualist and Competitive," or IC.  "Egoism" says that society is composed of individuals who each are primarily concerned with their own individual welfare.  IC ideology forms the basis for capitalism, which is the system within which the U.S., more than any other country, provides health care, which is the example that I am focusing on to make my point in this series.

People Are Selfish... AND They're Not

What I want to suggest this week is this: If one has a different philosophy--one which says that people are basically or mostly "good," meaning they are motivated at least in part by moral standards like compassion, empathy, altruism and the desire to make a positive contribution to their community and their society--then the task of public policy suddenly is not about providing "incentives" at all.  Instead, the task becomes to figure out how to liberate people to act consistently with their highest values and principles.  Or, perhaps, to reward people when they do act in accord with their highest values and  principles--principles to which the society has committed through a democratic process.

So, if the philosophy that is currently the "conventional wisdom" in this country is egoism, or selfishness, what would be a different philosophy?  One idea is that it would simply be some sort of "opposite," which in this case would be selflessness, or altruism.  But I don't believe that most people act purely out of altruism most of the time.  Instead, I believe that egoism is in fact a part of what motivates human beings to do what they do, and that altruism is ALSO a part of the equation.

So, what I'm left with as an alternative to an egoist philosophy is a philosophy that says that human beings are complex creatures, with complicated motives that are almost never a clear choice between "A" and "B."  Or between "us" and "them."  Or--dare I say--between "good" and "evil."

Why do I believe that human beings are complex?  Is that simply the way I would like the world to be?  No, actually there is all sorts of evidence that people behave in different ways in different times and places.  People certainly act in selfish ways at times, in ways that apparently are aimed solely at serving their self-interest.  But people also act in what might be called "prosocial" ways, in ways that do not benefit them personally, but that make life better for the group, whether it is the family, the neighborhood, the city, the watershed, the nation, or the world.  There's even research now which indicates that human beings might have something called an "altruism gene."  (I'm not going to go into that here, but there is an interesting group in Australia that is looking into this sort of thing, called the International Institute for Prosocial Behavior and Altruism Research.  Check them out at )

So, based on my belief that human beings are complex and have the capacity both to act in their own self-interest / and / in the interest of others, I subscribe to an ideology that I call a "Social and Cooperative" ideology.  Some of the values that are at the core of this ideology include the values of Solidarity, Justice, Compassion, and Democracy.  If this ideology were to form the basis for an economic or political theory or system (as ideologies do), then we would end up with something quite different from the economic and political systems we now have.  And, even before we create an entirely new system, such a philosophy would lead us to very different policies as we try to deal with current issues under the current system.

REALLY Innovative Public Policy to Protect Public Health

I started out this series by talking about bird flu, and regular flu, and vaccine shortages, and needless deaths all over the world.  I said that everyone agrees that effective solutions exist which are inexpensive and easy to provide, that those who currently have the means to provide those solutions are not providing them, and that we need to come up with some "innovative public policies" to deal with this reality.

Given the constraints of the dominant IC philosophy and ideology, the "innovative" policies put forward are all about "new incentives" aimed at "making the infectious diseases market more attractive to industry."

Now, twist your mind around and let go of one of the key ideas in the IC ideology: the idea that it will only be "attractive" to someone to save millions of lives if they can make a profit doing so.  Just think about it, and think about the fact that it is PEOPLE--not corporations--who actually do the work of public health.  That is, it's PEOPLE who figure out how diseases work, PEOPLE who do the research that gives us vaccines, PEOPLE who drive the trucks that deliver the vaccines, PEOPLE who actually give the shots, PEOPLE who build the clinics where the shots are given, and on and on.

Think further, about the people you know.  What would you have to offer them in order to give them the "incentive" to make malaria vaccines, or bird flu vaccines, rather than Viagra or Botox?  I suggest that some of the most basic things that people want are security, the means to feed and clothe themselves and their families, and the opportunity to do meaningful work.  So you wouldn't have to offer a lot more than that to most people to get good things to happen.  To corporations, on the other hand, you can and must offer only one thing: money.

Here, then, are a few examples of starting points for developing the "innovative public policies" that could make it possible for people to do the work necessary to meet the needs of society when it comes to public health:

1.  Take, or keep, the public health infrastructure out of the hands of corporations;

2.  Forbid the patenting of needed medicines, as they "belong" to everyone;

3.  Set up a system for providing secure jobs to people who want to work at providing for the public's well-being;

4.  Develop a democratic means for gathering the resources together that these people will need in order to address public health needs;

5.  To back up the moral incentive, allow for PEOPLE to profit to the extent that they solve problems or improve quality of life.  (As opposed to allowing corporations to profit from meeting the market demands of affluent consumers.)  That is, the people who work hard to produce socially useful things get paid more, rather than people making money simply because they bought the most profitable stock.

We're far away from ideas like these right now, I realize.  But next week, in what I think will be the last part in this series, I'll talk about one particular idea--the owning of ideas themselves--and hopefully show that we are perhaps not as far away as it may seem at the moment.