Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

obama_clinton.gifI’ve been trying to convince friends that yes, Obama can get votes from white Americans. That’s because American race relations, even when they are antagonistic, are more complicated than their typical portrayal in the media. Andrew Sullivan offers one telling example of a conservative who admits to having racist feelings at times but claims he will vote for Obama.

And in fact, Hilary Clinton will likely have more trouble winning a national election than Obama. Not just because she’s a woman, but also because her public persona defies more conservative expectations regarding women.

If she were on the right, this somewhat brittle persona might in fact work to her advantage (as Thatcher’s worked to hers in England). Unfortunately, the image that the left must work against is that of being unhinged, angry, and less interested in America as a whole than in certain interest groups or international amity. Conservatives can more easily get away with being unhinged because their anger and other uncomfortable emotions are directed not toward the nation as a whole but outside it (towards other countries, hazily defined “terrorists”, or certain minorities who while geographically “within” are made to seem “other” and hence outside). Even a candidate like Dean, who was ironically conservative in some ways, can quickly be undone by the “angry liberal” label (in his case the character assassination had to be pulled off with great precision, including a preliminary raising of expectations).

Hilary has tried to escape the less palatable aspects of the progressive image with typically Clintonian triangulation; unfortunately, she cannot triangulate the unfeminine vibe she gives off on TV. She is caught between two possible negative media portrayals — the first as extreme leftist (as she was portrayed during the health care fiasco in the early 90s) if she displays her passion, and the second as cold opportunist if she withholds it. In other words, she cannot appeal to less progressive voters without seeming dishonest; being a woman is part of that conundrum.

Obama is in the opposite situation. Many Americans would love to prove that they are not racist if given the chance (“I’m not a racist, I have plenty of black friends … and I voted for Obama!).

Hence that Obama is black helps him as much as it hurts him. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are not adequate objects for assuaging white guilt, because they are much rougher around the edges than Obama (something Biden was trying to get at in his ill-advised remarks about Obama being “clean-cut” and “articulate”).

In fact, Obama’s superb demeanor will be far more of a factor than the fact that he is a progressive — many Americans are more sensitive to (and more confident in their judgment of) character than issues.

After their experience with Bush, Americans are looking for a candidate who exudes sanity. (Is “it’s the sanity, stupid” a possible slogan?). It’s not a high standard: please, just don’t be crazy. Obama possesses this un-crazy quality in much greater quantity than any other candidate in the Democratic or Republican field. It’s part of his sincere, calm, and charismatic demeanor. That he is an African American with these qualities makes him a more, not less, formidable candidate.


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There are legitimate conservative arguments to be made, but David Brooks’ latest column does not make them.

In fact, the basic point of the column is that if Republicans need to jettison every value they’ve ever stood for in order to get in line behind Bush’s authoritarianism, then so be it:

Goldwater and Reagan were important leaders, but they’re not models for the future.

Just when you thought the right-wing in this country had really lost its mind …. Here’s Glenn Greenwald’s parsing:

Brooks’ central point: the dominant right-wing political movement in this country that has spawned and driven the Bush presidency has nothing to do with — it is in fact overtly hostile to — the ostensible principles of Goldwater/Reagan small-government conservatism.

As Greenwald notes, Brooks is now just explicitly admitting what we have suspected about the right for some time: that they have given up conservatism in favor of authoritarianism. Here is Brooks’ new slogan:

security leads to freedom

This is really, really disturbing and, as Greenwald points out, comically Orwellian. But by the way, Brooks tells us, this is a principle of “child psychology”. Hmmm … why do I see Nazi doctors in white coats observing children in cages and asking, “are you safe?”

Let’s see this slogan for what it is: a plea for authoritarianism. It’s a plea for the elevation of the threat of “Islamic extremism” to a level that justifies grotesque executive abuses of power (including torture and indefinite detention without evidence), abuses Americans once thought of as inconceivable and fascist betrayals of our constitution. And what do we get for that? Not even security, because we have seen, incompetently waged and murderous wars do not lead to security. How about a few luggage bomb detectors for our airports? No, the right wing tells us; we don’t need to worry about preventing attacks on the United States; we’d rather concentrate on revenge, even if that means a few thousand more American lives and many thousands more innocent Iraqi lives.

Speaking of “psychological” principles, the psychological version of authoritarianism afflicts people who are cruel and controlling towards themselves and others. Many great, poems, plays, and novels have been written about the disastrous effects of this principle, political and psychological. Many chapters in history support the observations contained in these works. Brooks should go read some of these. They hardly support the notion that authoritarianism leads to freedom, unless you are reading authoritarian propaganda, in which a kind of perverse pleasure is taken in trumpeting and forcing others to acquiesce to patent contradictions of fact — e.g., the description of a law that allow for more pollution as the “Clean Air Act.”

Today’s right wing (should I call them “Republicans” or “Conservatives”? — I doubt it) is a dangerous, dangerous crew. What makes Brooks particularly dangerous his his level of mercenary intellectual dishonesty, and his noisome claim to represent “normal, nonideological people” while throwing around pitifully partisan and stupid slogans like “security leads to freedom”, the kind of sentiment that has been used to do public relations for some of history’s dirtiest authoritarian work, including mass murder by dictators. Security does not lead to freedom if you’re Jose Padilla, against whom no evidence has been presented; or if you’re an Iraqi, in which case security doesn’t even lead to security.

And in fact the ambiguity of the meaning of “security” is the point. Why doesn’t Brooks tell us specifically what he means by “security”? To borrow from Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man: “I can’t tell you whether it’s safe or not unless I know specifically what you’re talking about.”

Andrew Sullivan has a blow-by-blow response here.

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Andrew Sullivan is right that passion and skepticism are by no means at odds. The point of skepticism is not that we should vacate (we can’t anway) our passions and the irrationality that grounds, at least in part, our most examined beliefs. It’s that when it comes to setting priorities, we ought to be reflectively aware of this irrationality and elevate the concept of our fallibility above the others. That way we don’t reach the point where it is imperative that others either share our beliefs and values, or be killed, because their “evil” ideas threaten to out-propagate the ideas that keep our culture psychically alive.

The supporters of war are quick to turn the ideas of others into existential threats, quickly shifting back and forth between the ways in which supposed enemies are a threat to us, or their own people, or to abstractions such as “freedom” and “democracy”.

We know today that “terrorists” are not much of a threat to the United States, because they cannot strike with the force and frequency of a standing army. Even terrorists armed with a nuke are not a threat to the existence of the United States in the way, for instance, that Russia still is.

9/11 was more damaging to American pride than infrastructure, and the supporters of war do everything to conflate humiliation and threat. In the meantime, they do not take seriously the gravity of killing tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians for the sake of ideas and abstractions — it is enough that we call these deaths an “accident” or the “collateral” of our good intentions. They do not get the irony that spreading “freedom” on a practical level means a massive imposition of misery on an entire populace. Because Saddam was a bad man and bad for Iraq, removing him must inevitably be better Iraq, a patent non sequitur.

Andrew Sullivan is one of those who did not take the concept of war seriously, and did not apply his skepticism when it counted. And despite his change of heart, there are still hints hints that he equates the failure of the Utopian adventure in Iraq with a case of mismanagement. That is not a conservative stance. History has not been kind to such schemes. We ought to learn from it.

The “Iraq experiment” of which Sullivan’s reader speaks is a phrase of ignorant, Mengelian callousness: did we ask Iraqis if they thought liberation and “democracy” weres worth dying in large numbers? Did we hold a democratic referendum? And do we really think that war can be an act of grace? Did we think to evaluate or own cultural maladies, including the murderous recent history of the United States, against those of the Muslims above whom we assumed we were so culturally elevated that we thought we could help them cure their “extremism” and “social development” and “political attitudes” — with bombs? This is like Ghenghis Khan describing his rampages as a kind of finishing school for those who could benefit from his brand of refinement.

To some this response will seem reactionary, America-hating, and naively pacifist. Some might detect the tinge of smug radicalism — of disheveled simple-minded hippies who frequent war protests and can’t make the tough decisions required for the safety of their nation. We’re meant to believe that these critics are the tough guys who love America enough to accept the inevitability of killing: they can handle the idea of war. And where this willingness to kill would normally be a sign of psychopathology, in international affairs one finds an acceptable outlet, and in these circles it is a badge of honor, and realism, a grave consciousness of what is necessary in the world. (Notwithstanding the fact that the TV appearances of such toughs often consist of of everything from puerile, insecure belligerence to coldly delivered enticements to contractual mischief (Bill Kristol)).

They are not swayed by their emotions, by the pictures of dead children with newly disorganized bodies (plentiful from Iraq). That’s just war, the realists say, and there are higher ideals, not to mention the safety of the country at stake.

Safer after the initiation of the blood feud? Safer when waging wars rather than establishing security at home? Higher, more realistic ideals than the lives of innocents?

(“Er, when I said “spreading freedom”, did I forget to mention that you’ll find your arms and legs have been freed from your torso?”)

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What courageous humility is exemplified by Christopher Hitchens, who … strike that, reverse it, I misread his recent article in Slate.

To revive a different motif: what a sack of shit is Hitchens, who now trots out his anemic debate team arguments for a last stand. The bad boy of letters must not admit defeat!

We get legalistic arguments about UN resolutions, as if we didn’t know those resolutions are based on U.S. arm-twisting and bribery and can be always be had for the right price. We get lines like the following:

The Bush administration never claimed that Iraq had any hand in the events of Sept. 11, 2001. But it did point out, at different times, that Saddam had acted as a host and patron to every other terrorist gang in the region.

Here’s what Cheney said in 2003: “We learn more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the ’90s that it involved training, for example, on [biological and chemical weapons], that Al Qaeda sent personnel to Baghdad to get trained on the systems.” Whether Cheney avoided the technical error of saying “Hussein helped Al Qaeda accomplish 9/11,” that’s what these statements meant to most Americans; and that’s what most Americans believe. I’m sure we could find and celebrate the technical nuances of many other examples of successful propaganda — that is, after all, what makes them successful.

Of course, strained legal technicalities are of particular interest to Hitchens — this is after all his self-defense. His article ends with sophistry that can be paraphrased thus: “I admit that civil war was predictable, but that’s because the roots of this civil war lie in Saddam’s exploitation of sectarian differences, which means there already was an “unease” that certainly would have led to civil war anyway if … (someone invaded?).

But the icing:

So, you seriously mean to say that we would not be living in a better or safer world if the coalition forces had turned around and sailed or flown home in the spring of 2003?

That’s exactly what I mean to say.

I suppose we are not to ask Iraqis this question, because manifestly they do not live in a “better or safer world”. And we know historically that Saddam was a threat only to a) his own people and (when armed and encouraged, intentionally in the case of Iran and unintentionally in the case of Kuwait, by the United States and Europe) b) his neighbors, to whom he is no longer a threat; hence the primary task of the war was to improve the quality of Iraqi lives. It was not: the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the displacement of millions, and the devastation of their infrastructure, economy, and way of life. Life was bad under Hussein; it is much worse under coalition forces.

For men like Hitchens, these concerns are just rank consequentialism: there are ideals to uphold — what are human lives next to these grand ideals? Under this view, when countries go to war, the send only their blue-blooded patriots, and upright pure defenders of freedom; all the compassionate carriers of machine guns who would never hurt a fly if the good of their invadees were not at stake.

In fact: when countries go to war, they send a motley crew of good and bad men: they send men with fine and heroic sensibilities, and they send sadists and criminals. They send the men who are saints, and they send men who, for instance, will rape a 15-year-old Iraqi girl and set her on fire and kill her entire family. And then of course they send average men; they pour their entire, mixed bag of these men into another society — and with them, their courage and nobility; but also, their problems, their frailties, and their crimes. And then this entire spectrum is subjected to tremendous stress and impersonal, bureaucratic militarism: so that, for instance, when they ordered to massacre Iraqi soldiers running for their lives, they will do it, as they did on the “Highway of Death” in the first Gulf War; and when they are told that rules of engagement allow blindly “clearing” houses anywhere near areas where they have encountered fire — i.e., killing every Iraqi man, woman, and child, as in Haditha, they may well take the opportunity to do it and defend their actions afterwards; or if a car pulls up to quickly on their skittish and impromptu checkpoint, they are more likely than not to turn its occupants into dead meat. Some soldiers will enjoy these atrocities, some will be haunted by them, some destroyed: but the point is that war is so catastrophic, so spiritually and physically catastrophic for both sides, that it ought not to be entertained as Hitchens entertains his scotch or his next glib bit of copy. We ought to take seriously the tragedy of war, and its consequences; because its execution transcends and destroys the values for which it is supposedly a means, and the only value that may survive it and justify it is brute survival. The words and the grand ideals of writers and neocons are not the actuality of war; war is not the smart bombs and good guys and bad guys; the actuality is a devastating moral perversion that no amount pickled sentimentality or troop-supporting will reverse.

But beyond this: if we do believe there are ideals which justify the mass-murder of innocents as well as those unfortunate wearers-of-uniforms, we ought to ask whether we want to be the executioners, and whether our government has the kind of record of moral purity and competence that might encourage us to believe that war will in fact improve our lives and ultimately the lives of those we vanquish. As Andrew Sullivan puts it:

The real question is: if we knew then what we know now about the caliber, ethics, competence and integrity of the president and his aides, would we have entrusted them to wage this war?

But then what administration would we trust, in a country whose recent history includes killing millions of Vietnamese? In a country that has supported death squads in South America, and armed and encouraged both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, which killed more than a million people? In a country that went out of its way to defend Hussein while he was gassing his own people, right up to the eve of the first Gulf War, for the principal reason that he was needed to satisfy the war profiteers and economic interests that so strongly influence its government? You don’t have to be a liberal or an America-hater to believe these things; you merely have to read history and love your country enough to be upset by it. War profiteering and corruption and atrocities and mismanagement and bungled occupations are not novel apparitions, suddenly coming on the scene to confound the theorists of the good, the true, the right-pure war. And we ought not to be confused on these points by the fact that Bush has added more brazen forms of criminality and acts that really threaten to destroy the United States by dissolving the institutions that comprise it — torture and indefinite detention and suspension of habeas corpus, for instance.

So while we worry about the destruction our country via its values and institutions (and the traditions we thought until recently that conservatives cherished), let Hitchens tell Iraqis that the destruction of theirs was worth it because of our abstract sense of safety and their abstract sense of liberation from a bad, bad man. Let him tell them how, consequences be damned, he was right, because by his math a world minus a bad man is a better world, notwithstanding the subtraction of a few hundred thousand lives. Let him tell them that this is exactly what he means, as if one writer sticking to his imaginary guns were itself such an act of fortitude that it redeems any amount of actual destruction.

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Another Washington Journal moment: “This is a Wahr,” the old woman reminded us. “This” — not two wars, the war on terror and the war in Iraq, the first a made-up fantasy and the second elective folly. The first not really a “this”, but rather an unending excuse for abuses of executive power and the folly of trying to use the blunt instrument of force against hidden cells; the second not legally a war (which in our forgotten Constitution, only congress can declare) but rather an executive military “action”. And neither really a war in planning or practice: no tightening of security on the first front, no establishment of security on the second.

The Republicans like to make a sentimental mockery of this notion of war and support of troops: they apply it liberally. What a boon 9/11 was to this fantasy of militarism, what an ultimate excuse for the occasional leisure aggression, to be waged with a fierce minimalism, watched from the living room, and lamented as if it were the great national sacrifice that it is not.

The great sacrifice that was asked of us, that we might have made: to find bin Laden, to target our enemies selectively, to improve our national security and intelligence apparatus, and to make rational our foreign policies. The great indulgence that we are engaged in: a prideful fantasy, a folly that is now approaching its logical conclusion — not a wahr at all, not a war, not even a battle, but the kind of tale that idiots craft for themselves, full of shock and awe, accomplishing nothing.

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I wake up to Washington Journal in the morning because the irritation I immediately feel prevents me from going back to sleep. There’s nothing like the application of senility to politics.

More and more frequently the elderly callers on the Republican Line complain about the bias of the moderator. This on a show that in a way is an ongoing lobotomy — so inexpressive in its attempt at neutrality that you can practically hear the crawling line of drool. (This I wake up to? My own senility beckons).

The “Lines” (the phone lines I mean) are themselves a disappointing tactic, as if the maddened partisans must be herded into their respective stalls — “elderly people, we respect your opinions, but not enough to discuss them with you, not enough even to disagree — there are issues of sanitation; please just turn down your radio, say your last political words, and then click through this turnstile on your way to Republican or Democratic heaven”. At is as if the show is the political version of a nursing home: “this is the logical consequence of the partisan mind,” it seems to say, “we’ll take care of you while your spleen deteriorates”.

None of this boring sanitation satisfies the paranoia of old age — and perhaps in the sense the show has been designed to infuriate and revitalize (a paradoxical defibrillator). One man calls to give a long complaint (with Joe Conason as guest) about how the moderator always cuts of Republicans before they’re done, and one gets the impression that they mean the moderator eventually feels compelled to get away from the long, rambling complaints about “liberals” who should be “run out of the country”. But the moderator patiently waits until the end and then says, as usual, “thank you caller.” This only incenses a bout of octogenarian gang-banging: another old woman calls to give her point and then the final blow, oh yes, “you’re a democrat and it shows” she says with great satisfaction: the show is completely biased.

You’re a Democrat, you listen to us, you say nothing, secretly you despise us, and we know it; you’re a Democrat and it shows. Where is the fair and balanced ranting, the huffery rush limbaugh puffery? You’re a Democrat and it shows — this infuriating pretense of neutrality notwithstanding — show your cards, Democrat!

You’re a journalist and you’re not on Fox, and oh how it shows!

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Andrew Sullivan on the fact that some commenters on Huffington Post took delight int he Cheney Assassination attempt:

I think some Huffposters’ desire to see the vice-president assassinated is repulsive on every level, and indicative of real sickness on the far left.

I was reminded immediately of a certain classic by Chris Rock:

While Sulllivan realizes that Kristol’s post is a “classic gambit” (merely expand the notion of culpability — you are responsible for the views of your readers, or the characteristic views of your “group”; the kind of expansion of culpability behind racist and jingoist impulses); it is one of his many tautological expressions of distance from a “far left” bogeyman. Why not say that it is “indicative of real sickness of the very sick” or “indicative of real far leftism on the far left.” The real meaning: we spare a range of reasonable debate in the middle, cut out and identify both ends (the far left and right), and we don’t bother to ask ourselves how we know whether our views fall within that reasonable middle except to find little bits and pieces we know we can safely condemn before the herd — they will concur. But it is critical to make these bits and pieces representative of some group out there, some substantive entity, rather than an errant few: “the far left.” So we can bravely take these mainstream positions (“2+2=4!”) because we have invented the 2+2=5ists. Have I given an overly complicated description of a straw man? Whew.

But then again, we might surprise ourselves when taking Herr Kristol’s test:

Enlighten us, Arianna. Poll your readers. Ask them: Are they pleased that the attempt against Vice President Cheney failed? Are they grateful that he is alive and well? Do you hope the U.S. prevails in Afghanistan? In Iraq?

Yes, we are so pleased that the attempt on Cheney failed. Each day I light a candle before my picture of Cheney, and each day that his heart faithfully and gently beats him to sleep like a Guantanamo detainee, I tenderly hush the candle, thanking God, not just for Cheney but for the many blessings he has brought to America and Iraq, hoping that we prevail — meaning, prevail in furthering our good work of establishing security and preserving the lives of the Iraqis who aren’t dead or forcefully emigrated, and the good work Padilla, and all those good works, Amen.

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