Just Above Sunset
May 16, 2004 - A young and callow fellow, or a coward and a sociopath?

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Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh so mellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a young and callow fellow…


You perhaps remember those words from the song in the musical "The Fantastics." You might even remember live performances where Harry Belafonte dedicated the song to the memory of Audrey Hepburn who was also a UNICEF ambassador. 

No matter.  Different issue….  But it will all make sense in a moment. 

The swirl of opinion regarding our abuse of the prisoners in Iraq and the subsequent on-camera beheading of the fellow from Philadelphia goes on and on.  From the right you hear a lot of yeah, we were doing bad things, but look what THEY did. 

Well, relatively speaking I suppose that makes sense, except the folks on the right are always inveighing against “moral relativism” – and if nothing else, that is what this argument amounts to.  Oh well. 

Maureen Dowd in the New York Times puts it succinctly - "The Bush hawks, so fixated on making the Middle East look more like America, have made America look un-American.  Should we really be reduced to defending ourselves by saying at least we don't behead people?"

Oh well, it actually is a defense – and a call for perspective.  The perspective?  Everyone does crappy, mean, stupid and hateful things, and often does them illegally.  Our crappy behavior isn’t quite so bad as their crappy behavior. 

That will have to do, I suppose. 

Is this argument simply recognizing reality – folks are bad, and we’re not quite so bad?  Or is it too cynical?  Or is it childish?  Perhaps it is callow. 

That’s a good word. 

Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English calu bald, from Old English; akin to Old High German kalo bald, Old Church Slavonic golu bare
: lacking adult sophistication : immature <callow youth>


Well, let’s work with that. 

Who cares about adult sophistication?  We’re just tired of it all. 

From Lee Harris at Tech Central there’s this -


Right now the Middle American psyche is being overwhelmed with reasons to hate the entire Arab world; and yet the Bush administration insists that we are in Iraq to help the Arabs.  Unfortunately, the administration seems to be completely unaware of how sick and tired of Arabs the average American has become, unaware because it is politically incorrect to express such sentiments of outright hostility: but what is politically incorrect to express is all too often the motive force behind those sudden and spontaneous movements of the popular psyche that only seemed to come from nowhere because they came from a place unfamiliar to most pundits and paid prophets, namely, the gut level feelings of the average guy. 

Many Americans simply wish the Arabs would go away; others wish to blow them away -- and wish to blow them away not because they see this step as inevitable and tragic, but because they rejoice at the prospect of getting them back for what they have done to us.  Most normal Americans today just don't care any more about the Arabs and their welfare, or about their humiliation, or about their historical grievances, simply because all the images that come to us from their world horrify and appall us, including the disturbing images of Americans doing things that no normal American would ever dream of doing to other people back at home, if only because they would never be given the opportunity

This is how most normal Americans now feel, but they dare not express it in public.  But make no mistake, this feeling will be expressed -- somehow, somewhere: a fact of which our leaders and the world must be made aware before it occurs. 


This probably is not the most mature view of things you’ll come across in the world of international politics.  And it probably is very true as a summation of how many, many Americans feel. 

Screw the welfare of others, forget their humiliation, and why bother with the trouble of considering historical grievances?  Yes.  Such things lead nowhere. 

An interesting argument.  And embedded in the next to last paragraph is the idea what our guards did to those prisoners we’d all like to do if we only had the opportunity.  Perhaps.  Some of us might hesitate.  But one never knows. 

This may be a callow argument, and if followed by the actions implied, rather dangerous.  But I have heard it directly from good people I know well.  Good people, even if one might consider them a tad short-sighted and callow.  (That would be a big “tad” in this case.)

These are the people who will vote for Bush in November, and I think it is that Bush personifies the word callow. 

Consider what Andrew Sullivan had to say about this in last weekend’s Sunday Times of London (May 9, 2004).  Sullivan suggests there is a certain callowness at the very top, with the president.  Sullivan, a disgruntled pro-war Bush supporter, has been trying to understand Bush and is searching for the right words. 


The word that comes into my head first of all, in this respect, is "callow." The flip-side of Bush's amusing, frat-boyish, nick-naming friendliness is an occasional lapse into a kind of immaturity.  On the campaign trail four years ago, he hammed it up about a female prisoner whose death warrant he had signed as governor of Texas.  This indiscretion wasn't a tall tale told by a Bush-hater; it was a report from a young conservative writer who was as shocked as anyone.  At a recent big press dinner, the president showed a video clip of himself in the White House looking under sofas and chairs and tables.  "Those weapons of mass destruction have got be around here somewhere," he quipped.  Ha ha ha.  The president put people's lives at risk, put America's reputation on the line, and justified a war on the basis, in part, of WMDs.  And then he makes a joke about it?  It doesn't matter what he might say in private.  Everyone deserves to let off steam.  But in public?  This callowness also veers at times toward recklessness.  People forget that he allowed his drunk-driving past to be used by his opponents, rather than confronting it early head-on in the 2000 campaign.  And they forget that he took the weekend off before the last election.  Those two errors probably ensured his razor-thin victory and the national trauma of Florida and beyond in 2000.  They were errors of avoidance and complacency. 


Yes, Tucker Carlson was the young conservative writer who was pretty amazed at Bush’s comic impression of Tammy Fay Tucker begging for her life.  Tucker Carlson didn’t find it funny.  Callow is a good word here. 

Then Sullivan adds this about Bush. 


And then there's his inability to take full responsibility for many of his own policies.  He has never conceded that he even needs to address his fiscal record.  Mention deficits and his aides do the equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and singing loudly.  When the WMD intelligence debacle became apparent, he never sat down in front of the nation and explained what went wrong and why.  He gave an interview where he drew no distinction between Saddam's programs for WMDs and the stockpiles the administration had claimed he had.  "What's the difference?" he quipped.  That ducking of responsibility is still coming back to haunt him.  Or take the Abu Ghraib scandal.  Why did he not actually apologize on Arab television before the apology with King Abdullah?  And why could he not take ultimate responsibility for the horror as commander-in-chief?


All good questions.  Because mature behavior is so boring?  Because his base, the ordinary “normal Americans” Harris identifies, can understand the joy of being a little naughty and not caring about details - and he knows they love such stuff?  Perhaps. 

Then there is Bush as CEO.  Even here he sort of does a goof on managing things:


This refusal to take full responsibility himself is related to his difficulty in disciplining others.  He has fired no one of any consequence in his term of office.  The CIA director, George Tenet, presided over both the 9/11 catastrophe and the WMD fiasco.  He brazenly told Congress recently that it would take years before the CIA could be up to speed on terrorism.  Yet his job is secure.  Donald Rumsfeld had the Taguba report on Abu Ghraib prison abuse in January, failed to bring it to Bush's attention in full, and went into a press conference last week declaring that he had only read the "executive summary." That prompted an unusual publicly-disseminated "private rebuke" from the president, but no sign that any further action would be taken - and, subsequently a strong endorsement of the defense secretary.  Similarly, Bush's first budget director, Mitch Daniels, presided over the biggest leap in government spending in decades.  Yet he has been rewarded with a plum candidacy for the governorship of Indiana.  The only people Bush disciplines or attacks are those who have left the fold: Paul O'Neill or Richard Clarke.  This has one obvious advantage.  The White House is cohesive, stable and strong.  But it also has one obvious disadvantage: there is little incentive to get anything right and little fear of getting anything wrong.  Sometimes it seems as if the president is more offended by lack of punctuality or an errant cell-phone than by a major policy blunder. 


Would Bush say everyone just takes this governing thing way too seriously – that heck, you just hang with your friends and screw guys who give your trouble – just like back in junior high?  That seems to fit. 

And Sullivan points out the obvious – this leads to a bit of isolation form the real, boring, grown-up world. 


… Bush avoids the kind of media consumption his predecessor went in for, getting his news from a small cadre of yes-men and women.  This White House - remarkably leak-proof - has generated an almost cult-like uniformity and conviction that it can do no wrong.  This has led to great tenacity in a war that must look far more frightening on the inside than the outside.  But it can also lead to excessive rigidity.  On Iraq, the president refuses publicly to acknowledge that anything has gone awry or that anything needs to be fixed.  Some of this is wise.  He shouldn't be jumping to address every criticism from people who want him to fail anyway and will crucify him for any admitted errors.  But his blunt inability to convey any sense that he is in a mess and needs serious adjustment - far from allaying public concerns - can actually intensify them.  When you're cocooned, you do not hear the worries of those outside the inner circle, or the questions they are asking.  And so you often make errors that a more porous or diverse management style would prevent. 


Yeah, but you have a good time. 

And you can get away with a whole lot of just faking it. 


… there's something intangible about the dissonance between what the administration says and the way it sometimes acts.  I don't buy the notion that this president is a liar.  But he does seem at times to be putting it on somewhat.  It didn't help that during the Abu Ghraib mess, the president was in a bus campaigning in Ohio.  Did he not understand the gravity of what had happened?  Nor did it exactly reassure even the administration's supporters to see Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz last Saturday night in black tie and evening wear, chatting and beaming and socializing with the like of Ben Affleck at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.  Either there's a war on or there isn't.  And there's a troubling disconnect between the president's stirring and vital admonitions of the threats we face and his ideas for Americans at home.  When people after 9/11 were prepared to do anything to help their country, Bush advised them to go shopping.  I see his point.  The economy was in danger of serious deflation at the time and the president deserves credit for rescuing it.  But there was still something not quite right about the tone and tenor.  Callowness again.


Would Bush say, hey Sullivan, lighten up, dude! 

Sullivan says there is a distinction between strength and brittleness.  And lately, we've seen a lot more of the latter than the former. 

Perhaps Sullivan doesn’t understand how light-hearted American love the idea that old farts take things much too seriously.  He thinks Bush is callow.  Bush knows that’s what makes him the man America loves. 


Of course there is this view: “I have concluded, therefore, that George W.  Bush is a coward and a sociopath.”


Posted on Counterspin this week -


… The administration says that the Geneva Conventions don't apply to terrorists.  (Let's put aside the fact that they do apply to Iraqi POW's for a moment).

Ok.  There is a plausible legal argument to be made for that point, although the International Committee of the Red Cross disagrees.

But, for the sake of argument, let's say they are technically correct: The Geneva Conventions do not apply to Al Qaeda.

The obvious point to make here is that just because you can do something, doesn't mean you must do it.

During World War II, President Roosevelt made a decision to intern the entire West Coast population of Japanese and Japanese Americans without the benefit of due process, or finding of guilt.

Entire families were uprooted, and deposited in internment camps.  Even children.

At the time, many people, but not enough, were opposed to this treatment.  And the decision was eventually taken all the way to the United States Supreme Court which, to its everlasting shame, it handed down one of the two or three worst decisions in its history...allowing the internments to take place.

No matter how you feel about what happened from a moral standpoint, the Supreme Court made it LEGAL.

Just like, ostensibly, torturing and doing God knows what to Al Qaeda prisoners is "legal" according to Bush administration officials.

Today, of course, we universally recognize that what we did in 1942 was not right, It wasn't moral.  It wasn't justified.  Even if we did round up a few Japanese agents.  It didn't matter.  It was a black mark on our Republic that took 50 years to partially remove.

So, excuse me if I do not lie down and prostrate myself at the arguments being offered by the Bush administration with respect to Al Qaeda.

We are supposed to be better than this.  We are supposed to be fighting a war against this...not participating in the same or similar barbaric practices of those we fight.

How can we hold ourselves up as beacons for human rights, liberalism and democracy, when we act this way?

Now.  I have said that under extreme circumstances, extreme measures may have to be taken to avert catastrophe.

If we KNEW that terrorists were going to detonate a nuclear warhead in a major U.S.  city within a few days, then we should have to take whatever steps are necessary to extract the information on how to stop it from anyone we have in our custody who may have information.

That doesn't mean that the tactics are any less evil.  It simply means that, like someone exercising their right to self defense, we have the right to protect our country from an imminent catastrophe.

Quite frankly, however, I just don't see that situation being present either in Iraq or elsewhere. 

I have concluded, therefore, that George W.  Bush is a coward and a sociopath.  I think he takes delight in torturing the people who attacked us.  He's more interested in vengeance than in protecting this country.  And, I think he allows a lot of things to go on because he's afraid.  He's a coward.  He's yellow.

I think John Kerry should start saying that openly, and repeatedly.  You can call John Kerry a lot of things.  Flip Flopper.  Sell out.  Liar.  Opportunist.  You name it.

But you can never call him a "coward" and have anyone take you seriously.

I think that label would stick to George W.  Bush like glue.


No, as my friend John pointed out, that would not be a wise move for John Kerry to take.   Let Bush implode.  


Yeah, but he might not.   And having as a national leader a callow, vengeful bully sticking it to anyone who gives us, or him, trouble?   That really seems to please about half the voters in this country.


Well, everyone can vote. 


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
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