When the Government Was BIG (concluded)

I had partially dislocated my shoulder years before I had received a draft notice during the height of the Vietnam War. The dislocation was not a one-off, but something I had done many times since—putting on a coat, turning over in my sleep, placing a pizza in a car’s back seat, playing volleyball, basketball, softball. I knew it would partially dislocate any time I really threw a ball hard. It hurt like hell, but when it happened, I could grab the right elbow with my left hand, pull the arm, and seat the ball of the arm back into its socket. This was a condition I knew too well, but it was not one that had been certified by a doctor. I had gone to the college infirmary the day after it first happened, but by then the joint appeared to be back together properly. Nothing looked wrong to that general practitioner.

But now I started to fixate on the images of army training where recruits had to climb ropes and scale walls and throw decoy hand grenades. I knew that the shoulder would come apart, and all I could picture was the drill sergeant yelling at what he thought was the Ivy League malingerer writhing on the ground. I could not imagine how I was going to get through those first six army weeks. I decided I should see another doctor. I went to a local orthopedist and told him that if I threw a ball hard, I would dislocate the shoulder. He said, “Make the motion.” I told him what I already knew. With simulated throwing, I instinctively held back, and it would not happen. He said, “Try anyway.” Nothing happened, and I was sent on my way, with the “patriotic” doctor’s glance saying, “Hippie draft dodger.” (Yes, I did have both long hair and mutton chops.)

I reported for my army physical. I told the doctor my situation. He, too, told me to simulate throwing. Nothing happened. I was certified physically fit to be trained to kill.

A few months later, I was ordered to another physical in Chicago. After spending twelve hours in an atmosphere that only the finest novelist could capture (one potential draftee had inked antiwar slogans all over his body), I saw the doctor. I told him my situation. He looked at a form and said, “You already had a physical in Milwaukee.” He asked, “What are you doing here?” I replied, “I was ordered here.” He said, “I am not going to waste my time giving another physical to someone who has already had one.”

I had gotten the induction date changed from its original fall date until after the school year ended. During that hiatus, friends urged me to go to Canada. Friends urged me to go to jail. I felt too much an American to leave the country, and I never considered those escape routes.

Somehow, however, through the protest grapevine I was told about a doctor in Chicago who had antiwar views. A week before I was to go into the army, I saw him. I told him the situation. He said, “If there really is that problem, I will get you reclassified, but I will not lie.” I told him simulated throwing would not do it. But I came prepared with my baseball. With the doctor agreeing, I walked the three blocks to Grant Park and found a wall to throw the ball against.  I had to screw up my courage with a few easy tosses and then I finally threw as hard as I could. Pain in the shoulder; white flashes before my eyes; arm immobile, but for the first time I did not do what had become instinctive. I did not pull the arm back into place. Feeling the pain every step of the way, I went back to the doctor, up an elevator, and to an x-ray room with my hand stuck skyward. Blissfully, they quickly took the pictures, and I pulled the joint back together before the vomiting started.

When the doctor looked at the x-rays, he said, “You’re right. You have a problem. I’ll contact the army.” Then with a smile, he uttered words that only someone of my generation can truly appreciate, “You can have that fixed.” He waited a beat: “But there is no reason to until you are twenty-six.”

The draft gave men of my generation contact with big government’s bureaucracy and its control of lives. Even though I was not inducted, it still greatly affected me. While obsessing over what the army had in store for me, I had more and more difficulty paying attention to my second-year law-school coursework. I dropped from near the top of my class. A job after the second year of law school was considered an important step for most of us starting a legal career, but I never sought such a job because my induction date was July 1. But, of course, compared to many this was nothing. I did not spend two years in the army. I did not die in combat. I did not have to kill Vietnamese.

When you want to complain that our government is so big today (and only getting bigger) that it destroys the freedoms of Americans, go to the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington. Look at the names on Maya Lin’s creation and ask yourself, “How many of these were draftees? How many enlisted because they expected to be drafted anyway?” And then reflect on the big government of today and yesterday.

Postmodern Trumpism (continued)

          The postmodern view that truth is subjective has important epistemological consequences. We no longer have to listen to each other: we don’t have to try to reconcile competing claims and information. If you maintain that thousands were massacred at Wounded Knee on that day in 1890 while I contend that no one was killed, if we believe that there is an objective truth, we would engage each other. We would investigate what support there is for the competing positions, and perhaps do more research. As a result, we might abandon or modify our original assertions. If, however, truth is subjective, if truth is what is true for each individual, we will not undertake this shared enterprise seeking a better understanding of the truth. Thousands dead is true for you. Nobody died is true for me. End of story. It’s all relative.

          The notion that truth was relative wedged its way into a wider world and crept into many areas of thought outside of academia. For example, Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard wrote: “What is true is what is true for you. No one has any right to force data on you and command you to believe it or else. If it is not true for you, it isn’t true. Think your own way through things, accept what is true for you, discard the rest. There is nothing unhappier than one who tries to live in a chaos of lies.” (Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.)

          It also entered an Ivy League seminar room. I don’t remember the topic discussion for the class I was recently leading, but when I called on one student, she said, “Don’t you want to know what my opinion is?” I snapped “No!” The bright young woman had a shocked look. Surely her opinion was valuable. Others around the table were concerned. Many looked as if this was the first time a student opinion was rejected. I went on to say, “I want your facts; your information. What relevant experiences have you had? Then you can tell me how your opinion arises out of those data.” She went silent. But in a world where truth is subjective, all opinions are equally valid, and she probably thought that I should have allowed her to present her truth no matter how it was derived. (I got one bad teaching evaluation from this seminar. I assume that it was she, but that is just my opinion; I don’t have facts to back it up.)

          Postmodern thinking has affected diplomats. Michiko Kakutani’s book The Death of Truth quotes a Russian propagandist. “All narratives are contingent, Surkov suggested, and all politicians are liars; therefore, the alternative facts put out by the Kremlin (and by Donald Trump) are just as valid as everyone else’s.” Surkov “invoked Derrida-inspired arguments about the unreliability of language—to suggest that Western notions of truthfulness and transparency are naïve and unsophisticated.”

          Postmodernist thinking even invaded science. On The Big Bang Theory it is a laugh line when Penny’s not-overly-bright boyfriend says to Leonard and the rest of the Caltech crowd: “Agree to disagree. That’s what I love about science. There’s no right answer.” But supposedly bright people began to maintain that science was merely socially constructed and that science could not claim to be neutral. Science could not seek universal truths because it was fatally affected by a scientist’s identity and cultural values. (Tell that to the scientist spouse and watch her seethe!)

          One of my leftist academic colleagues adopted this anti-science position. The United States Supreme Court had written an opinion about what scientific evidence could be admitted into trials. I appeared with my colleague on a panel at a neighboring law school discussing this decision. My colleague denigrated the decision by glibly saying that science like other knowledge was merely “socially constructed” and subjective. On the other hand, I knew that she had taken an elevator to the conference room, and I wondered if she truly thought that the principles that allowed that lift to ascend and descend were mere subjective social constructions. If we truly believed that there was no objective scientific truth, we could not operate in the world. No one really believes what she was trying to peddle. Instead, a more sophisticated approach might have allowed that science does not produce absolute truths because it is always trying to refine its knowledge or that scientific funding, which influences what gets studied, can be affected by cultural and society forces. But we all know that there is a universal truth behind the physics of gravity and friction.

(continued January 10)