Confrontation at the LA Times Book Festival (etc.)

I got an excellent email from a friend of mine out in LA, which touches on issues of interest to our readers, which he has permitted me to share with you.

Over the weekend, I went to the LA Times Book Festival-a huge event with authors shilling books in lectures, panels, and readings. It’s not as good as the Chicago Humanities Festival, but not bad. I avoided some panels on current events and attended others, with mixed results. On one panel I heard Andrew Bacevich, Stephen Cohen, and Ross Terrill. These were well-informed and thoughtful people, and as a result they spoke in reasoned and measured ways, yet with clear ideas. Bacevich was particularly impressive. His view is that America is over reliant on military power as the central element in its foreign policy. There are several reasons why this came about: it is widely believed that the Soviet Union collapsed because of US military advances and pressures; and in the immediate wake of that collapse, the Gulf War led Americans to believe that we had such overwhelming military power that we could now meet any threat. Our dominance in the world, he argues, is no accident thrust upon us by the collapse of rivals and the emergence of external dangers; it is a deliberate process to protect our way of life. The core of that way of life is freedom, but each individual is left to define freedom for himself. In practice, this means that our common ground is material abundance, and we elect our leaders to assure a dominance in the world that will preserve and increase our material abundance. In pursuit of this policy, however, we have come to be excessively reliant on military power. Bacevich is a former military man, and his analysis is not intended as a liberal diatribe but as a sober conservative estimate.

Ross Terrill had excellent and nuanced things to say about China, including that it is not a real threat. The Chinese are an empire in a fairly traditional mold patterned on their history. This includes the subjugation of western regions of China that are not Chinese. In the world, they are pursuing a mainly defensive strategy, making sure that nothing happens that is inimical to their interests. Their huge trade surplus with the United States is not a real worry, because it is in their interests to continue it, not to use it as an instrument of a more or less pointless confrontation. He actually foresees a lengthy period in which the United States and China are likely to have rather cooperative relations. Cohen paints a hair-raising picture of instability in the former Soviet Union and argues forcefully that American policy has made all the wrong moves, increasing instability and dangers in that area. It is a mistake to think the Russians have no options; they have many opportunities to cause mischief and are increasingly in a situation that encourages them to do so. In this brief compass, I can’t do justice to the speakers, but they certainly made compelling points.

A later panel was the usual left / right setup on the question, “Is the World Safer for Democracy?” The audience is overwhelmingly extremely liberal, not to say outright leftist. Hence, the man you know who is the editor of the Claremont Review didn’t get much of a hearing, though he made some good points. David Rieff argued that we’re too willing to use war as a solution to problems. He conceded that as a reporter in Sarajevo, he had supported the use of force and he still insists that both neo-conservatives and human rights activists are in a strange alliance to use force for lofty motives. But he’s increasingly skeptical about it. Otherwise, we got some clichéd positions.

The highlight, however, was a question from a Marine sergeant who asked the most left member of the panel what her qualifications were for saying the Iraq venture was a failure. She prudently responded by asking him what his experience was, and in concise and articulate terms he said that most of the people-and he had been in the Falloujah fight-appreciated what the US forces were doing. She then asked him how he responded to the numbers of troops who were objecting to the war. If she thought she had him, she was quite mistaken. He commented that most of them were not combat or front-line troops. As a result, they suffered all the problems of a tour of duty-separation from family, home, jobs, etc.-but didn’t get close enough to the situation to receive the thanks and appreciation of the people they were helping. His comments posed a serious dilemma for the crowd. They wanted to applaud him to show that they really supported the troops and it was that monster Bush who was putting them in harm’s way (“Support our troops-bring them home” line) but he was a distressingly articulate and directly informed advocate of the current policy. The crowd contented themselves with shouting down the conservative from Claremont.

In all this it struck me that there are some flaws in the argument that democracy can’t be imposed externally and that we should just set an example and let it grow indigenously, though that will take a long time. I asked Michael Novak his thoughts about that argument when I met him recently. He made the good point that people learn very quickly when they have to and want to. Just because it took a very long time for humankind (and particular nations) to create democracy and its supportive institutions, it doesn’t follow that it will always take that long to develop them. People can adapt and adopt ideas very quickly, once the ideas have been invented and exhibited. Likewise, it would be wrong to think of democracy as a settled template that is just laid over a society. Our own country is continuing to discover and adapt democracy. In fact, it has to be constantly learned and re-invented. Others aren’t different from us in that respect. Moreover, one has to start somewhere. Elections by themselves may not be democracy, but they are a start on democracy. One might start where one can and build from there rather than insist on the creation of some illusory ideal foundation before moving to national-level democratic processes and institutions. The notion that democracy can’t be imposed but has to grow indigenously easily becomes an excuse for doing nothing and hoping for the best. It was interesting to me that both left and right readily find arguments why one democracy is impossible in many other countries. This seems to me unduly negative. Oddly, it was Russell Jacoby, an old leftie if there ever was one, who objected that this could turn into a left version of isolationism. The reply was that there are more options than doing nothing or hegemony. But no one who said so seemed to have clear ideas about how the US could engage other countries in a way that would foster the growth of democracy within a reasonable time-frame.

Meanwhile, I’m quite impressed that the Syrians have withdrawn from Lebanon. The Nation, of all publications, carried an article that suggested that the days of the Baathist dictatorship in Syria might be numbered, even toying with the thought that a democratic resistance and “people power” might win out. They scrupulously avoided any thought that if this is so, some credit might be due to the Bush Administration’s actions in the Middle East. But in any case, it’s far too soon to make guesses about what will happen either in Syria or Lebanon-the Lebanese could collapse back into civil war, with Hezbollah the best-armed party.

Meanwhile, I remain very unhappy that the structure of civil society in Iraq is so weak-I mean electricity, water, sewage, safe roads, oil, reconstruction of buildings and housing damaged in war, etc. etc. etc. I’ve never wanted to equate freedom with material comfort, but at least some level of material comfort needs to be attained or freedom is in jeopardy. The mainstream media are no good source, but I hear little about this basic level of daily existence.

I responded as follows:

Thanks for this very substantial message. I am familiar with Bacevich. He has in recent years moved to a position opposed to the use of US military power under most circumstances. Not an indefensible position, but not one I am likely to share. As to over-reliance on military power, I think the world is a dangerous place and if someone has to have predominant power, better that it be us with our relatively transparent and law-abiding form of government. Plus our commercial approach to things means that we have a desire to push and help other people to be prosperous and orderly out of sheer self-interest. I agree absolutely that our worldwide military power is the foundation of our material wellbeing. We are in phase three of the worldwide Anglo-Saxon capitalist commercial hegemony. Phase one ended with American revolution. Phase two was basically the free trade era of the 19th C down to 1914. The Brits were top dogs in both episodes. Phase three is post-1945, with us driving. Jefferson said “all men” and we have been a revolutionary power on a world scale ever since, and material well-being was always meant to be a big part of that. Fukuyama is right about that.

Bravo to that Marine for going there and standing up and speaking out.

I disagree absolutely about China. Read Jenner’s book the Tyranny of History. China is evolving into a fascistic nationalistic state. It is even developing a specifically racist ideology to support it’s authority. See the article in the current New Left Review, by Jenner. China is ruled by an illegitimate communist oligarchy which wants to develop the country commercially while maintaining political control. Probably not possible. They need to get over a chasm, from this bastard regime to a lawful, liberal order. A regime like this will maintain legitimacy by focusing on foreign threats to unify the country. The big question with China is whether the revolution will come before or after the current oligarchy starts a war. I’ll attach some of recent blog posts on the topic, one which I brood about. (this and this and this and this).

As to “imposing democracy by force”, there is some problem with the formulation of the issue. Of course an occupying power can impose anything it wants. Whether it will last long is another question. I think it is better to think in terms of installing as many liberal institutions as possible, democratic elections being a big but not entirely dispositive one. To me the question is more — if you must go into some place, what do you do there and what do you want it to look like when you leave? If you think about it that way, then it is in our interest to do as much as we can to “spread democracy” at least in places we intervene. Not surprised the Old Lefty was unwilling to go isolationist. Old lefties used to want to spread peace and democracy around the world. Vietnam brought our old isolationist lefties to the fore — the same Yankee-derived progressives who opposed every war we ever fought except the Civil War (against slavery) and WWII (against fascism).

As to Syria, bravo, so far. But the 800 pound gorilla is Hezbollah. Hezbollah is not going to disarm. Why would it? There could be a nasty civil war with Hezbollah taking over. Or Turkey could intervene, or we could, or Syria could, or Israel could, or all of us could, and/or other people. That is fireworks display ready to go off there. Pray it goes smoothly. All those photogenic western-looking Maronite Christian protesters are a minority in Lebanon, and might all end up as refugees.

As to how bad off Iraq is, we were starting at a deep deficit. We did as much as we did. You can always theoretically do better. The Iraqis are going to have to do a lot of rebuilding themselves.

I hope we will have further word from my pal on the West Coast.

24 thoughts on “Confrontation at the LA Times Book Festival (etc.)”

  1. Lex, Thanks to your friend and thanks to you. Your posts have been enlightening. (Though sometimes my complete ignorance left me blissful – certainly you warned us.)

    I do think your church’s stand on the celibacy of the clergy might work well in China and India; conversions & monastaries seem a good idea even to those of us from more self-indulgent religions.

  2. Professor Bacevich is a very intelligent and thoughtful man, nice to see him doing well in his new career, even if I don’t share his views. I was a lieutenant in the 11th ACR when he was the Regimental Commander (his last posting, btw), didn’t care for him as a commander, his successor COL (now LTG) Wallace was much better (he went on to be V Corps commander in OIF and was the land forces component commander).

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  4. The highlight, however, was a question from a Marine sergeant who asked the most left member of the panel what her qualifications were for saying the Iraq venture was a failure.

    The response is that the question is misguided. A combatant is too close to the situation to offer an evaluation of success or failure in this case, because the jury is still out. A more potent question, asked by William Lind, is–what would count for success in Iraq?

    He says:
    For America to win in Iraq, it has to leave behind a real state. Further, that state must not be an enemy to America. The chance of meeting just the second requirement is small, given the Iraqi people’s resentment toward the occupation and the strongly Islamic character of any likely new regime. It is improbable that we will meet the first requirement either. We may leave behind us the form of a state – a capital, a parliament, a government, etc. – but in most of the country, the real power will remain where it is now, in the hands of armed elements operating outside the state. That is true whether we defeat “the insurgency” or not.
    Contrary to what a number of writers on 4GW have said, Fourth Generation war is not merely a new name for insurgency or guerilla warfare. What is at stake in 4GW is not who rules the state, but the fate of the state itself.

  5. The key quote there is “The chance of meeting just the second requirement is small, given the Iraqi people’s resentment toward the occupation and the strongly Islamic character of any likely new regime. It is improbable that we will meet the first requirement either.”

    Suffice it to say, I disagree with his assumptions here (and his later assumption that the power is with “armed elements operating outside the state”.) He greatly underestimates both the Iraqi people and the US government. But only time will tell who is right.

  6. Interesting he should mention Fallujah. It’s so hard to know what to believe.

    The fact that even now, a full 6 months after the siege, camera crews and journalists are banned from the city, tells us a great deal about the extent of America’s war crimes. Just two weeks ago, a photographer from Al Aribiyya news was arrested while leaving Falluja and his equipment and film were confiscated. To date, he is still being held without explanation and there is no indication when he will be released. This illustrates the fear among the military brass that the truth about Falluja will leech out and destroy whatever modest support still exists for the occupation. Journalists should realize that Falluja may turn out to be the administration’s Achilles heel; a My Lai-type atrocity that turns the public decisively against Bush’s war.

    Cameras aren’t allowed in Falluja; neither are journalists. If they were then we would have first-hand proof of America’s greatest war crime in the last 30 years; the Dresden-like bombardment of an entire city of 250,000. Instead, we have to rely on eyewitness accounts that appear on the internet or the spurious reports that sporadically surface in the New York Times and Associated Press. For the most part, the Times and AP have shown themselves to be undependable; limiting their coverage to the details that support the overall goals of the occupation. For example, in the last few weeks both the NYTs and the AP ran stories on the alleged progress being made in Falluja. The AP outrageously referred to the battered city as “the safest place in Iraq”; a cynical appraisal of what most independent journalists have called nearly total destruction. One can only wonder if the editors at the AP would approve of similar security measures if they were taken in their own neighborhoods.
    April 18, 2005 You Call This Normal? The New York Times in Fallujah By MIKE WHITNEY

  7. Cameras aren’t allowed in Fallujah? Neither are journalists? Where did you get this information?

    Many of us know of publicly available footage or photos from Fallujah, even from during the battle — see Armor Geddon, for example. I hate to say it, but without a credible source, you’re beginning to sound like some sort of conspiracy theorist. You really think the US, which gave several weeks of advance warning that it was going to attack Fallujah, still committed a “My Lai-type atrocity” there?

    Please tell me you have something better to contribute than this.

  8. My contribution is the question–what would count for success in Iraq?

    Lind’s definition was interesting, even if you disagreed with his assumptions that we weren’t achieving the goals he suggested.

    What’s would be our alternative definitions for success in Iraq? Not finding weapons of mass destruction?

    I’m genuinely concerned about the military security, civil security, and whether we can make progress toward democracy there. Case in point:

    [M]ore dangerous to the hope that a functioning democracy will emerge eventually – is the failure of the U.S. to engage Iraqis in the process of creating and empowering civil society organizations.
    A case in point is a national conference, held in early April, attended by leading Iraqi women on the future of their country. … [A] letter records many more inaccurate assumptions, poor understanding of conditions on-the-ground (including the pillars of Iraqi society), and egregious errors in recommendations proffered, three phrases summarize the viewpoint of the author and most of the women from Iraq: “Not the American way”; The future of Iraq belongs to us [Iraqi women], not to you [Americans]”; and “This is a brain wash.”
    Lest one try to write off the letter’s author as unrepresentative, the sentiments expressed (and in context shared by many conference delegates) struck such a resonating chord that the letter is now circulating among a significant number of individuals and groups who are or will be the core of civil society in Iraq. The net effect is a radicalizing of the very people the U.S. is trying to win over to “democracy.”

    Counterpunch April 27 , 2005 Hold, Fold or Raise? Bush’s Iraq Pokr Game By Col. DAN SMITH

  9. Mark, I heard the Marines dropped Twix bars and Twizzler candies from a helicopter over Fallujah. Insurgents reported a fat man in a red suit waving, just out of grenade-launcher range, as he tossed handfulls of Infidel treats at them.

    Word is, (I don’t know for sure because cameras are still banned from photographing the aftermath of this atrocity) the resultant tooth decay and elevated blood pressure forced the surrender of the city to the red, fat man with the beard.

    “They tried to make us obese, just like Americans,” one unnamed insurgent stated, his blood-glucose meter beeping. It is clear the Americans have a long way to go to winning the hearts and minds of these average Iraqi citizens.

    April 12, 2005, You Call this a “Sweet” Victory? Jason Blair, NYT reporting.

  10. Mark, I think that the allegation that no one can get into Falujah is false. I think it is also false that the place was treated anything like Dresden — if it had been there’d be nothing to deny the press access to.

    Steve, don’t mock the man.

    I am very interested in the basis you have for these comments. I am coming more and more to believe that the Net is dividing people into alien worlds that never communicate and that have totally different understandings of facts, premises, etc. Getting conversations going across these divides is worth doing So, Mark, I’d like to hear more from you about how you arrived at your conclusions.

    As to Lind, I am familiar with his writing. I think he is a serious person, but I think he has some important things wrong about Iraq. That is a large topic that merits a substantial post of its own. Someday.

  11. –He made the good point that people learn very quickly when they have to and want to.–

    Didn’t the Japanese go to be w/Hirohito being a god and the next day he was a man?

    They learned.

    And we are very, very lucky the Brits imposed some of their values on the Indians.

    I think Boeing is certainly happy today.

    Mark, they don’t have to adopt the American way, just take enough as a floor and hope to God they don’t take the Euro way of doing things.

    Besides, if we adopted the British way, where would we be now?

  12. Lex,

    thank you. I subscribe to Chicago Boyz because of Ginny’s writing. She writes the sort of extended personal, but pregnant with larger meaning essay, that I admire. And because CGB’s point of view is so different from my own. I read somewhere that you should try to follow blogs from various points of view. My experience is that Chicago Boyz gives me more that I’m interested in thinking about later on, than something like Washington Monthly, which actually caters to my personal inclinations. For example, I would never have given any thought to nation building or the Anglosphere if I didn’t read CB.

    Sandy P–
    do you detect any irony here?
    And we are very, very lucky the Brits imposed some of their values on the Indians.
    Besides, if we adopted the British way, where would we be now?

  13. Sorry Mark, no offense intended.

    I was mocking the New York Times’ coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I cannot take their reportage seriously on this topic anymore.

    And I caution you to take it with a grain of salt as well.

  14. Touche, but the world has changed a little in 230 years.

    Actually not really, guess I needed to nuance that more.

  15. Lex, you requested the basis of my conclusions: First, that it is important to ask what would count for success in Iraq, and secondly, why I am concerned about what I hear/don’t hear about Fallujah?

    The first question was just an intuitive hop to the recently read Lind article from a gut level reaction that the soldier’s question was not a question that moved constructive dialog forward. It’s easy to look ridiculous if you attempt engage a partisan blog. For example, over at Washington Monthly, Al made the observation, obvious heart-felt—but still odd to the audience, that there is no religious left because liberals can’t be religious. This invited a fair amount of derision, but I’ve been turning over that deceptively simple statement in my mind for weeks. Ironically, it’s on religious and moral grounds that I have concerns about the Iraqi war, and joined the Catholic peace group: Pax Christi. I come from a fundamentalist christian perspective filtered through Tolstoy and Bakhtin, Hasidic Tales and the Golden Legend, and the adventures of Father Arseny. The holiness/holy war narratives that energize a Pat Robertson don’t inspire me like the suffering servant or prophetic calls for economic justice narratives that are engaged by a ML King Jr or a Jim Wallis.

    Sidetracking on the intra-blog diversity dialog meme I noticed this article over on Lew Rockwell as an example of an author consciously trying to situate dialog across a variety of perspectives, and found it touching: “The left and right disagree on many issues, but such crucial ones such as aggressive war and the dangerous federal police state have drawn similar criticisms from people on both sides, often at different times. For liberty to triumph, the more libertarian wings of both left and right need to see their common goals, see through the partisan smokescreens, and recognize, at all times, that opposition to and fundamental criticism of the State do not necessarily imply hatred of America or solidarity with its most murderous enemies. … Remember Waco and the Iraqi sanctions, remember Oklahoma and 9/11. To forget any of the major episodes of U.S. terrorism and anti-U.S. terrorism, to brush their relationships with one another aside and condemn those who invoke them, will not help in protecting America, much less in restoring and preserving its freedoms.”
    Waco, Oklahoma City, and the Post-9/11 Left-Right Dynamic by Anthony Gregory

    About the progress of the war in general, I keep returning to the anecdote where a reporter asks the security consultant returning from Baghdad, “how’s the war going?” “You only have to know one thing: we can’t secure the 8 mile highway between Baghdad International Airport and the Green Zone.” The articles that suggest Baghdad is increasingly being locked down, or that reporters don’t get around as freely as they used to, are reasons I might believe the BIAP highway hypothesis.

    About Fallujah specifically, I am disappointed at our progress. The first thing that bothered me was taking down the hospital at the start of the campaign. It was on the front page of big papers and nobody complained about it, but I’m under the impression that’s a violation of the Geneva Accords. Some sources I read attributed a partial motive for the hospital action as stifling reports of civilian casualties. They claimed that reports during the first Fallujah action coming from the hospital affected public opinion.

    The second thing that bothered me was an anecdote from a reporter who recounted being dragged into a house where a combatant had used the woman’s lipstick to leave a message on her mirror: “F**k Fallujah and everyone in it.” She asked him to translate it, and before he could answer her, she asked whether it was an insult. An insult indeed. The third thing that bothered me was an embedded reporter who finished his series with the observation that a combatant picked up his rifle and walked out remarking that he didn’t want his son to know he was a killer. Those things are personal and ugly, filled with shame. They trickle on through a person’s life. My father fought three wars in War II: the first was with the draft board and gaining enough weight to get in; the second was with Japanese fliers in the Pacific; the third was with depression—I suppose we’d call it Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome these days—that one wasn’t over till he died a couple of years ago.

    Another thing that bothered me about Fallujah was its characterization as the prototypical new post-modern prison. It seems sad to me that many families still haven’t returned to their homes, or to what remains of their homes given the close quarters cleansing methods used in urban combat. I also have the impression that the rebuilding is not progressing very swiftly.

    And finally, there are the allegations that we were using banned weapons in Fallujah, and that our military has expended effort to clean certain streets and truck off material from the city.

    These things predispose me to think that no, they wouldn’t encourage the press to go wandering around freely in the safest city in Iraq, and that, yes, they might arrest a newsperson leaving Fallujah with film as alleged in the clip I referred to previously: “Just two weeks ago, a photographer from Al Aribiyya news was arrested while leaving Falluja and his equipment and film were confiscated. To date, he is still being held without explanation and there is no indication when he will be released.” April 18, 2005 You Call This Normal? The New York Times in Fallujah By MIKE WHITNEY

  16. Mark, you seem eager to infer the worst about US behavior based on anecdotes from selected “sources.” I don’t remember the Falluja hospital, but why do you assume that if we closed it it was to hide something? The obvious alternative, which seems much more likely to me, is that enemy troops were using it as a base or storage site for war materiel. And as there must be hundreds of journalists in the area, many of them hostile to the US, and we don’t often hear about them being blocked from reporting, could it be that the Arab journalist in question was detained for collaborating with the enemy? (He wouldn’t be the first to have done so.)

    I don’t find your interpretations of events convincing, and your explanations raise more questions than they answer.

  17. Thanks, Mark. Since your views did not strike me as consistent with the facts as I understand them to be, I appreciate your taking the time to lay this out. I don’t see anything here that changes my understanding. I cannot go back and rebuild how I got where I am on this — three years of obsessively reading everything I can find. I’d like to dig back to find the Robert Kaplan article about the Marines in Falujah, which is a firsthand account which is not consistent with your views. I may do that at some point. As to the overall course of the war, I think it is too early to say. I think Lind has been predicting disaster from the beginning and I have not trusted him on this since he is an isolationist who is looking for bad news to support his views. I also dislike and distrust the Lew Rockwell site. But, you can make your own judgments on that. I also find that I do not trust “peace” activists whom I find to often be well-intentioned but too willing to believe that all evil in the world is the fault of the United States and too willing to believe implausible conspiracy theories.

  18. Jonathan and Lex, You gave me some food for thought. I have to plead guilty to being “eager to infer the worst about US behavior based on anecdotes from selected sources.” Eager is accurate, and that made me ask myself why that is. One of my high school counselors did remark that I was very cynical. In a knee-jerk reaction to place the blame outside myself I would have to project these behaviors to my mom’s account, for you see, she was a kindergarten teacher and a Sunday school teacher.

    Because she was a kindergarten teacher my siblings and I were indoctrinated with a series of justice and fair-play maxims: Share, everybody gets a turn, don’t hog the attention, watch out for the underdog, never pick on someone smaller or weaker than yourself, and so on—including her all-time favorite: life is tough. You can say we were brainwashed, because where else would I have learned how to lecture my daughter in exactly the same way.

    Because mom was a Sunday school teacher a lot of my youth was spent at our fundamentalist church, and not just on Sundays. Reinforcement of mom’s fair-play maxims came from exposure to the biblical justice for the oppressed narrative. The narrative shows in Jewish scripture in the reiterated refrain of watching out for the needs of widows, orphans, and foreigners, and I suppose any other people who are vulnerable to exploitation. In the NT Jesus suggests sharing food with hungry people, and your extra clothes with people who need them. Akin to the justice theme is the responsibility theme: to those who are given much, much is expected. My daughter used it in this form a few weeks ago to start out a college application essay: “Knowledge is a burden.”

    Because the US has been granted greatness we have great responsibilities in the world. The paradox is that I have this fair-play burden that says we should be nice about it at the same time, which of course inclines me away from aggressive foreign policy. In the case of Iraq, I think the Clinton’s sanctions were just as cruel as the current armed incursion. It’s a moral thing, not a political thing. The bottom line of the fairplay approach is that everything is personal, because real people feel the consequences. In the movie You’ve Got Mail, magnate Fox counsels “it’s business, not personal,” to which Meg’s character observes, “it’s personal to me [because it’s happening to me].” I tend to feel an identification with whomever the underdog or victim is, and to vilify the aggressors. (Matches my MBTI profile: INFJ.) So it is, that at times, most of the time I must admit, I am critical of US actions, motivations (as I perceive them), policies, and leaders.

    On the other hand, I respect our form of government, and love my country. As a college student I traveled behind the iron curtain, and spent a semester and later a summer session in Poland, so I can appreciate some of the opportunities we have here. I’ve seen communism’s failings as applied to Eastern Europe, and I also visited Auschwitz, where I had the epiphany that authoritarian/totalitarian type stuff under any name is not a good thing.

    Another thing that makes me a critical reader of the news also comes from my fundamentalist upbringing: an emphasis on close reading of canonical texts in an attempt to arrive at “true” meaning. My church drummed the read, read, read dictum into us, and challenged us to read for meaning, to always ask what the author is trying to communicate, to probe how the text and its message fit into the fabric of our lives. I loved it, and when I could finally take a master’s degree for fun I latched onto English Literature. But I missed one of the fundamentalist lessons: the one that said our church is always right, that you can’t question the interpretation of the text that comes from our resident pope: the preacher in the pulpit. I suppose that insubordination carries over into all my media consumption; I try to avoid a lot of advertising, but those people are cagey about trying to manipulate my behavior. I just go on the assumption that politicians are lying. There’s no question that advertisers and politicians would like to manipulate my beliefs and my actions. In fact, those are the two professions I would be disappointed for my daughter to go into. Both of them debase language and spoil discourse.

    As for the war news from Iraq, I would be naïve to think that the US military isn’t doing their best to shape a sympathetic reception for their messages in the mainline media, and that the media won’t be a willing medium for their propaganda. I would be stupid to think that bad things aren’t happening in the combat zone. I’d be doubly stupid to think that we aren’t doing some of those bad things. Bad stuff is the definition of war. So I take my news bits from the edges, and if bad things weren’t leaking out, then it wouldn’t be a war.

    I don’t have any sympathy for the insurgents, but I’m also not silly enough to think that there is a single unified insurgence. We have lots of armed groups fighting from various motives. This is a very sloppy war in terms of who our adversary is. But I resolutely identify with the victims of the war, like the little girl at the check point besplattered with her dead parents’ blood. In this case the underdog is the little girl who wasn’t carrying a gun. Big guns, big responsibilities. Wasn’t the insurgents who shot her.

    We do respond to the news outlets that answer to our own needs. I distrust the big media news, and I see that Lex saying “I have not trusted”… “I also dislike and distrust” … “I do not trust”…. Personally, I don’t trust my government to do the moral and right thing all the time. Maybe it’s paranoia to succumb to conspiracy theories, but just because the Jews didn’t acknowledge the conspiracy theory that they were in danger didn’t mean that someone wasn’t out to get them. Sort of a Pascalian wager? When the stakes are ultimate, how do you measure risk?

    Perhaps the significance of the Fallujan hospital isn’t how I perceive it, but how it’s perceived in the Arab world. They’re the beneficiaries of our policy. How would it have been reported in their news? Sometimes we play into their hands, even if we mean well. I hope we mean well, I mean that I hope our policy-makers truly mean well. I don’t know if they do. I just don’t know.

  19. “I would be naïve to think that the US military isn’t doing their best to shape a sympathetic reception for their messages in the mainline media, and that the media won’t be a willing medium for their propaganda.” I disagree with the last part of this sentence. I think the news media is unwilling to accept what it gets from the military and treats it with extreme suspicion. The news media is composed in large part of people who are hostile to the military on ideological grounds, and are anything but willing pawns of the military.

    Also, you need to look at incentives and how people are likely to behave based on incentives. The military is a large bureaucracy which is bad at keeping even legitimate secrets. So it is difficult for it to cover up illegal or otherwise embarrassing behavior. There are often whistleblowers when something bad happens and the leadership tries to cover it up. In our society, secrecy is extremely difficult to maintain. It is very hard to cover things up, and it is hard to make conspiracies work. Criminal gangs are able to do it because they will literally kill anyone who rats them out. The old Soviet Union was able to maintain pretty high levels of secrecy and dishonesty for similar reasons, the willingness to enforce silence with violence. And that approach became habitual. Coverups and conspiracy theories are more likely to be true in places like that. You don’t have to the think that people in the US military even have above average levels of personal or professional morality (though they may) to see that persistent dishonesty will not be very successful for them, or in any part of our system. Disclosures will happen and the consequences will be worse than having told the truth in the first place.

    Your church did you no harm by encouraging you to read, read, read and to read critically. But we all need to try to notice when we have gone over the edge from being critical to being cynical. A reliable sign is when you start saying “all” or “every” — e.g. when the military has a press conference if you find yourself thinking “it is all lies” or “they always lie.” It should be case by case.

    So, I agree “I don’t trust my government to do the moral and right thing all the time.” I trust no human being or group of human beings to reach that standard. I can’t know if our policy-makers mean well, subjectively. They have articulated an idea of what they are trying to do and have been consistent in it. The more simplistic allegations — “we are there to steal the oil”, etc. don’t hold up because there are so many easier ways to do things if that was what we really wanted to do.

    “But I missed one of the fundamentalist lessons: the one that said our church is always right, that you can’t question the interpretation of the text that comes from our resident pope: the preacher in the pulpit.” Interesting. I have heard Catholics say that the problem with Luther’s “every man his own preist” is that it made “every man his own pope”, or in practice, any charismatic minister could convince people to let him be their own pope. The problem with this is that the accumulated “depositum fidei”, deposit of faith, all the wisdom that has been accumulated over centuries ends up having to be reinvented anew all the time. I have never heard a non-Catholic frame a criticism in this language. As to not being able to challenge a position, some things are no longer open to debate, among Catholics, but even on those points, you can look back and see how the arguments were made and how the decision was reached. Controversial rulings usually have an explanation provided with them, such as Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Church’s opposiiton to contraception. Many people were upset by this, but no one can say that Paul VI did not set forth in detail his reasons for the conclusion he reached. John Courtney Murray’s book “The Problem of God” gives several historical examples of sisputed points of doctrine and how they were worked out.

  20. Mark,

    I am late to respond, and Lex has responded well already. But prompted by Lex’s response I want to make an additional point, in response to this sentence of yours:

    Perhaps the significance of the Fallujan hospital isn’t how I perceive it, but how it’s perceived in the Arab world.

    My point is that the truth about the Falluja hospital is empirical. You speculated one way, I speculated another. But what actually happened is fact, and it might be more productive to make an effort to get more of the facts in this case, as opposed to making cynical inferences based on limited data.

    I think that’s more important than how this incident is perceived in the Arab world, because how it’s perceived there is largely a function of how media hostile to us present it. IOW, we’re going to get blamed for a lot of things whether we actually did them or not. I think the most humane thing that we can do is win the war ASAP. That doesn’t mean we should overlook mistakes or malfeasance on the part of Americans, but I think it does mean that in the absence of better information we should be reluctant to assume the worst about our own institutions and people.

  21. An example of critical thinking gone awry was Griffin’s analysis of Bush’s plot to take over the world, beginning with 9/11. (Without C-span I would know so much less about so many things; without c-span, though, I might assume there were fewer crazies in the world than there are.) When asked by someone in a quite friendly audience how this conspiracy could have been kept secret (which included putting demolition charges every 30 feet in the twin towers so they’d implode properly), he said, ah, but look at how successfully people were fooled by the Kennedy conspiracy and his U. of Wisconsin audience laughed knowingly.

    Mark, I don’t know the answers. But my experience has found that cynicism is seldom “realistic” – not that a credulous boyish charm can’t be wearing as well.

    By the way, I was listening to Griffin as we were preparing to go to (drum roll): the Jára Cimrman Theater’s presentation of The North American Premier of Africa: The Czechs Among the Cannibals.

    (For those of you unacquainted with the great genius, Jara Cimrman, I will try to prepare a short post when final grades are in.)

    For those of you who are acquainted, you may note that in this juxtaposition, one isn’t sure who has the strangest alternate reality – the absurdist Czechs or the suspicious Americans.

  22. Jonathan was preparing his more pointed and thoughtful reply while I was smarting off. But could I piggy back and point out that the empirical is important – and in the long run, the only importance. What is is.

    I don’t think history is hidden behind a series of ever-more-obscuring veils; it is hard work and all may never be known, but in the long run facts have more staying power – and more consistency – than lies and even spin and certainly a complicated conspiracy. The Iraqis next to the hospital are going to know the truth. It is going to color how they look at the world.

    Even the talent of Shakespeare has not successfully covered truths – do you think the world is made up of geniuses more adept than he? We recognize his truth – the one that walks on the stage – and love it for what it is. It is profoundly true–but not historically so.

  23. Lex, Jonathan, Ginny, thanks for your comments. You’ve given me some food for thought here.

  24. Lex, Jonathan, Ginny, thanks for your comments. You’ve given me some food for thought here.

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