A standing room only audience filled the Faulkner Gallery on Friday to hear Robert Scheer, longtime Los Angeles Times columnist, author, and founder of the award-winning website, Truthdig, deliver the 15th annual Frank E. Kelly lecture for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. With his white beard, full head of hair, and knowledge of American politics and foreign policy spanning decades, the 79-year-old Scheer wowed a crowd consisting primarily of aging baby boomers who came of age under the shadow of the atomic bomb and convulsive reality of the Vietnam War.
Scheer began his talk on the evening’s theme — War, Peace, Truth and the Media — by reminding the audience of the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, who, despite being exclusively white and male with more than a few slave owners in their ranks, possessed unusual sophistication and knowledge of the world, as well as a healthy suspicion of the easy corruptibility of power. In particular, and very relevant in our time, the Founders understood that a nation could not simultaneously exist as an empire and a republic. To emphasize his point, Scheer pointed to George Washington’s farewell address to the nation, and Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about the perils of the military-industrial complex.
Early in his career, Scheer had this revelation about the workings of politics and power: adults were not watching the store. Despite access to information and knowledge, the smartest people in government repeatedly made irrational policy decisions and wildly inaccurate predictions. Cuba. Vietnam. Iraq. Libya. Time and again, blinded by ambition, lust for power, or greed, politicians, generals, diplomats and technocrats got it wrong, usually with disastrous consequences. Cuba never posed an existential threat to the United States; when Saigon fell, the communist dominoes didn’t topple across Asia; Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but he had no weapons of mass destruction aimed in America’s direction. “The fact is,” Scheer said, “the enemy is us.”
Scheer spoke with considerable passion about the U.S. government’s obsession with secrecy, telling the audience that deliberate, orchestrated mendacity is standard procedure for an empire, which is why whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and William Binney are vital to a functioning democracy. Without such people of conscience it’s far too easy for the government to create convenient enemies and launch dubious wars.
By turns funny, profane, and insightful, Robert Scheer delivered a passionate defense of the people’s right to know what their government is up to in the far corners of the world, as well as a call for an informed, educated, critical, and engaged citizenry. The stakes have never been higher.