Ars Philosopha — March 14, 2014, 12:46 pm

On Hypocrisy

Should we condemn hypocrites, when we can’t help but be hypocrites ourselves?

I’ve been thinking about hypocrisy, because of Woody Allen, my wife, and a friend of mine who is in the middle of a custody battle.

When my wife first told me about Dylan Farrow’s accusation that Woody Allen had molested her, I said, “Come on, the guy married his stepdaughter, it’s creepy.” She protested that it hardly meant he was a child molester. I rolled my eyes.

Meanwhile, the soon-to-be-ex-wife of a friend has accused him of molesting their children. Or rather, said that she was willing to accuse him of it. That it “seemed like a possibility.” That she felt sure “he didn’t want to get a judge involved.”

I was outraged at this. Furious. I knew my friend well enough to know that he would never hurt his children. But I also knew that he was a recovering drunk and had done things while in a blackout that he would never do sober. My wife rolled her eyes.

After I read Woody Allen’s New York Times editorial responding to Farrow, I felt as though I should reconsider. I was sure my friend was innocent (and still am). But I was quick to conclude that Allen was guilty.

Why had I so quickly and cavalierly condemned him for a charge that I believed was impossible when made against a friend? In fact, I was more ethically outraged at my friend’s ex than I had ever been at Woody Allen when I thought he was guilty. The moral tone of my reaction gave it a nastier quality than mere cognitive dissonance. It was hypocrisy.

I tend to judge people who are judgmental; I am intolerant of intolerant people. “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits,” Mark Twain observed. When I teach ethics in my day job as a philosophy professor, you might say that I make a living out of telling other people how to reform their habits. Ostensibly we are merely analyzing ethical theory: in a class like “Contemporary Moral Problems,” I don’t tell my students that I believe in euthanasia, or support gay marriage, or am conflicted about the moral status of a fetus even as I support women’s access to abortion. But we professors have not-so-subtle ways of letting our students know our actual position. I pretend that I am the impartial voice of reason, when most everyone can see that I have argued much more vigorously and convincingly for the “emerging standards of decency” argument opposing the death penalty than I did for Kant’s argument that the State has a moral obligation to the murderer to execute him (one of Kant’s more ingenious and outrageous arguments).

I admit all of this, and yet I would also maintain that one of my most cherished self-ascribed virtues is that I am not a hypocrite. I genuinely believe that I am quick to admit my inconsistencies, and that I work to identify them. I consider myself to be an unusually sincere person. I think as far as “authenticity” goes, I’m in better shape than most. And I think it’s fair to say that, while I am relatively tolerant of most moral failings, I despise a hypocrite.

I’m in good company in my dislike of hypocrisy. Complaints about it were common in Ancient Greece and Rome: Aristotle’s successor, Theophrastus, wrote a treatise attacking it as a vice, and one of Cicero’s requirements for friendship was that a friend must never engage in “feigning or hypocrisy.”

Etymologically the word can be traced to the Late Latin hypocrisis, which comes from the Greek hupo (under) and krinesthai (to explain), and means to create an appearance that does not really explain one’s motives. Hypocrisy is a form of deception. To be a hypocrite is to be a fraud.

Molière. Harper's Magazine (February 1898)

Molière. Harper’s Magazine (February 1898)

Perhaps the most famous study of hypocrisy in literature is Molière’s comedy Tartuffe, ou L’Imposteur (1664); the adjective “Tartuffian” is still used to point out hypocrisy. To be a hypocrite in Molière’s day was to pretend to hold beliefs — especially religious beliefs — that were contrary to the beliefs one actually held, and so ran contrary to the way one lived. A hypocrite might also act in a way that is contrary to his beliefs, so as to convince others that he holds beliefs that in fact he does not. (As Oscar Wilde said with characteristically contrarian wit: “I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.”) 

In Molière’s play, Tartuffe, the hypocrite, is contrasted with Cléante, a pleasant, thoughtful if somewhat unsophisticated fellow who serves a kind of moral compass in the play. Here is Cléante’s great speech against Tartuffe (please forgive the length of the passage, it’s worth it):

There is false piety like false bravery;
Just as one often sees, when honor calls us,
That the bravest men never make the most fuss,
So, too, the good Christians, whom one should follow,
Are not those who find life so hard to swallow.
What now? Will you not make any distinction
Between hypocrisy and true devotion?
Would you wish to use the same commonplace
To describe both a mere mask and a true face?
To equate artifice with sincerity
Is to confound appearance and reality.
To admire a shadow as much as you do
Is to prefer counterfeit money to true.
The majority of men are strangely made!
And their true natures are rarely displayed.
For them the bounds of reason are too small;
In their shabby souls they love to lounge and sprawl.
And very often they spoil a noble deed
By their urge for excess and reckless speed . . .

 

These people who, with a shop-keeper’s soul,
Make cheap trinkets to trade on the Credo,
And hope to purchase credit and favor
Bought with sly winks and affected fervor;
These people, I say, whose uncommon hurry
On the path to Heaven leads through their treasury,
Who, writhing and praying, demand a profit each day
And call for a Retreat while pocketing their pay,
Who know how to tally their zeal with their vices,—
Faithless, vindictive, full of artifices—
To ruin someone they’ll conceal their resentment
With a capacious cloak of Godly contentment.
They are doubly dangerous in their vicious ire
Because they destroy us with what we admire,
And their piety, which gains them an accolade,
Is a tool to slay us with a sacred blade.

For most of the comedy Cléante is a moderate voice of reason, but at last his frustration with the way the other characters are taken in by Tartuffe drives him to moral outrage. What bothers him in particular is the way Tartuffe uses the appearance of morality — more than morality, piety — to achieve his immoral, impious ends. This is dangerous not merely because it manipulates us, but because it manipulates us in a way that plays on our better natures — and so casts the questions of better natures into doubt altogether. And though Tartuffe is an extreme example of this reprehensible way of behaving, Cléante insists that “the majority of men are strangely made / And their true natures are rarely displayed.”

We will get to that interesting claim about “the majority of men” in a moment. Before we complicate things, let’s look at a couple more complaints against hypocrisy, if only to satisfy my moral indignation about my own moral indignation at my failure to recognize the silly and self-contradictory nature of my moral indignation.

Dante put hypocrites in Malebolge, the eighth circle of hell — especially reserved, as was the ninth circle, for frauds. The hypocrites are with the counterfeiters, seducers, flatterers, sorcerers and simonists, among others. He names Caiaphas — the high priest of Jerusalem, who advised that Jesus be crucified because “one man should die for the people” so that “the whole nation perish not” (John 11:50) — as a particularly egregious example of a hypocrite, because he was only serving his political interests when he advocated the crucifixion of Christ. (In addition to suffering the other torments of the penultimate circle of hell, Caiaphas is crucified in one of the pits of Malebolge). For Dante, as for Cléante, the reason hypocrites are among the lowest of the damned is that their fraud uses the appearance or profession of morally or spiritually praiseworthy behavior to conceal morally or spiritually blameworthy motives and actions. Many of the deceptions we commit are relatively innocuous, but hypocrisies are particularly dangerous for the soul, Cléante says, because “they destroy us with what we admire.” And this in turn causes us to call our moral intuitions, and our faith, into question.

In our own day Hannah Arendt, in her On Revolution (1963), unequivocally condemns hypocrisy:

The hypocrite’s crime is that he bears false witness against himself. What makes it so plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices is that integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one. Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.

For Arendt, a criminal like Josef Mengele or Adolf Eichmann may show us evil in its most terrifying form. Mengele (one fears) may have genuinely believed in what he was doing; Arendt’s most famous book, The Banality of Evil, specifically addresses Eichmann’s apparently sincere, if confused, use of Kant’s moral philosophy in his defense during the Nuremberg trials. Though it disturbs us to admit it, with his sincere but evil intentions and actions Eichmann had a kind of appalling integrity. But the hypocrites among Nazi war criminals (and even ordinary Germans), Arendt says, were still worse, because they couldn’t even appeal to conviction. To act in a profoundly immoral way while recognizing its immorality — and still, to protest one’s innocence! — is the most pernicious of possible moral stances.

Now some hypocrites may do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and that, too, appalled Arendt. That this kind of hypocrisy is morally blameworthy will cause the utilitarians among us to cringe — who knows or cares what the motives are, if the consequences are desirable! — but it does accord with what most of us think when we consider what it means to have strong character. We want good actions to be paired with good motivations. When we think of moral exemplars — the Buddha, Socrates, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela — part of what we admire is that they walked as they talked. We would be feel betrayed to discover a secret diary of Mahatma Gandhi in which he confessed that at night he stalked the streets of Delhi in disguise, punching British policemen in the nose.

The coherence between what one believes and how one acts was, William Hazlitt thought, a sign of nobility, a proof of the fact that a person saw value in himself. To act in accordance with one’s beliefs is an affirmation, most of us suppose, that those beliefs are praiseworthy. By contrast, “a hypocrite despises those whom he deceives, but has no respect for himself. He would make a dupe of himself too, if he could.” Here Hazlitt may be going too far: not only hypocrites, but even the most honest among us are experts at self-deception. As recent research by Dan Ariely (in psychology and economics) and Robert Trivers (in evolutionary theory) has shown, we are in fact a lot better at deceiving ourselves than we are at deceiving others — and one of the reasons we are so adept at deceiving ourselves is precisely so that we can more nimbly deceive others. This is where Cléante and Hazlitt disagree, because Cléante recognizes that part of the pleasure — and part of the moral corruption — of the hypocrite comes from the fact that he knows his words and actions do not reflect his beliefs, and yet he manages to persuade others that they do. If Hazlitt’s hypocrite could deceive himself, he would suddenly find sincerity, we might reasonably suppose, and so no longer be a hypocrite.

But here’s where Cléante’s observation that the majority of men indulge in some form of hypocrisy, and Hazlitt’s suspicion that the accomplished hypocrite would deceive even himself, begin to muddy the moral waters. Listen to Bishop Joseph Butler, who wrote another of the classic studies of hypocrisy, in the seventeenth century:

In common language, which is formed upon the common intercourses amongst men, hypocrisy signifies little more than their pretending what they really do not mean, in order to delude one another. But in Scripture … to ‘use liberty as a cloke of maliciousness,’ must be understood to mean, not only endeavouring to impose upon others, by indulging wayward passions, or carrying on indirect designs, under pretences of it; but also excusing and palliating such things to ourselves; serving ourselves of such pretences to quiet our own minds in anything which is wrong. [emphasis added]

For Butler, the worse and more significant kind of hypocrisy — and the much more common sort, as Robert Kurzban shows in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite (Princeton University Press, 2012) — is when we act immorally towards others while deluding them and deluding ourselves.

Here’s the good news from Kurzban, if you can call it that: we’re all hypocrites. We’re hard-wired for it, in much the same way we’re hard-wired for self-deception and other forms of cognitive dissonance. In his straightforward and elegant book, Kurzban explains how contemporary neuroscience regards the structure, psychology, and evolutionary benefits of hypocrisy. Briefly, the self, as Nietzsche once helpfully described it, is a kind of oligarchy wherein different sets of beliefs can be entertained (and even committed to, cherished, defended) depending on the needs of the self in different situations. A brutal tyrant can still be a loving father, because those roles require different and incompatible belief sets.

How on earth does this work? Well, the brain — and thus, on Kurzban’s account, the self — is partitioned. The coordinated brain structures that function to “govern strangers well” or to “hunt deer well,” let’s say, are not fully accessible — and are sometimes completely inaccessible — to the brain structures that function to “raise one’s children well” or “love one’s spouse” or (in contrast with the deer-hunting example) “care for one’s beloved deer hounds.” This partitioning develops not merely because the brain can only focus on and master certain kinds of tasks at particular times, though that’s part of the account. It’s also because the evolved human brain has to become skilled at activities that require incompatible sets of beliefs. To be a brutal warrior demands beliefs and attitudes that are fundamentally different from the beliefs and attitudes needed to be a loving parent.

We might wonder if the brain and the self really can support such radically different attitudes. But Kurzban shows us that even activities as simple as assessment of ourselves and assessment of others involve brain partitioning. We are more generous with ourselves in order to encourage accomplishment, and tougher on others in order to maintain our feelings of achievement. This analysis is supported by a large body of literature on self-deception, and specifically the evolutionary advantages of successful self-deception, which improves our ability to bluff others.

Kurzban convincingly shows that not only was Hazlitt correct that the hypocrite would fool himself if he could, but that Hazlitt didn’t go far enough: most acts of hypocrisy take place while the hypocrite is fooling himself, and even as a part of fooling himself.

But of course we still need others to engage in hypocrisy. “Every man alone is sincere,” Emerson wrote in his essay “Friendship” (1841). “At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins. We parry and fend the approach of our fellow-man by compliments, by gossip, by amusements, by affairs. We cover up our thought from him under a hundred folds.”

Okay, we’ve covered a lot of terrain. We’ve said both why hypocrisy looks like such an ignoble vice and why it may nevertheless be an essential evolutionary and social skill. And we’ve established that, even if hypocrisy is a nasty thing, we ought to be careful in condemning it, because we’re probably hypocrites ourselves — and all the more so in condemning hypocrisy.

Now, all that granted, we should also remember that it doesn’t follow from the fact that something is the case that it ought to be the case — especially when it comes to facts about how we think about ourselves and each other. Let us suppose that Kurzban is right, and we all are hypocrites, for reasons that can be defended. Does that mean Dante, Arendt, and others are wrong to attack hypocrisy?

Think again about my hypocritical posture with respect to Woody Allen’s and my friend’s situations. We have a good explanation for why I acted the way I did: I have one set of beliefs and cognitive skills for judging the people I care about, and another set for evaluating people I don’t know. So my hypocrisy makes sense.

But that doesn’t make it desirable or praiseworthy. This is probably part of what Socrates meant when he famously insisted that “the unexamined life was not worth living”: it’s not until we scrutinize our beliefs, assess their coherence, deliberate between them, and decide which ones are defensible and which should be rejected, that we become fully human, fully moral. Because we are hard-wired, on Kurzban’s account, to form and even cling to inconsistent beliefs (and even models of belief formation), this will no doubt be a lifetime’s pursuit. But nobody said the moral life was going to be easy.

“If you want to know the right thing to do, simply do what is most difficult,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once observed, and though that might be a bit extreme — he wasn’t known for his moderation — the basic principle seems well-guided. Yes, it’s going to be tough to have the kind of integrity that Arendt demands. It will require constant self-evaluation. It will make living a moral life a difficult daily project. And the first principle of that kind of integrity will be that, chances are, we can’t judge the behavior of others. Contra Arendt, moral indignation is going to be one of the most difficult attitudes to sustain, so long as we are committed to avoiding hypocrisy. If we believe in at least striving for sincerity and authenticity, we are committed to tolerance; if we want to moralize, we’d best accept our own hypocrisy. 

Share
Single Page

More from Clancy Martin:

Conversation March 30, 2015, 2:45 pm

On Death

“I think that the would-be suicide needs, more than anything else, to talk to a person like you, who has had to fight for life.”

Ars Philosopha October 9, 2014, 8:00 am

Are Humans Good or Evil?

A brief philosophical debate.

Ars Philosopha June 25, 2013, 2:00 pm

On Suicide

And why we should talk more about it

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2018

Combustion Engines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

There Will Always Be Fires

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The End of Eden

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How to Start a Nuclear War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Article
There Will Always Be Fires·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
Article
The End of Eden·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
Article
How to Start a Nuclear War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Amount of aid Connecticut agreed in May to provide Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund:

$22,000,000

A survey of national narcissism found that Russians see themselves as responsible for 61 percent of world history, whereas the Swiss put themselves at 11 percent

Marvel Entertainment's CEO exerts influence over the VA; Mike Pence lays out plans for The Space Force; Paul Manafort's trial reveals his tax evasion (and much more)

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today