Saturday, March 29, 2008

But Enough About You ...

This article – well, really it’s only a squib – by one Megan McArdle has been linked by IOZ (in a strong, eloquent post), if not by others, on the web. It’s interesting to watch Ms. McArdle squirm:

Obviously, there are people who were right about the war for the right reasons, and we should examine what their thought process was--not merely the conclusions they came to, but how they got there. Other peoples’ opposition was animated by principles that may be right, but aren’t really very helpful: the pacifists, the isolationists, the reflexive opponents of Republicans or the US military. Within the limits on foreign policy in a hegemonic power, these just aren’t particularly useful, again, regardless of whether you are metaphysically correct.

“It won't work” is the easiest prediction to get right; almost nothing does. The thought process that tells you something probably won't work is not always a good way to figure out what will, even if you were right for the right reasons, as I agree lots of people were. That’s why libertarians have a great track record at predicting which government programs will fail (almost all of them) and a lousy track record at designing ones that do work.

On the other hand, “I thought it would work for X reason”, when it didn’t work, is, I think, a lesson you can carry into both decisions about what to do, and what not to do. On a deeper level, understanding the unconscious cognitive biases that lead smart and well meaning people to believe that things which will not work, will work, is a very good way to prevent yourself from making the same mistake.

It’s a repulsive performance, and while I’m tempted to say that it’s surprising to find it on the site of a liberal magazine like The Atlantic, I have to recall that The Atlantic also spotlighted Dinesh D’Souza’s right-wing tract Illiberal Education, publishing an excerpt before the book was published. Of the first few dozen commenters, most fault McArdle for thinking that the invasion of Iraq hasn’t worked, or it would have if not for the Iraqis, which is probably the best refutation of her position one could ask for.

Notice, in the first paragraph I’ve quoted, how blithely she dismisses the “pacifists”, the “isolationists”, not to mention those who are “reflexively” opposed to the Republican party. I wonder who she has in mind. It’s so easy, and such a popular tactic, not to name names, so no one can quibble over the accuracy of the characterizations. But if someone argues nowadays that the Japanese should not have tried to take over Asia in the 1930s, is that “isolationism”? Does only a “pacifist” say that the Japanese should not have killed Our Boys at Pearl Harbor, or that al-Qaeda was wrong to destroy the World Trade Towers? American pundits and politicians never hesitate to make moral judgments on the actions of our certified enemies; it’s only the US whose motives are beyond question.

Next McArdle moves to the Realpolitik so beloved of mainstream liberals and conservatives alike: well, we live in a world of hegemony, so we have to work within those parameters, don’t we, and not be afraid to get our hands a little dirty. So, the question becomes something like: how can we effectively achieve our aims – never mind whether those aims are good ones? How could Hitler have gone about establishing hegemony over Europe, for instance, in a way that would work? When the Soviets crushed democracy in Czechoslovakia in 1968, is the only permissible question whether their hegemony worked? And how about China’s hegemony over Tibet? A Chinese Megan McArdle could explain that only an isolationist or a pacifist, surely, would deny China’s right to run that country as it wishes. The only question is whether Chinese methods will work, and if not, how to make them work.

As I remember it, American liberals who opposed the invasion of Tibet -- I mean Iraq, sorry! – mostly expressed the fear that “we” would get into another “quagmire” there, like we did in Vietnam. Gloria Steinem, for one, expressed that fear in a speech here at Indiana University. What about the Iraqis who might be killed by our bombs and artillery and white phosphorus, you ask? Who cares? No one’s going to accuse Steinem of pacifism or isolationism! There was debate in The Nation, too, about how comparable Iraq was to Vietnam, though a few knee-jerk anti-Republicans were allowed to express their reflexive rejection of hegemony in its pages.

One commenter at IOZ asked, “But did anyone opposed to the war intelligently warn what would happen if the US went in without a governance plan? I don't recall that being their message.” Gracious, so many demands here, demands that would never be made of supporters of the war – intelligence, for one. But leaving aside those who warned of a quagmire, there’s this article by Noam Chomsky, and all you have to do is browse around Counterpunch in the months leading up to the invasion to find numerous warnings that it would not be the cakewalk promised by the Bushites. Those predictions have mostly been borne out by events, too. But for the likes of Megan McArdle, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the flight of millions more are of no account in themselves, only as signs of our doing our hegemony wrong.

But then there’s Pete Seeger, the granddaddy of privileged white kids learning folk music, blacklisted from American TV as a Red for many years until he appeared on The Smothers Brothers Show in 1968. Seeger wrote a song called “Waist-Deep in the Big Muddy” about the American experience in Vietnam. The Smothers Brothers bucked CBS censors so Seeger could perform this radical, cutting-edge political song on their show. The key offense, much as in a Stalinist state, was the song’s reference to “the big fool [who] says to push on,” widely taken to mean President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The song is about American soldiers “on maneuvers in Louisiana,” training for the Big One, WWII, who are nearly sucked down into quicksand because of the incompetence of their captain. If we take this song as it was meant to be, as an allegory of America in Vietnam, it’s notable that what menaces Our Boys is a force of nature – opposing human beings are conspicuously absent, to say nothing of napalmed children and slaughtered villagers. Seeger knew better, I hope. But that this pretentious song could have seemed extreme (or daring, depending on your point of view) tells me a lot about American hegemony, even among opponents of the US invasion of Vietnam. … A few years ago I happened on a Pete Seeger songbook at the library and began working through it, learning songs I hadn’t heard in years. I started to learn “Big Muddy,” but as I listened to the words I was singing I couldn’t go on.

I’m also reminded of a joke, which I first encountered in Leo Rosten’s The Joy of Yiddish but found again in Paul Breines’s very serious and important book Tough Jews. Some rabbinic students were drafted into the Tsar’s army more than a century ago, and much to their trainers’ surprise they turned out to be excellent sharpshooters. On the target range they never missed. But when they were put into battle, they refused to fire their guns. Their officers screamed at them, “What’s the matter? Why don’t you shoot?” They replied, “But those are real men out there, sir – if we shoot, we might hurt them.” Crazy pacifists!