Friday, December 28, 2007

Picking the Right Story to Interpret the 'Facts'

Philip commented on the last post about Charlie Wilson's War:

Back through the 70s, I read a lot about the USSR. Current affairs and history, mostly dealing with musical life there. Between knowledge from that and talking to friends who had worked or studied there, I felt that the USSR was already teetering close to the edge before the mid-70s.

Hedrick Smith's _The Russians_ came out in 1975, four years before the Afghan invasion, during the middle of the short Ford administration. The book fairly clearly describes the already existing structural flaws that led to the collapse of the USSR fourteen years later.

It is possible that by forcing the Soviet government to spend more on defensive and counter-offensive weapons during the 1980s the US sped the inevitable along, but I doubt we'll ever know.
I've discussed in previous posts - particularly this one about "a black-hole bully, punching the nose of a passing galaxy" - how humans interpret facts based on the stories in their heads. Those stories - models, theories, narratives, we use many different words - get into our heads in different ways. Which story gets to be the interpreter of any collection of 'facts' at any point in time in any individual's brain, is a mystery. And I would wager most of us aren't aware of the stories we have that compete to interpret the world around us. Some we can identify - though they may not be the real story - others work in our heads without our ever actually articulating them.

Phil does a good job articulating the basis for his interpretation of the fall of the Soviet Union and he may be right - the Soviets were on the decline and, at best, the defeat in Afghanistan just sped that up. But I'm not so sure. The Soviet Union fell when the people stopped obeying. They simply withdrew their willingness to obey. When individual dissidents did that, the government could deal with that. But when the entire population did it, the government simply dissolved. (OK, this is my story, greatly influence by Vaclav Havel's "The Power of the Powerless". Click on the title for excerpts of the essay and here for a discussion that applies Havel's story to the US today.) The loss of young Soviet lives in Afghanistan and the eventual defeat in Afghanistan brought the people of the Soviet Union to the point of being able to withdraw their cooperation with the government. To simply stop cooperating with the regime. Then the radical capitalist crusaders with their "capitalism as the savior of humankind" ideology rushed into the Soviet Union to spread their Gospel. The initial euphoria dissipated as the pitfalls of unbridled capitalism - greed, inequality of wealth, followed by inequality of justice - resulted in a relative few Russians getting fabulously wealthy and the vast majority seeing their physical standard of living fall. Now, they seem to be sliding back into traditional Russian totalitarianism. So, Afghanistan may have made that moment of change possible. Without Afghanistan, things would have gotten bad, but they could have kept the Soviet infrastructure and more carefully adopted aspects of the market, as has China. The point of this post is not to decide who is 'right' but to illustrate how stories help us (for better or worse) interpret what we accept as 'facts.'

On NPR's Day to Day this morning (you can listen to it here,) the real Charlie Wilson says that the arming of the Mujahideen was his greatest achievement and he repeats the final message of the movie - that all we needed to do was fund the schools and infrastructure of post-war Afghanistan, and it wouldn't have left open for the Taliban to take.

But I can't help but wonder. At the end of the film we see Charlie Wilson half-heartedly, and unsuccessfully, arguing with his committee colleagues that they need to just put $1 million into education for Afghanistan. He worked a lot harder for arms than he did for education. I suspect his story is influenced by his own part in it all and his need to feel good about helping the Afghans defend themselves. But if he'd have fought for schools with 1/10th the zeal he'd fought for stingers, surely he could have raised a few million for schools. This "I did the right thing but Congress didn't follow through with schools" story doesn't quite ring true to me. Bringing the Soviet Union to its knees is a better story for Charlie Wilson, than bringing the Taliban to power in Afghanistan and allowing Bin Laden to train Al Qaeda there.

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