Monday, April 2, 2012

Reality-Based Discourse

Last week Roy Edroso did a post on the kind of right-wing flailing around that is his stock in trade. The comments that followed were the usual liberal "Why are these wingnuts so deluded, instead of reality-based, like us? Why do they hate our god-king?"

One, called rapier, offered up this answer (no permalink):
The funny thing is that Obama is 110% in with every elite group seeking to extend and expand the American Empire. Most generally speaking that would be the National Security State/Military and the banking/financial/corporate institutions and their leaders.

Of course this all leads to the erosion of individual citizens freedom and even livelyhood but for an empire, for a Great Nation, the citizens are secondary and are meant only to serve The Nation.

The confusion on the right comes with their fetishization of The Nation and then the inability to understand that The Nation and the government are one in the same and the power of The Nation by design and by necessity erodes the freedom of individuals.
An alicublog regular (and Obama groupie), aimai, chimed in:
That seems to be a confusion on the left, too. The nation state, and the empire, do not permit even high government officials to simply throw in the towel and refuse to make decisions about everything from lead standards to shipping to oil to war. And every decision is tainted and immoral because every decision priviliges at the very least the citizens of the nation over non citizens. All decisions kill someone, somewhere. Even no decision can be fatal to someone, somewhere.
I wonder which part of the left she has in mind. Noam Chomsky, for example, has been insisting for decades that states are not moral agents. But no matter, because this comment makes no sense at all, even leaving aside its garbled syntax. It also seems to miss rapier's point about Obama.

Obama's left critics don't expect him to "throw in the towel and refuse to make decisions": we expect him to make decisions, and we criticize the bad decisions he has made. rapier had not said that Obama is trapped by "the nation-state, and the empire", but that he "is 110% in with every elite group seeking to extend and expand the American Empire." It's very important to Obama loyalists like aimai to see Obama not as a willing collaborator, let alone a loyal member of the ruling elites, but as a progressive prisoner of the system, struggling against the odds to make things better but crushed in its coils. (The same excuse could be made for George W. Bush or Dick Cheney with as much -- or as little -- validity.) It's a rough week when liberals fall back on this kind of rationalization.

"Every decision is tainted and immoral because every decision priviliges [sic] at the very least the citizens of the nation over the non citizens." Obviously, no. A president's domestic decisions -- on taxes, health care, civil liberties, and the like -- primarily affect citizens. But leave that aside, and look at international policy. "All decisions kill someone, somewhere." Even allowing for Occidental hyperbole -- do international trade decisions "kill someone, somewhere"? too often yes -- I don't think aimai was thinking about such questions. She was thinking mainly about the glamorous high-stakes issue of war.

But Obama's foreign-policy decisions have not privileged American citizens over non-citizens. Since Vietnam, American presidents have been (or at least felt) constrained by the need to minimize American casualties while maximizing foreign ones -- the more so because defending the US has not been a factor; our wars since 1945 have been purely aggressive. (As were most of them before 1939.) Obama clearly thinks he has the best answer to the problem, relying as much as possible on robot planes to kill The Enemy from afar, without putting American forces on the ground. (From this technocratic point of view, Bosnia and and especially Libya were successes.) It is, however, legitimate to question whether, say, wiping out entire Afghan wedding parties is a suitable balance of the interests of American citizens over non-citizens. (To say nothing of the murder of American citizens.) And what about Obama's vain efforts to prolong the American occupation of Iraq -- how did that benefit American citizens over non-citizens?

In line with rapier's comment, it should also be remembered that what has been at stake has been the putative well-being of only a very few American citizens, the business and government elites who have Obama's fealty. They are privileged in the president's calculus, not the majority of citizens. That's uncontroversial Realpolitik, but not anything that Obama loyalists care to dwell on very much, or at all.

At base, we have politics (whether domestic or international) because different groups of people have conflicting interests. The function of politics is to attempt to resolve those conflicts, and since resources are limited, it's rare that every party will emerge completely satisfied. We can reasonably expect our government to represent and advocate our interests in international conflicts, but as I've already pointed out, there is no singular national interest to represent, as as rapier said, the interest our government represents is primarily that of the most rapacious and destructive elements. (Corporations aren't moral agents either. That means they must be watched and regulated quite severely, kept on a tight leash.) Human beings are moral agents, however, and we need to remember that politics isn't a football game writ large. "Slaughter" and other violent terminology is only a metaphor in sports, but not in international relations.

In a way, though, I'm going too far afield here, though these are important issues. As I've pointed out before, it was Obama's partisans who promised a new world of American politics if their man was elected, who participated in his marketing campaign, who attacked any skeptic who pointed out that he wasn't as fully clothed as they pretended. Now that he's shown his true colors, they've backtracked and attacked his critics for supposedly believing that he was going to be any different than any other politician. And what's worse, they defend and even celebrate the same policies and practices under Obama that they attacked under Bush.

Or, like aimai, they fall back on a vague Realpolitik and try to present Obama as the victim of the system, not the man at its head. Still, aimai's defense of Obama here was unusually incoherent. The Democrats are really very lucky (and many of them admit it) that the Republicans have fielded such absurdly bad candidates against him.