When We Don’t Know It When We See It

Ever since Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart admitted that he couldn’t define pornography, but that “I know it when I see it,” the line has become something of a joke–trotted out to underscore the less-than-coherent nature of an observation or complaint.

What isn’t a joke, however, is the increasing divide between people who recognize the complexities and realities of the world we live in and those who are increasingly at sea. The latter group– grasping for bright lines and responding to slogans in lieu of analysis–are easy pickings for  politicians willing to pander to their fears and incomprehension.

A recent commentary posted at Talking Points Memo provides a graphic example of the phenomenon. The writer attended the Trump/Palin/Cruz rally against the Iran agreement, and noted the reaction to Trump’s bombastic, non-specific attack, which boiled down to “I could have done it better” and “America needs to win again, and I’ll make America a winner.”

“We’re going to build up our military. We’re going to have such a strong military, that nobody—nobody!—is going to mess with us. We’re not going to have to use it,” said Trump.

This is American Exceptionalism re-imagined by Charles Atlas. Trump wants to prove that he can make America so huge and so strong—the strongest!—that no terrorist would dare kick sand in our faces again. Thinking this way is more than a little silly, but it is exactly how the people who went to the Stop Iran Deal Rally felt.

The pity of this all is that the Iran deal shows how America can lead (and win!) in an increasingly disorganized world. We negotiated with Iran from a position of strength. We had support from our European allies. We had Iran’s billions in our banks. Behind door number one was Iran giving up their nuclear weapons program. Behind door number two was Iran becoming the next destination for Drone Airlines. The United States gave up nothing in this deal. In exchange for their own money, Iran gave us what we wanted: an Iran without The Bomb.

This is what winning looks like. This is our enemy surrendering their weapons without a fight not because they love us but because they know they would not survive the fight. After our embassies getting bombed, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia invading Georgia, the red line in Syria, Benghazi, Russia invading Ukraine, Boko Haram, and ISIS, stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons was change we need to believe in.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the dispute over the Iranian agreement was the absolute lack of alternatives (other than war) offered by its opponents. Watching proponents and opponents debate the issue was like watching an adult argue with a two-year-old having a meltdown.

If people who don’t know it when they see it, people looking instead for simple, non-specific messages, bombast and empty rhetoric, end up outnumbering thoughtful Americans at the polls next year, we’re all in trouble.


  1. I have believed for the past 14 years that 9/11 happened due to the attitude expressed by Trump and his ilk regarding the Iran Deal. Fault cannot be placed at the feet of any one past president but at the feet of all of them and Congress who believed that no foreign nation had the gall, the balls, to actually attack this country on its own soil. We just commemorated the 14th anniversary of the attack that proved all of them wrong.

    The WTC was attacked from within by a foreign nation a few years earlier and Timothy McVeigh proved one American could attack from within with a load of fertilizer and destroy a major government building, killing babies in the process.

    President Obama and other world powers, working together, have accomplished a major feat by negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran. Just getting Iran to negotiate was a success, actually reaching agreement on any level is an accomplishment that Tom Cotton, his 47 co-signers and the the majority of the Republican Congress will f*+k up if allowed. Threatening another government shutdown is holding this entire country hostage while the world watches; our enemies laughing and waiting for the opportunity to take advantage of the pettiness of Republican partisanship that has plagued this country since President Obama was elected.

    Bush stays in the background, slyly grinning, and Cheney stays in the limelight shouting war, war, war…at all costs is the only way to win. The Iraq war “mission accomplished” by Bush/Cheney is BS; it continues today and has spread. Keeping Iran in the spotlight should not take our attention from Russia or North Korea while Republicans keep stirring the pot. An old Russian proverb fits here, “Do not stir s*+t with stick, it will cause stink.” That stink is the 1% and the GOP diverting our attention from their do-nothing platform and delaying tactics regarding everything; above all…preventing the Iran Deal from being finalized.

  2. Right on point, Joann!!

    We need to start chanting: O-ba-ma-4-Mount-Rush-More, O-ba-ma-4-Mount-Rush-More.

    Don’t forget no one, including Abraham Lincoln, thought he could be re-elected President. He’s on Mount Rushmore for what he did in the last year of his life.

    Barack Obama has over 15 months to make it. The future is in his hands. He still controls the National Guard just like JFK did. If he can use his power wisely and create a political miracle by bringing America back toward democracy, he will be up there on Mount Rushmore to the left of Abraham Lincoln. It’s a done deal.

    We can’t afford to wait for the next President. Everything we cherish about democracy will be lost by then.

  3. Korea was the final symmetric war. Both sides in uniform using projectiles and gunpowder and lives to establish superiority.

    Vietnam was the development of asymmetric war. Stealth instead of uniforms. Terror instead of military strategy. That was perfected during Bush/Cheney’s Holy Wars.

    The other option now is nuclear war that nobody wins.

    So now casualties are not just military. That can’t achieve victory in an asymmetric war.

    Of course Trump as usual is 50 years behind the times. And his supporters resonate with that.

    Future Presidents need a global perspective. Kerry and Hillary would be a formidable team.

    The world can’t afford Trump et al.

  4. Just remember:

    “I skate to where the puck is gonna be, not where it has been.”
    ~Wayne Gretzky, hockey great

    This mindset is especially critical in staying abreast of the ultra fast political moves we are observing in the presidential contest for control of America.

  5. You’ve hit a home run again Sheila. And Pete makes a huge point too – today’s enemies are hidden in a thousand places including right here at home and are the enemies of governments and civilians everywhere.

    Having nuclear capability and troops on land, sea and air doesn’t stop terrorists from flying planes into tall buildings and bombing public gatherings. We didn’t drop bombs on New York City or Boston to solve our terrorist problems there.

    Thankfully the U.S. rallied major powers around the world to negotiate an Iran agreement rather than resort to saber rattling, bombs, and the death of innocents.

  6. Great column and comments! I find Sen. Schumer’s refusal to back the Iran deal particularly odious. An obvious political ploy, as even he did not propose an alternative. He is a smart man and he knew that this was as good as we could have gotten. And it is more than likely that he, if needed, would have voted to uphold the president’s veto so that he could have had it both ways. He has lost my respect by his pandering.

  7. Pete said, ” Future Presidents need a global perspective. Kerry and Hillary would be a formidable team. ” Both Hillary and John Kerry voted in October 2002 to give GWB authority to use military force against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. We know what a disaster that was to put a loaded weapon in the hands of GWB. Hillary and Kerry should have known that at the time. You can also google Hillary on Gaddafi and see a giddy Hillary Clinton Laughs About Killing Moammar Gaddafi: “We Came, We Saw, He Died!” So how has that worked out for the people of Libya????

    A better choice is Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Bernie voted against giving GWB the green light to go to war.

    However back to the subject of Iran. I am certain they do not trust us. After all it is the USA that has a huge war machine positioned near their borders, not the other way around. I am sure the usual NEO-CON suspects in the USA will continue to attack the deal, but for now let’s give this plan a chance to succeed.

  8. Louie, you make some good points. Here are some others however.

    The President as Commander in Chief has to be the ultimate leader to war. Cheney I believe just plain lied to Congress and us.

    I like Sanders and Warren both. However I believe that Sanders does the cause more good in the Senate and is less electable than Hillary. Warren would be equal to Kerry as VP but has less name recognition.

    Any of them would be superior to anyone on the long but very shallow GOP bench however. So my first priority as we get closer to Election Day is who is most electable.

  9. Schumer, a New York Jew, despite his super intellect so common in Jewry, has to watch his p’s and q’s among his Jewish constituency if he ever wants to retire and be a mensch in Miami-Dade.
    See? Floridians elected Marco-“troops-on-the-ground”-Rubio, their shabbas goy, to the U.S. Senate to do their GOP saber rattling for Israel. A commonly used mantra among GOP candidates is “troops-on-the-ground”. Traditionally democrats, I fear Florida Jews will be lulled into voting in greater numbers for the GOP except those with insight to know that it would be voting with the war mongers of all stripes.

  10. If I remember correctly, the 9/11 terrorists were mostly Saudi Arabians who were conveniently secreted out of our country after the disaster in the “only” plane that was permitted to take off, “all flights” having been grounded.

  11. Did that “Only Plane” flying include member of the Bin Laden Family? I thought it did but not sure. That all seemed very strange.

  12. There is, unfortunately, a big problem that normally doesn’t get discussed regarding all this rampant conjecture regarding possible military action against Iran, and/or ISIL, today. We have military leaders that cannot make the fundamental distinction between what is strategy and what are tactics. The civilian leadership today knows even less in regard to this most basic aspect of military planning. The reasons for this most glaring deficiency trace their origins back to the end of the Second World War, the advent of nuclear weapons, and the policy of Containment regarding the emerging tense stand off with the Soviet Union that we now refer to as the Cold War. The switch from planning for war fighting to deterrence added an even greater complication to things.

    The history of the last 70 years of America’s involvement in the numerous wars of choice that we have fought is replete with examples of this. The Korean War was referred to as a “police action” initially given the reluctance of the American people to fight still another war after such a long and all-encompassing one. The Vietnam War was similar with restrictions being placed on its scope, as there had been with the Korean War, so that the direct involvement of both the Soviet Union and China in it could be avoided. As a result of those parameters and others we fought a war where the traditional American objective and clear sign of a successful conclusion of such a conflict, victory, was not in the cards nor was it actually planned for. As a result we essentially lost that war but we didn’t loose it on the battlefield, instead we lost it here at home.

    While the Gulf War of 1991 was a switch from this practice it was only fleeting and when this country blundered its war into the war with Iraqi it was back to business as usual. Once again, no one could articulate an end game with even GEN David Petraeus, Commander of US Central Command (USCENTCOM) begging the question, “Can you tell me how this ends?”. Of all the people involved in orchestrating and conducting that war he should have readily known the answer to his own question, yet he didn’t.

    In the intervening decade virtually nothing has changed. Once again we as a Nation are contemplating the potential for military action, this time against Iran with many people, politicians, political and social commentators, and retired military, advocating for such a war. Once again the discussion of an end game or how this war of choice will turn out is in the form of very vague generalities and slogans or the discussion is avoided in totem. Once again, no real effort is being made to inform the American people of what such a conflict would entail; its costs, its risks, and its outcome. Once again we will be risking still another potential political, diplomatic, and geostrategic debacle that will set the stage for the next round of conflict that we might even be less prepared for. Our leaders, both in and out of uniform, owe the people of this country far more than this when it comes to the most important issues of them all, the issues of war and peace. We need a coherent and easily articulated national strategy that is consistent and not thought up on the fly.

  13. I’ve been following the comments in this arena for only a short time. Most seem to be willing to discuss differing viewpoints with both passion and intelligence. My views are definitely minority here but most comments are cogent expressions of differing views rather than “stupid tea party moron”. With all of the well thought out responses, I am baffled that no one has noticed that part of this “Iran deal” provides for them the opportunity to unilaterally terminate the deal with 35 days notice. So they “make nice” until they get their $150 billion and then they cancel. Reminds me of the old warning about smarmy salesmen who can promise anything as long as they reserve the right to break the promise. Thoughts?

  14. This agreement, like all the various arms control agreements that preceded it is going to require a very complex, multi-faceted and extremely rigorous verification regime. That’s not to say that this negotiation team hasn’t set that up within the scope of this agreement. Rather, it is the acknowledgement that this agreement will be in place to alter Iran’s national behavior in terms of pursing a nuclear weapons program. The development of nuclear power for peaceful and also perhaps military applications is tied to their national aspirations as it is with most countries. This agreement cannot be allowed to fall short for any reason and those nations that have negotiated this agreement with Iran will also have to be held accountable for the maintenance of all of its various components going forward. This has been a central thread in all arms control negotiations going all the way back to the naval disarmament conferences of the 1920’s and 30’s. To do anything less will mean failure and serious consequences regardless if the Iranians cheat or not. We all must assume that they will or at the least try to cut corners and exploit any ambiguities that may present themselves.

  15. Here’s one way to look at the Iranian negotiations that stems from what I know about climate change.

    It’s completely unlikely that amateurs with only some pieces of the details will successfully second guess professionals with all of the information.

    I’m far from a climate science professional but see that most science deniers ignore very basic physics in taking wild swings at trying to make the case for what they wish was true.

    The complexity and stakes involved are such that the likelyhood of an oversight has to be close to zero and even less that it would be discovered by somebody guessing.

    The other similarity to climate change is the matter of alternatives. Those who deny climate science offer only the alternative of do nothing and hope for the best. What alternative do the negotiation skeptics offer? If Iran is willing to meet the requirements that were established as the reason for sanctions then diplomacy requires what’s happened. That’s the nature of international actions and treaties.

  16. Marv Kramer – I realize he’s in a tough spot but that comes with the territory. Like I said, Schumer is smart. He could have chosen to back the deal and, like a real leader, vigorously explain his reasons why. He probably would have gotten push back in the short run, but gained respect in the long run for following his conscience rather than the polls. A politician doesn’t leave much of a legacy, a statesman does. Just remember Senator Moynihan.

  17. Pete, just because someone questions the legitimacy of anthropogenic global warming (a theory, mind you, only exists on computer modeling of the future) doesn’t make them a “science denier” any more than it made Einstein a “science denier” for questioning Newton’s Theory of Gravity, another theory that was deemed beyond question. We know how that turned out. Einstein proved Newton wrong with his General Theory of Relativity.

  18. Hmm, here is an idea. Maybe Senator Schumer rejects the Iranian deal because he truly believes it’s a bad deal.

  19. Paul,

    in order to accept that premise is to assume Sen. Schumer is an honorable man.

    I will not parse that word.

  20. Paul, anthropogenic global warming is as certain and well understood as gravity. You are right both are theories which in science means compellingly supported by all of the evidence. So if you try to wish it away you are in fact denying the same level of certainty and science that we use to make airplanes fly and cell phones communicate.

    The only thing that’s uncertain is when and what we are going to do about it. Right now government is highly subsidizing fossil fuels. Instead we should be taxing carbon and saving the money to pay for the cost of adapting to our new climate and sea level and subsidizing investors in sustainable (not temporary) energy supply and use.

    Denying and denying denying is merely ignorance of what mankind knows. And it comes from one source. Those who want to make money today at the expense of future tax payers brand marketing it. It’s a grand scam that has zero scientific evidence behind it. Snake oil sales taken to a new level.

  21. Paul. “Einstein proved Newton wrong with his General Theory of Relativity” is also incorrect. Newtons law of gravity still accurately predicts the behavior of matter. Einstein merely extended the range of our understanding to quantum and cosmic behaviors.

  22. Paul, if Sen. Schumer really believed it to be a bad deal, he would have clearly stated its deficiencies and offered alternative remedies. He only repeated the same generalizations that all the other naysayers offered. No different from any pandering politician.

  23. Alphonso,

    It looks to me that we’re on the road to another Dreyfus Affair. I can now see where we’re going with all of this. Where is Emile Zola when we need him?

  24. Alphonso,

    Unfortunately, for Senator Schumer there is no honor when it comes to “Jew baiting.” The only “honorable” thing you can do in that situation is nothing. That’s exactly what Sheila does with Gopper. Senator Schumer doesn’t have that luxury.

    Should Schumer have resigned as a Senator? That was an option. Who among us would do that?

    Things sometimes are much, much more complicated than they appear. Especially, when it comes to the relationship between American Jews and Israel. You can thank the Reverend Jerry Falwell for starting that “mess” in the late 60’s.

  25. You all seriously need to remember one thing, if Iran dropped a bomb anywhere on their neighbors, the world as we know it would end that day. Because seriously, if Iran dropped a bomb on Israel, Turkey, Pakistan or the US, the next day, the whole country of Iran would be smoldering from retaliation. There wouldn’t be anyone left to kill in Iran. They would all be dead. Seriously, that’s what would happen. Do you really think Iran would risk that?

  26. YES, AgingLGrl, I do believe they would because they believe they would be rewarded by Allah for their actions, death being the reward they aim for.

  27. Aging girl and JoAnn,

    Aging girl you’re probably right. But what happens if JoAnn is right? It’s not impossible that she is. And then you get the scenario you most fear?

    I would suggest that maybe we all need to watch again or at least for the first time the movie “Fail Safe” starring Henry Fonda which was adapted from my partner Harvey Wheeler’s book of the same name. I mention it in my website. The movie is about what happens when a nuclear bomb is released by mistake.

    It was back in 2000 that Harvey and George Clooney collaborated on a live presentation for a TV audience. Although I have never met George Clooney, according to the internet, anyone who comes to visit him at his home must first watch a screening of the TV adaptation of “Fail Safe.”

    I’m sure he wants them to learn what could happen if the world goes mad.

  28. AgingLgirl,

    You have to go to http://www.EthicalFront.net and then click under Proprietary Links: http://www.StrategicPower.org which is the website for The Political Epidemiology Institute.

    I mention Harvey Wheeler in a couple of places, especially on the Home Page. Harvey was the Program Director for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California. It was the leading democracy think tank of its time. It started with the former President of the University of Chicago and 15 million dollars from the Ford Foundation. That was a significant amount of money in the 60’s.

    Harvey wanted me to restart the Center; however, I needed his help to do so, but his cancer was only in remission and it came back. He wasn’t up to really helping me. We communicated by E-mail even while he was in hospice. We started the Save the Republic Project which was to be a series of courses entitled “The Transformation of America’s pro-democracy NGOS. We continued to communicate by E-mail up until seven days before he died. At the end all he could do was reply: good, great idea etc.. He died in 2004. My long time companion and partner, Barbara, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a few months later.

    He was the famous professor. Maybe the most visionary. Henry Kissinger took his place when he left Harvard. I was only the lawyer/activist. Without his connections, our Institute couldn’t compete with the billions of dollars that flow into the Right-wing Think Tanks. I have had to use my own funds to fund it.

    I have had to wait over ten years until someone would have to be “half blind” not to see the dangers of a “nut” like Donald Trump with nuclear weapons in his hands. Things are different now. I can see it thru the interaction in Sheila’s blog.

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