The irony of secret choices that rule free people

In 1960 the English author and physicist C.P. Snow delivered three lectures titled, “Science and Government,” about the rivalry that hobbled British science during World War II. The hero is Sir Henry Tizard, who led the effort to develop radar and brought Americans into the effort. The villian is F.A. Lindemann, personal friend and scientific advisor to Prime Minister Winston Churchill – aka the Prof and the P.M. — who come across as a pair of buffoons.

Speaking at Harvard not long after both men had died, Snow described Tizard as the son of a naval officer who would have served himself but for bad eyesight. “He was English of the English,” Snow writes.

The German-born Lindemann, by contrast, emigrated to Britain by choice. Snow paints him as “an extreme and cranky vegetarian, who lived largely on the whites of eggs, Port Salut cheese, and olive oil,” adding, “So far as is known he had no sexual relations.”

Ironies abound. Tizard leads the successful program to develop and deploy radar and, pushes the technology into the Royal Air Force in less than six years time. Are we surprised that he worked under the appeasement prime ministers who preceded Churchill? Snow notes that pre-war British hawks, in whose ranks he counts himself, wanted Churchill to take office but once he does, British science policy starts veering toward the nearly fanatical bent of Lindemann who, despite his vegetarianism, pushes war policies that end up cooking a lot of flesh — the human flesh of the German civilians whom he deliberately makes the target of a British strategic bombing campaign from March 1942 through September 1943. Speaking in 1960, Snow says:

“The English and Americans had, for years past, believed in strategic bombing as no other countries had . . . Bombing had become a matter of faith . . . The bombing must be directed essentially against German working-class houses. Middle class houses have too much space around them and so are bound to waste bombs; factories and ‘military objectives’ had long since been forgotten . . .”

Lindemann’s policy of making war on civilians accelerates the drift toward total war a notion that begins to arise during the American Civil War. In a total war everyone and everthing becomes a target in the effort to break a nation’s will to fight.  Hitler had, of course, thrown some nasty first punches in this regard to provoke the British but this does not let them off Snow’s hook.

“What will people of the future think of us? . . . that we were wolves with the minds of men. Will they think that we resigned our humanity? They will have the right?”

Would that it were so! Alas humanity seems to have fogotten this whole discussion, or at least we affluent Homo Sapiens of the West who profess to be baffled as to why bearded men in Iraq might want to blow up school bus to destabalize an occupation government. It’s because they don’t have the aerial bombers like Lindemann!

But I digress.

I read “Science and Government” to try and understand the sad perversion of empiricism by the current United States government whose sins in this regard are so numerous as to obviate the need for me to draw up a bill of attainder.

In describing how British science went so awry during World War II, Snow attributes this to a failure in what he calls the three forms of “closed politics” – the jockeying for power that does not involve a play to the peanut gallery. These three forms are:

  • committee politics, familiar to just about anyone who has ever coached soccer or joined any organization;

  • hierarchical politics, which is part of the drill in getting a Ph.D. or a job at any corporation or non-profit; and

  • court politics, which we know well from watching others shameless suck up to the boss.

And here is the supreme irony: we think of ourselves as living in an open and democratic society and, indeed, we can debate till world’s end whether men should be allowed to marry men, and women to wed women, or whether doctors can legally use forceps to crush the skull of an eight-month-old fetus because the mother says to bear the child would be negatively affect her mental health. But less so war and peace because such decisions are made in small rooms. Or as Snow says to open his lecture:

“One of the most bizzare features of any advanced industrial society in our time is that the cardinal choices have to be made by a handful of men: in secret . . . And when I say ‘cardinal choices’ I mean those which determine in the crudest sense whether we live or die . . .”

(I have a point, I promise, which I hope to pick up tomorrow, but this morning the refrigerator is barren, and I am the commandant of shopping; time is short and my duty is clear.)