Saturday, January 23, 2010

I Burn Down Your Cities, How Blind You Must Be

President Obama's ... well, whatever it is, it's in the current issue of Newsweek, as we were warned it would be. To call it an article is a stretch. It has no real content; it's just a gaseous effusion of high-sounding rhetoric, the sort of thing you don't need to read or listen to because it just is. You stand there with your hand over your heart and your eyes on the flag, and listen to the boring man drone on.
But above all, we act for a very simple reason: in times of tragedy, the United States of America steps forward and helps. That is who we are. That is what we do. For decades, America's leadership has been founded in part on the fact that we do not use our power to subjugate others, we use it to lift them up—whether it was rebuilding our former adversaries after World War II, dropping food and water to the people of Berlin, or helping the people of Bosnia and Kosovo rebuild their lives and their nations.
This is purest moonshine. The US does, and often has, used its power to subjugate others. I'm not keeping score, but in my present mood I'd say we've done it more often than not. Obama knows better, or used to. Though, as often as not, there was no need to subjugate when we could simply exploit, as Naomi Klein reminds us on the Newsweek site; but she also links to some good news at her own webpage, which is a good resource for those interested in what else is going on in Haiti. See, for example, Rebecca Solnit's piece. Newsweek tries to undercut Klein, though, with another article, an interview with Klein misleadingly titled "Naomi Klein Sees Exploitation in Rescue Missions." (It's reminiscent of the responses to Peter Hallward's Guardian article.) How many people will read past that title? You should. Klein answers the interviewer's stupid questions very effectively.

Other writers at Newsweek are less vague and therefore more obnoxious than Obama. John Meacham, for example, argues that humanitarianism is good policy:
As FDR noted elsewhere, experience has taught the United States that Emerson was right: the only way to have a friend is to be one. The world watches how we act toward those less fortunate than ourselves—and just about everybody on earth is less fortunate than we are. Rebuilding Haiti will not kill jihadists in Afghanistan, Somalia, or Yemen. It will not calm Iraq. It will not slow Iran's march toward a nuclear weapon. Yet it will show us to advantage—a great power doing good, even when the do-gooding is outside a realist's flinty calculus of a national interest. ...

Then there is what my colleague John Barry calls the "old-fashioned but real" interest in perpetuating the Monroe Doctrine. "I can easily foresee that Russia and, especially, China may choose to tweak Obama by mounting very public relief efforts in Haiti," John says. Hugo Chávez and his comrades will also capitalize on any impression that America is ignoring Haiti.
Meacham's opening summary of US policy toward Haiti ends, conveniently, with Woodrow Wilson's 1915 invasion, with no mention of intervening events (for which, again, read Peter Hallward), "history suggests that we won't stay the course", though we always have before, to the Haitians' great cost. But Meacham can't take his eyes off the calculator for a nanosecond. Why does he assume that Russia and, especially, China don't want to be good neighbors too, outside a realist's flinty calculus of a national interest? The world -- meaning everyone but the US -- is probably aware of Cuba's relief efforts in Haiti, as it is of Cuba's past relief efforts around the world. And the world is also aware of past US interference in Haiti: Chavez and John Barry's other bogeymen are not likely to worry too much about the US "ignoring Haiti" -- rather the people (not necessarily the governments) of the world will be watching about how the US imposes itself on Haiti.

Finally, in an article only partially available online, one Lisa Miller sets out to justify the ways of God to man. She mentions Pat Robertson's much-vilified remarks on the disaster; quotes Bart Ehrman, bless him, on Robertson -- "If that happened to the Haitians because they're so sinful, then why hasn't it happened to him?" -- then turns to Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, a title that was often deservedly parodied in its day.

Kushner sniffs, "I think that it's supreme hubris to think you can read God's mind," then shows his own hubris by explaining that "The will of God is not to send us the disaster, but to send us the disaster to overcome." How does he know? Surely he hasn't been reading God's mind; maybe they were talking on the phone the other day. But as Ehrman says, this is no answer either. It takes, well, hubris to tell people who've watched their families die that they should just make the best of it, grow spiritually, and "overcome." I've quoted before the opinion I share, that I'd rather believe there is Nobody out there, than believe there is Someone who watches and does nothing -- let alone "sends us the disaster to overcome." Rabbi Kushner is, in his own way, as disgusting as Pat Robertson.

Did someone mention hope? To each his or her own, but I don't see much hope in a belief system which holds that a big guy in the sky will kick over every sandcastle we puny mortals build, just to see us scurry to build it up again, and perhaps to weep great salty tears in sympathy with us. Lucy snatching the football away from Charlie Brown is a saint by comparison.