Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- July 5, 2005

Hinges of History

Ernest Partridge


  For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.


It’s tough to make predictions,
Especially about the future.

Yogi Berra

History teaches us that “the course of human events” has many surprises, born of random chance and simple luck. History’s “winners” are those who are alert, flexible and creative in the face of these surprises. And that fact should lend comfort to embattled progressives today.

For centuries, philosophers have spun elaborate “theories of history,” spelling out the fates of peoples and nations, as, they claim, the engine of history rolls inexorably along its fore-ordained course.

Plato, Hegel, Spengler, Marx, and in our time Frances Fukayama, have all endeavored to sketch a “map” of the course that history “must” take. They have no use for the lost nail that threw the rider that lost the battle and the empire.

However, the details of actual recorded history indicate that time and again the course of history turns on trivial and unpredictable contingencies. Put simply, on plain dumb luck.

Some examples:

The Battle of Midway, June, 1942.  Just six months after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese fleet was poised to seize Midway atoll and destroy much of what remained of the American Pacific fleet. If successful, the Hawaiian Islands would be within reach of the Japanese Empire. And if the Islands fell, the American fleet would be driven back to the west coast of the United States, thus prolonging the war.

The Japanese were unaware that American cryptologists had broken their naval codes and were thus forewarned of the attack on Midway.  Had the Japanese been more scrupulous and had they changed the codes, the Americans would have been taken by surprise and surely would have lost Midway Island.

The American fleet had a feeble force with which to thwart the Japanese onslaught – three aircraft carriers to four.  And those carriers were intact, thanks to the fact that they were on maneuvers at sea, on December 7, 1941.  Plain dumb luck.

The outcome of the battle likely depended upon the first sighting of the opposing force. Due to a chance break in the cloud cover, an American reconnaissance plane, at the furthest reach of its range, located the Japanese Fleet. Soon thereafter, a Japanese scout spotted the American fleet, but because the aircraft’s radio malfunctioned, a timely report could not be relayed back to the Japanese fleet command.

Due to several additional lucky breaks, which I won’t detail here, the American dive bombers destroyed three Japanese aircraft carriers within minutes, and the fourth was dispatched later that day. After the battle was effectively over and won by the Americans, the crippled carrier Yorktown was sunk by a Japanese submarine. Midway was the decisive battle of the Pacific War. For the remainder of the war, with the exception of the battle of Savo Island in the Solomons (August, 1943), the Japanese never won another sea battle.

Among the twists of fortune that determined the outcome: a break in the cloud cover and a malfunctioning radio.

Colonel Klaus von Stauffenberg’s briefcase:   On July 20, 1944, Colonel von Stauffenberg attempted an assassination of Adolph Hitler. Upon entering a conference room at Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters, von Stauffenberg placed a briefcase with a time bomb under the table where Hitler was studying some maps. At the table with Hitler was a Colonel Brandt, who happened to catch his foot on the briefcase, which he then placed at the opposite side of a heavy oak table support.

Had Col. Brandt’s foot not encountered the briefcase, Hitler would almost certainly have been killed in the ensuing explosion, which in fact was the fate of several officers in the room, including Colonel Brandt.. The repositioning of that briefcase cost von Stauffenberg and thousands of actual and suspected conspirators their lives. Far worse, it probably prolonged the European war by as much as nine months, at the cost of millions of lives.

All of this turned on a German officer’s chance encounter with a briefcase.

The Tape on the Watergate Door. June 17, 1972. On his routine rounds at the Watergate office building in Washington DC, night watchman Frank Wills happened to spot some tape on the door between the parking garage and the stairwell. Believing that the tape was left by the cleaning crew, Wills removed it only to discover later that it had been replaced. He then called the police who subsequently arrested the burglars at the offices of the Democratic National Committee.

If Wills had not noticed the tape (placed to defeat the locking mechanism) and if G. Gordon Liddy had not replaced it, Richard Nixon would probably have completed his second term and the course of US history would have gone in a different direction. How different? Unknown and unknowable – but certainly different.

Further examples are endless. What if the French Admiral de Grasse at Yorktown, and the Prussian Field Marshal von Blucher at Waterloo had not arrived “just in time.” What if Lincoln had not gone to the theater that night or if a guard had been stationed outside the Presidential box? The assassin’s aim and the bullet’s trajectory are probabilistic – literally “hit or miss.” On these attempts, history turns. Successful: Archduke Ferdinand at Sarejevo in 1914, JFK at Dallas in 1963, RFK at Los Angeles in 1968, Martin Luther King at Memphis in 1968. Failed: Theodore Roosevelt at Milwaukee in 1912, Franklin D. Roosevelt at Miami in 1933, Ronald Reagan at Washington in 1981.

No doubt, the reader can think of many more “hinges of history” that turned on chance contingencies and simple luck.

In the near future we are likely to encounter numerous crossroads or “hinges” that might lead either to the dissolution or the salvation of our Republic. Whatever the outcome, the nation and the world that emerges from the present crisis will be very different from the nation and world that we lived in at the close of the twentieth century, just five years ago.

Clearly, the Bush administration is coming upon hard times, with no end in sight for the Iraq disaster, with less and less of the public believing Bush’s and Cheney’s lies, with at least a few prominent Democrats growing some spine, with the growing influence of alternative media, and, as a result of all of this and more, a continuing decline of public approval of Bush and his regime.

In this volatile political environment, here are a few “hinges” that come to mind, many of which are closely interconnected. No doubt the informed and engaged reader will think of many more.

Because “the wounded beast is vulnerable:”

  • Is “Plamegate” about to unravel at last? This possibility has emerged within the last couple of days, as Time Magazine has yielded to a court order and has turned relevant documents and e-mails over to the judge. Time Magazine is said to be preparing a blockbuster article based on the notes of its reporter, Matt Cooper. The other targeted reporter and publication, Judith Miller and The New York Times, continue to resist the order of the court. Lawrence O’Donnell claims that he knows, on good evidence, that the Plame snitch was Karl Rove. If so, then Rove would be guilty of perjury, for he reportedly denied under oath that he disclosed the identity of Valerie Plame. Could be dynamite!

  • Will 2004 election fraud be revealed? And if so, will the mainstream media report it? There is strong statistical, circumstantial and anecdotal evidence that the 2004 was stolen from John Kerry and the Democrats. If it was, then there are at least dozens of individuals and as many as several hundred who were involved in the fraud and who could testify and/or provide physical and documented evidence of this crime. As Iraq, the economy, and scandal cumulatively continue to weaken The Great Bush/GOP Political/Media Machine, will serious and sustained criminal investigations finally be launched, and will at least a few investigative reporters finally get on the case?

  • Are there many “Deep Throats” in the system just itching to spill some beans? How much longer will the military and the CIA tolerate the abuse that has been heaped upon them by the Bush gang? How many individuals within the Bush Administration are prepared to meet an enterprising reporter at some parking garage in DC? Come to think of it, might some CIA discontents, proven experts at overthrowing foreign governments, even now be setting their sights closer to home?

  • Will the Mainstream Media (MSM) finally do its job and start reporting the news and a diversity of informed opinions? Unquestionably, George Bush owes both of his “elections” to the cooperation and compliance of the MSM. The MSM tolerated and even promulgated slanders against Democratic candidates Al Gore (“inventing the internet”) and John Kerry (“Swift Boats”), while overlooking the manifest embarrassments and disqualifications of George Bush (AWOL from the National Guard, Harken Energy, drug abuse, etc.). A mirror-image support of the Democrats and smearing of the Busheviks is not required. Just the facts, as in the era of Murrow and Cronkite, and unconstrained investigative reporting, as in the era of I. F. Stone, and Woodward and Bernstein, would quite suffice to bring down the House of Bush. But how would such reform be possible, when the media mega-giants are controlled by the “sponsors” of Bush, Inc.? More about that, below.

  • Alternatively, might the Mainsteam Media be “Pravda-ized” – i.e. ignored and marginalized by a public that recognizes it as the propaganda arm of the Right-wing-GOP-Corporate establishment? Either way – an honest media or an irrelevant media – if the Bush Regime loses its media support, it is in the deepest of doo-doo. For in either case, the truth finally will “out,” and without question, the Busheviks “can’t handle the truth!”  But why would the MSM abandon Bush? This leads to our next “hinge:”

  • Will the corporate establishment finally come to its senses and realize that where Bush is leading the country, they should not want to follow? Will it then abandon the Bush regime, to be followed by the corporate mainstream media? The mega-rich that are being lavishly rewarded for their funding of Bush, Inc. seem to believe that they can continue to loot the US economy and impoverish the rest of us forever, without consequence. Economic collapse and depression, they apparently believe, happens to what Leona Helmsley calls “the little people” (namely, us) and not themselves. The exporting of the manufacturing base, the dismantling of the public education system that supplies their skilled work force, the loss of our leadership in scientific and technological research and development – all these, they seem to think, are isolated phenomena, without impact upon their personal wealth, or to the “bottom lines” of their corporate annual reports. These fortunate few are, after all, educated individuals. How can they believe such catastrophic folly? Especially when numerous studies have proven the national economy almost always fares better under Democratic administrations and Congresses.  Leaving aside morality, compassion, or national loyalty, for no other reason than rational self-interest, the intelligent Republican corporatists should be striving to alter the course of this ship of fools before it self-destructs. Whether they will remains an open question.

  • How will the public respond when the economy collapses? Note: I said “when” not “if”. Even died-in-the-wool Republican economists and investors are coming to realize that we simply can’t go on like this. For example, Steven Roach, the chief economist of the brokerage firm Morgan Stanley, predicts, with 90% confidence, that we face “economic armageddon."  As Bushite “reverse Robin-Hoodism” continues to drain cash from the paychecks and bank accounts of average Americans and into the pockets of the Super-Rich, and as the over-extended debts of those ordinary folks finally max-out, the shrinkage of disposable income will first affect the entertainment industries and retailing, which will lay off workers and eventually go bust. Then the dominoes begin to fall. Thanks to the Bush deficits and the decline of the dollar among international currencies, interest rates must rise followed by home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies – unprotected now, thanks to the new “credit reform” laws enacted by this GOP Congress. Will millions of newly jobless, homeless Americans, without health care or educational opportunities – millions who only recently knew financial and job security – sit still for this?

Not for a moment! This is a prescription for revolution. If lucky, the elites will face economic ruin as the hungry and impoverished masses rise up and strip them of their wealth. If unlucky, the retaliation turn violent, and the very freedom and lives of the privileged looters will be in peril. Just possibly, the opulent elites might foresee all this before we all go over the cliff, and finally call an end to the GOP orgy of affluence (see above).

Because “The Wounded beast is dangerous:”

  • Will Bush launch an attack on Iran or Syria?   If so, will the public rally behind “the Commander in Chief” again, as it did after 9/11 and the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq? Similarly,

  • Will Bush be bailed out by another terrorist attack in the United States? The opportunities for terrorist attacks are wide open, even inviting, as chemical plants remain unguarded, nuclear power facilities remain unprotected, and shipping containers remain uninspected.

  • Will the Democrats and Liberals be scapegoated as the cause of our domestic woes? Will Bush’s foreign policy and military reversals be attributed to a “stab in the back” by the same Democrats and Liberals? Why not? It worked beautifully for Hitler and the Nazis. (There, I said it! Unlike Senator Durbin, I will not apologize).

  • As protests escalate and the Bush regime unravels, will they retaliate by declaring a national emergency and installing a police state? Can it happen here? Yes it can. It has  already begun.. Cf. The Patriot Act, Guantánamo, and the continuing incarceration, without charge, counsel or prospect of trial of American citizen, Jose Padilla.

More “hinges” briefly noted:

  • Will the public finally decide it’s had enough of Tom DeLay’s sleaze, the war profiteering and corruption of Halliburton et al, and the hypocrisy of the Religious Right?

  • Will OPEC switch from Dollars to Euros?

  • Will China and Japan refuse to continue their support of Bush’s deficits?

  • Will an international “coalition of the fed-up” emerge and finally take concerted action against the Number One “rogue nation” – namely, US? How long will the international community put up with the Bushista refusal to cooperate with multilateral efforts to combat global warming, with the international criminal court, with nuclear arms reduction, etc. Few American citizens realize how vulnerable we are to economic sanctions from abroad.  Boycotts and embargoes on vital resources, most of all oil, could quickly bring about a collapse of the US economy. All this without firing a shot at our “super-power” military.

  • When will the world peak in oil production and the increased demand on oil from the Pacific rim result in sharp rises in fuel prices? With what effect? As the advanced industrial nations of Europe and Asia accelerate research, development and implementation of post-petroleum energy sources, will the United States, wedded to the doomed oil economy, become an industrial/technological has-been?

We don’t know and can’t know the answers to these questions with any degree of confidence. Nor is this a complete list. Perhaps the decisive “hinge,” redirecting our national course either toward ruin or renewal, will be something that we cannot anticipate at the moment.

But we need not be mere spectators in this unfolding of the history of the present. We can, indeed we must, be active agents in this unfolding. These “hinges of history” can be moved deliberately by determined individuals, alone or collectively. Once again, the record of the past testifies to the capacity of peoples and nations to direct their fates either toward ruin or renewal.

It happened in the year 1933, when two national leaders ascended to power in Germany and in the United States. Undoubtedly, had President von Hindenburg successfully resisted Adolph Hitler’s grab for power, and had Herbert Hoover won re-election in 1932, the world today would be vastly different than it is.

In 1933, both Germany and the United States were ripe for a descent into despotism. We were the lucky ones. In Franklin Roosevelt we had a President who had a lucid vision of ends, and who was flexible and inventive as to means. The objectives of the New Deal were clear: jobs, security, opportunity, economic justice, civil liberties, for all Americans, in the context of economic recovery for the nation. How to accomplish all this in the midst of a devastating depression was a question without a simple correct answer, but with an abundance of proffered “answers,” most of them wrong. Doing nothing was not an option. Intelligent and imaginative social-economic “engineering” was in order and, through trial and error, inspiring leadership, and a shared sense of national purpose and unity, we slowly and deliberately developed and validated a series of governmental institutions and regulations – Social Security, unemployment insurance, Federal deposit insurance, expanded educational opportunities, and much, much more.

And now, George Bush and his merry band of oligarchs are determined to tear it all down.

In the crisis before us, and the crises shortly to come, the progressives have a distinct advantage over the right-wing regressives, notwithstanding the regressives’ current hold on power.

As in the nineteen-thirties, conditions today call for alertness, flexibility, intelligence, creativity, compassion, and a sense of shared national purpose – qualities prized by progressives.

George Bush and his cronies possess none of these qualities. Bush is inflexible. He “stays the course,” and is incapable of admitting errors. He has no use for trained intelligence and expertise, but instead is controlled by “gut intuition” and a dogmatism that is detached from the ongoing flow of events. His behavior and policies prove that  Bush's “compassionate conservatism” is a cruel mockery. “We the people of the United States” are not his constituents – the corporate “stockholders” of Bush, Inc. who have purchased his Presidency, now own him.

Even so, Bushism can be defeated, provided the vulnerabilities of this political/economic malignancy are recognized and attacked by the opposition with diligence, intelligence and creativity.

So far, the Democratic Party has been a passive and compliant disappointment. It must either wake up to its responsibilities or be taken over by progressives, just as the Republican party was captured by the oligarchs and theocrats.

In his speech last week to the troops at Fort Bragg, George Bush discovered that his lies have lost their leverage. The polls suggest that at long last the public (less his “base”) has finally begun to wise-up. “Fool me twice – not gonna be fooled again.”

At the same time, the revelations from Downing Street of the conniving and deceit that led us into an immoral war have taken on a life of their own, thanks to the internet and alternative press, and notwithstanding first the silence of, and then the debunking by, the mainstream media.

The pressure of public outrage is building, but it is diverse, diluted, inchoate, and without leadership and direction. Today, millions of our fellow citizens, as they watch and read the MSM, feel that they are isolated, powerless and alone in their disgust with the Bush regime and its policies. But when these disgusted citizens look about and find they have company, and if strong and charismatic leadership emerges and acts decisively, a community of outrage will coalesce and acquire an identity. When it does, the peoples’ will may be irresistible.

Sadly, there might be an opposite result – a swift and ruthless repression by those in control of our government, as they find that their privilege, power and wealth are in peril, and as they come to fear that they might soon be facing the just retribution of the law.

If we choose to be spectators in the coming drama, they may well have their way.  But if enough of us choose to be agents in the struggle we may yet succeed in reclaiming our freedom, our dignity, and our country.

Copyright 2005 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .