Just Above Sunset
February 5, 2006 - Truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness...













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Monday, January 30th, the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, in London, trying to get some consensus on Iran - no one knows what to do to stop them from developing "the bomb."

 

It is unthinkable to use our air power, or that of the Israelis, to take out all their facilities. The new Shiite government we have brought into being in Iraq would be outraged and turn on us, as would much of the Arab world (those who haven't already), and Israel would be at risk for massive retaliation, and such an attack might well spark a regional war. The fallout, even if we don't use our nuclear bunker-buster bombs, would be enormous. And it is also unthinkable to have a nuclear-armed Iraq, as the government there says things about wiping Israel off the face of the earth - not the sort of thing that gives you those warm-fuzzy feelings about how that might turn out.

 

We're working on some other alternatives. It is not going well.

Rice's other task was getting the UK and the EU to agree to cut off all aid to the newly-elected government in the proto-nation of Palestine, as the bad guys, Hamas, won in a landslide (see this and this in these pages). We will, the EU may not - the UN is saying its future funding depends on Hamas avowing "peace." And that, in turn, probably depends on how you define "avow" and how you define "peace."

No one expected this, as she said - "I don't know anyone who wasn't caught off guard by Hamas' strong showing."

 

I guess our government, with all its spies and satellites up in the sky, really doesn't know much about the political currents and crosscurrents in the Middle East - or we prefer to believe what we wish will happen, because that's how things should work out. Have to look on the bright side, at how things should be, because we will them to be so. She's like that. As she said back in May, 2002 - "I don't think anybody could have predicted that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile."

It seems idealistic optimists get surprised a lot, particularly those who don't like detail and make fun of policy wonks. As the administration has said - "We make our own reality." But, unfortunately, others do just the same thing. It's just not fair.

As for the idealistic optimist-in-chief - the president out to change reality and disregard pesky facts - Monday everyone was waiting for his Tuesday evening State of the Union address. What would he say? Polling showed him at around thirty-nine percent in the approval ratings, with about two-thirds of the country thinking we're going in the wrong direction, generally. No one seemed to know how he'd deal with that. Conciliation? Belligerence? Coherence?

But what is this speech? John Dickerson here calls it the "Silliest Speech in the Union" - George Washington's first was 833 words and now a State of the Union address will be about five thousand words. In 1801 Thomas Jefferson mailed his speech in, arguing that "the ceremony smacked too much of the British monarchy." Smart man. It wasn't until 1913 when a president, the wooden Woodrow Wilson, again actually delivered the speech himself - making it more than a document and in 1966 Lyndon Johnson moved the address into "prime time." It's become "an event" and not an assessment of "the state of the union." Spin City.

But the bad guys have a wicked sense of timing and their own way countering the spin of the optimist-in-chief, as we got this the day before the State of the Union, a bit of taunting - "Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared in a new video Monday, saying he is alive and well just weeks after a U.S. missile strike targeted him in Pakistan."

And that's not all he said, as we get this referring to Osama bin Laden's audio message ten days earlier, offering a "truce" if we'd just leave -

 

Your leaders responded to the initiative of sheik Osama, may God protect him, by saying they don't negotiate with terrorists and that they are winning the war on terror. I tell them: You liars, greedy warmongers, who is pulling out from Iraq and Afghanistan? Us or you? Whose soldiers are committing suicide because of despair? Us or you?

 

Well, it is true we won't be there forever, and they may very well be.

But what's this about suicides? Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, dropped a line, with a question - "Do the Americans have suicide bombers in Iraq?"

No, and al-Zawahiri seems to think our soldiers are committing suicide in droves. They're not.

But al-Zawahiri he may be picking up on the story of the "Marlboro Man" in the famous photo from Fallujah. He's home, and he's not doing well. They asked him to leave Fallujah to ensure he didn't die - bad PR, particularly after the Pat Tillman business - and now, heroic or not, he has classic post-traumatic stress disorder. He's a bit unhinged. Ayman al-Zawahiri can spin the news too.

But the good news for the idealistic optimist-in-chief the day before the big speech to explain everything (it's not so bad and actually just what we really want to happen) and tell us where we're going (whether we like it or not), was that Kerry and Kennedy's fight to mount a filibuster in the Senate to block the nomination Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court failed, spectacularly - drama, impassioned speeches, but a 75-25 trouncing in the full Senate. Those who didn't think an anti-abortion, pro-business pleasant ideologue - who seems to want to reverse Marbury v. Madison so the president can ignore laws congress passes and rulings of the court that interpret them - isn't good for the country, well, they couldn't assemble the forty votes to stop the nomination. The president gets a victory going into the speech. The opposition gets a pyrrhic victory - they stood up for what they thought was right, even if they knew it was hopeless. You remember the line from The Man from La Mancha where Don Quixote says this - "Sometimes the only battles worth fighting are losing battles." Noble. Cold comfort.

But this was a long time coming.

 

Our friend, the fellow who teaches would-be MBA's all about marketing at that graduate school in upstate New York, referred the email discussion group to this in the Monday New York Times. It's a detailed report on something that was started way back in 1982, in the early years of the Reagan administration - a careful plan by the ultra-conservative Federalist Society' to pack to lower levels of the judiciary with their super-conservative judges. No one would realize what was going on, and sooner or later one or more of them would finally reach the Supreme Court, then another, then another. This was a careful, long-term plan. And it worked.

What to make of that?

 

There's this -

 

The congratulatory subtext is that Conservatives are steadfast rather than doctrinaire, patient rather than obsessed, that Liberals are vacillating rather than intellectually rigorish, inconsistent rather than rigidly unswerving. Because Conservatives created, funded, sponsored, and promoted judges over the course of 24 years who've been Stepforded in training and who owe their allegiance to their patrons, this somehow proves the Conservative ideology is superior to a Liberal ideology by sheer weight of relentless, myopic persistence. Because the Conservatives hatched a batch of cloned jurists, ensuring those jurists' fealty through technically legal but morally questionable patronage, they MUST be superior by simple dint of effort.

In essence this comes down to the fight motif that the Right uses to define the difference between them and us. If Liberals were as serious as us, the argument goes, they would have used the very same tactics we use. Why aren't Liberal think tanks creating an army of Liberal judges who all think alike? And the answer, in Conservative terms: Because Liberals don't take the law as seriously as Conservatives do. If they aren't competing just as ruthlessly, as seriously as Conservatives they must be weaker. If Liberals aren't as rigid - if they have these foolish notions of nuances and relativism and fairness - they can't be considered "serious," a code word of vast importance to the Right.

As long as the political debate pivots on the Conservative meme that in domestic and foreign policy, in interpretation of the law, in matters of morality, truculent rigidity is synonymous with intellectual seriousness, then the majority of us, who understand that the issues confronting the country and the world are far too complex to be solved by an adherence to an hortatorily propounded single and simple and childish truth, are going to be labeled as unrealistic, idealistic, unserious, and therefore our relevance to any debate dismissible...

 

In short, they win.

On the other hand, sometimes truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness just gets you in trouble.

See Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, in the International Herald Tribune with this -

 

The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections ought to lead to a fundamental rethinking of U.S. strategy in the Middle East, especially since it follows electoral successes for Islamist parties in Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The most important lesson of the elections is that the United States cannot afford to use the rhetoric of spreading democracy as an excuse for avoiding dealing with pressing national grievances and wishes. If the United States pursues or supports policies that are detested by a majority of ordinary people, then these people will react accordingly if they are given a chance to vote.

 

That's the thesis.

 

Well, duh!

But Lieven has an interesting idea of how we got on this kick of "spreading democracy" in such a feckless way ("I don't know anyone who wasn't caught off guard by Hamas' strong showing"). Why are we so divorced from reality and oblivious to basic logic? We ran out of excuses -

 

... the present centrality of the "democratization" idea to administration rhetoric does not come from any study of the Middle East, or of reality in general. Rather, the Bush administration has fallen back on this rhetoric in part because all other paths and justifications have failed or been rejected. The administration desperately needed some big vision that would give the American people the impression of a plan for the war on terror, promising something beyond tighter domestic security and endless military operations.

Thus spreading democracy was always one of the arguments used for the Iraq war, but it only became the central one after the failure to find the promised weapons of mass destruction. As a result of the Iraqi quagmire, the language of preventive war and military intervention, so prevalent in the administration's National Security Strategy of 2002, has also become obviously empty, requiring a new central theme for the forthcoming security strategy of 2006.

 

So "democratization" isn't some grand first-principles theory of how we deal with the world. Rather, it's a default position to use when all else goes in the weeds.

The problem with that, even if it sounds noble and good -

 

... the Bush administration's combination of preaching human rights with torture, of preaching democracy to Muslims with contempt for the views of those same Muslims, has not helped either the spread of democracy or US interests but badly damaged both.

In fact, the distance between Bush administration rhetoric and observable reality in some areas is beginning to look almost reminiscent of Soviet Communism. And as in the Soviet Union, this gap is also becoming more and more apparent to the rest of the world.

 

Drat! They're not supposed to notice!

Next thing some will say we're not at war at all.

Oops, someone did - James Carroll in the Boston Globe here -

 

We have a war president, war hawks, war planes, war correspondents, war cries, even war crimes - but do we have war? We have war dead, but the question remains. With young U.S. soldiers being blown up almost daily, it can seem an absurd question, an offensive one. With thousands of Iraqis killed by American firepower, it can seem a heartless question, as if the dead care whether strict definitions of "war" are fulfilled. There can be no question that Iraq is in a state of war, and that, whatever its elements of post-Saddam sectarian conflict, the warfare is being driven from the Pentagon.

But, regarding the Iraq conflict as it involves the United States, something essential is lacking that would make it a war - and that is an enemy.

 

What?  But, but...

Here's the reasoning -

 

The so-called "insurgents," who wreak such havoc, are not America's enemy. They are not our rivals for territory. They are not our ideological antagonists. Abstracting from the present confrontation, they have no reason to wish us ill.

Americans who bother to imagine the situation from the Iraqi point of view - a massive foreign invasion, launched on false pretenses; a brutal occupation, with control of local oil reserves surely part of the motivation; the heartbreaking deaths of brothers, cousins, children, parents - naturally understand that an "insurgency" is the appropriate response. Its goal is simply to force the invaders and occupiers to leave. Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds have intrinsic reasons to regard each other as enemies, from competition over land and oil, to ethnic hatreds, to unsettled scores. No equivalent sources of built-in contempt exist among these people toward America. Taken as a whole, or in its parts, Iraq is not an enemy.

 

But we'll always have "terrorism" in general and Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda specifically, won't we? Maybe war in Iraq was a huge mistake, but it's as good a place as any, isn't it?

No -

 

Bin Laden was a self-mythologized figure of no historic standing until George W. Bush designated him America's equal by defining 9/11 as an act of war to be met with war, instead of a crime to be met with criminal justice. But this over-reaction, so satisfying at the time to the wounded American psyche, turned into the war for which the other party simply did not show up. Which is, of course, why we are blasting a substitute Iraq to smithereens.

Iraq is not a war, because, though we have savage assault, we have no enemy. The war on terrorism is not a war because, though we have an enemy, the muscle-bound Pentagon offers no authentic means of assault.

 

Ah, truculent rigidity ("we will settle for nothing less than total victory") masquerading as intellectual seriousness (we need to wage war on this "unprecedented threat" no one else seems to get) - on parade!

But then, there seem to be odd waves of logic rolling in now. If people like Carroll and Lieven keep looking at facts and being so rational in major publications, and people catch on, the idealistic optimist-in-chief has a much harder job selling his vision - or "visions" in the religious sense. There's the danger he becomes a curiosity, not a leader, as most of us have to live in the real world.

These are the big issues, but one should note that sometimes truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness just gets you on the local level.

There's still a lot of discussion about this story - the part-time Target Stores pharmacist who lost her job for refusing to dispense or refer for the morning-after birth control pill (Plan B - Barr Pharmaceuticals). She, one Heather Williams, said these pills were a form of abortion and she'd have nothing to do with them, and wouldn't fill the prescriptions, and wouldn't say who would, even though she knew others who would fill the prescriptions.

She's held this position for five years.

Is this truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness?

"For me, life begins with two cells."

Tell the distraught women who would fill the prescriptions? - "I just can't be a link in the chain at all."

Seriousness? It depends on you point of view. She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of Missouri. She says when Target forced pharmacists state-wide to sign a "conscience clause" last fall agreeing to dispense Plan B, or refer to another pharmacy that does, she just couldn't sign that, as that would make her "a participant." So they fired her. The irony is the Target store where she worked has never stocked Plan B at all. This is some kind of rigidity, or adherence to noble principle, as you wish.

And she's not alone - see this, the Washington Post reviews the whole debate, legislation proposed in a dozen states to back people like Heather Williams.

What's that about?

This -

 

About half of the proposals would shield pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control and "morning-after" pills because they believe the drugs cause abortions. But many are far broader measures that would shelter a doctor, nurse, aide, technician or other employee who objects to any therapy. That might include in-vitro fertilization, physician-assisted suicide, embryonic stem cells and perhaps even providing treatment to gays and lesbians.

 

There's something very odd going on here.

John Cole (the libertarian-type conservative, not Juan Cole, the University of Michigan Middle East guy often quoted here), suggests this -

 

There is little room for nuance in my opinion on this. If your religious beliefs interfere with your job providing any and all desired or required care for a patient, you have several options - change your job, change your religion, suck it up and hope yours is a forgiving God.

Denying people care because it upsets your sensibilities should not be allowed, and those who choose to do so should not be protected by legislation, they should have their licenses revoked. People who refuse to provide mainstream and accepted medical treatment to patients because of their own religious beliefs should no longer be considered doctors - they can hang a plaque outside their door that says the following: "Joe Schmoe - Unlicensed Faith Healer."

 

So is this truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness?

Well, he calls denying care for the ill "upsetting their sensibilities." They call denying care for the ill simply refusing to be accomplice to murder, or, in the case of refusing any treatment to gays and lesbians, that's just refusing to keep the "evil ones" alive and healthy, as God commands of them. (I'm not sure where in the bible He commands that, but they seem to think He does.)

Maybe they should not be in medicine at all, of course. Or maybe we need a two-track health system - one licensed by the state medical boards with their own clinics and hospitals and pharmacies and all that, and a parallel system of the same licensed by the evangelical churches of the religious right. You choose.

Yep, the choice in all this - all topics here - is between idealist vision and dealing with pesky facts. It's too bad that those of us who prefer the latter are pretty much being asked to shut up or leave.































 
 
 
 

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
 
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