Ever play pool?
Even if not, you've certainly seen it. Fascinating game, honestly; click! and the cue ball drives a colored ball forward; click! and that ball hits another. In some ways, it's even more fascinating to watch it backwards, because then all the elements of choice are taken out. You know how the game ended, and now you can see clearly that every position of every ball, at every moment, was completely determined by what came before.
I was thinking about this last year, just after Christmas. Saddam Hussein was about to be executed; Jerry Ford had just died. The coincidence made me think about karma.
Karma is much misunderstood in the West: people have learned to use it as a synonym for "fate" or "predestination". A New-Age person may say "it must been karma". George Harrison wrote about "instant karma gonna get you". Someone responds to a misfortune saying "ooh, bad karma, man!" But karma isn't "fate" — it's cause and effect. There's no need for a mysterious fate, for Gods of Karma to decide your punishments and rewards for your bad or good deeds — it's like billiards. Each ball goes to its next position, determined by what happened before: that's karma.
So there I sat, comparing two lives. Saddam was under guard, and about to be hanged, his death a moment to celebrate for millions of people: karma. Jerry Ford, dying in his bed, surrounded by family: also karma. Both of them at exactly the point to which, looking backwards, events in their lives had led them.
After Ford died, there was the usual retrospective. One of the aspects of this, at least in the world of conservative thought, were recollections of the 1976 election. It's a little unnerving to realize that this was thirty years ago — it was the first campaign I was really active in (I was a Ford delegate to the Colorado GOP Convention, and yes, we got our butts handed to us by Reagan.) Colorado notwithstanding, Ford did eventually win the nomination — and then lost the election to Jimmy Carter.
According to these retrospectives, when Reagan lost the nomination, the "true conservatives" sat out the election. Ford actually lost the election by only a few thousand votes that turned a few states with relatively large electoral vote counts. Ten thousand votes, in a couple of states, would have meant Ford, not Carter, in 1976.
Hear the click? The cue ball striking the three, perhaps?
After that, of course, Carter took office. Many things happened: the Shah fell, the Islamic Republic rose in Iran. The Revolutionary Guard stormed the US Embassy; fifty-odd hostages were taken; the US made an abortive, and utterly unsuccessful, rescue attempt (and a number of other, less publicized, rescues were actually completed.)
At the end of the Carter Administration, there was a violent, radical, and committed Islamist theocracy in Iran.
Another click? The three striking the thirteen, let's say.
A little while later, the Iranian-funded Hisbul'lah murdered 250 American troops in Lebanon with a suicide bomb. For whatever reasons, the Reagan Administration withdrew from Lebanon. (Click!) Iran and Iraq came to be at war, and the decision was made that, since there was no way for them both to lose, Iran — a radical, committed, determined, committed, and unshakably anti-American Islamist theocracy — couldn't be allowed to win. So the US held its nose and helped Saddam, rather than see Iran in control of the Straits of Hormuz and half the worlds oil.
Another shot, another click as the cue strikes the thirteen, which in turn strikes the seven.
Reagan's second term, and the Iran-Iraq War, ended, along with the Soviet Union and many other things. Saddam, figuring he'd been the winner (he was still alive, wasn't he?) and thinking he had rather more of a carte blanche than he really did, invaded Kuwait. (Click!)
George H. W. Bush says "read my lips!" and then reneges in a compromise deal with a Democrat Congress. George Mitchell and Tip O'Neill hail Bush for his statesmanship, bravery, and independence — for about twenty minutes, and then use "read my lips!" against him for the rest of the campaign.
Conservatives are pissed. Pat Buchanan starts an insurrection from the Right, and Ross Perot comes into the election (more clicks: Bush and Buchanan never got along, Perot hated Bush for reasons of his own.) Perot starts out looking like a conservative, then morphs into Marvin the Martian, but pulls conservative, down-home, populists along with him. Buchanan loses the GOP nomination; the "true conservatives", still angry at the new taxes compromise — or, as they see it, betrayal — either sit out the election, or vote for Perot.
And Clinton wins a bare plurality in a three-way election.
In eight years, the size of the US military is reduced by half, as Clinton and Gingrich compete to use the Peace Dividend. In the mean time, the World Trade Center is bombed by Islamists the first time; two Embassies are blown up in Africa; a US warship is attacked; hundreds of Americans die. Finally, a few months after George W Bush takes office, a concerted joint attack takes down the World Trace Center, a wing of the Pentagon, and is just a few heroes away from destroying either the Capitol or the White House.
See what I mean, about karma? Certainly no one of the "true conservatives" who sat out the 1976 election because they thought Ford was "too liberal" thought the result would be the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of radical state Islamism — but it followed, and there is good reason to think it was a consequence. Nor did conservatives who sat out 1992 plan to see the military decimated, and multiple attacks effectively go unanswered. But the election went to Clinton, and that's the way the balls fell.
Now, we've had another election, and the "true conservatives", angry with No Child Left behind and immigration, sat it out; control of both houses of Congress turned. The same "true conservatives" are talking about the desirability of sitting out the next election.
[Update: Thanks, Glenn!]