A long time ago I registered a domain name called War on Reason. This was during the George W. Bush years, when Congress passed the Patriot Act so quickly they seemed to intentionally be thumbing their noses at the Constitution, and our president and his administration mired the country in an unjust war that cost trillions of dollars and an estimated hundreds of thousands of lives. When I registered the domain name, my sister was a sergeant with the Army Reserves, and her entire battalion was being deployed to Iraq (my sister, being pregnant at the time her battalion was sent, never ended up serving overseas).
The world felt insane, which can be a hard thing to remember in the exhausting and nonsensical times of 2020. Because my sister was in the military, I paid close attention to inexplicable stories, like how soldiers had to pay for their own body armor and in-country flights home, but military contractors could make $10,000 per day. Considering the ragged state of the Veterans Affairs office and the dire lack of treatment for post-deployment illnesses PTSD, I spent a lot of time wondering what my tax dollars did once they landed in the Pentagon’s black box budget.
What I really couldn’t figure out was the ease with which millions of Americans were willing to forego basic, once-treasured freedoms as soon as our leaders told us we were under attack and had to go knock down the bad guys. The Hermann Goering quote about how you could easily convince an unwilling populace to support a war by telling them they’re being attacked was in regular circulation among friends and acquaintances. Goering was a high-profile Nazi who was tried at Nuremberg, where he once said to an American intelligence officer and psychologist that “All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.”
That this quote now feels tiresomely familiar feels . . . tiresome. As much so as the quip about how those who don’t learn history are destined to repeat it, while those who do learn history are destined to watch everyone else repeating it.
I let go of War on Reason partly because the ideas I had for it became too large for me to feel comfortable wrangling, and also because I was very busy working as a copy editor for textbook publishers and complaining about how standardized testing leads increasingly to substandard education (I still do both the job and the complaining). And this newsletter isn’t a way to reboot that idea. But as I’ve been working over the past few months on a new book proposal (more about that soon-ish but not today), I’ve gone back to the questions that prompted it, and the repetitive nature of our societal mistakes.
I have a deep interest in land ownership and the commons, and how the theft of the commons strangles freedom—and has in fact been strangling freedom for hundreds of years. I’ve written two long essays on the subject, for Aeon (“Who Owns the Earth”) and more recently for the Center for Humans & Nature (“Reclaiming the Ancient Roots of Ecological Citizenship”), and an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times on the essential role that public lands play in ensuring freedom.
It took me a while, but I finally began to see that “the commons,” which was originally land and access to water for grazing, encompasses a far larger reality: it’s our air, soil, and water, yes, but it’s also information and belief, freedom of movement and freedom to think. Our societal landscape has become just as impoverished, restricted, exhausted, and saturated with toxins as our physical landscape. And this is nothing new. The American Scholar recently published an essay on Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor whose armies conquered Germanic tribes nearly 2,000 years before there was such a thing as Germany. While he was busy conquering, a smallpox pandemic was ravaging the Roman Empire, killing millions.
Despite the lives lost to both war and the pandemic, it was misinformation, writes Robert Zaretsky in the essay, that Marcus Aurelius thought the greater threat:
“For corruption of the mind,” he writes, “is a far graver pestilence than any comparable disturbance and alteration in the air that surrounds us; for the one is a plague to living creatures as mere animals, and the other to human beings in their nature as human beings.”
So while this newsletter is a new foray to me (though in some part also a nod back to a somewhat intellectual blog another friend and I used to write on motherhood and philosophy called Pooplosophy), it is also my own small foray in the war on reason, a reminder that we are all, every single one of us, trying to figure out how to be human, and that where that exploration takes us is linked at a fundamental level to the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.
Reason isn’t just about modern scientific discovery or the world-shifting paradigms of the Enlightenment. It is, at its core, an exploration of how we live together.