Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Blood and Pleasure

Glenn Greenwald and a few other malcontents have been poking at the outrage expressed in respectable circles over President Trump's alleged "affection for totalitarian leaders [which] has grown beyond Russia’s president to include strongmen around the globe."

Very entertainingly, the Washington Post article by Philip Rucker I just linked has been altered, adding the words in bold type to make it somewhat less obviously absurd: "Every American president since at least the 1970s has used his office at least occasionally to champion human rights and democratic values around the world."  As Greenwald says, it's still not true.

But then, these claims shouldn't be taken literally.  Nor should most mainstream political discourse.  They are declarations of faith, pledges of allegiance.  In the anthropologist F. G. Bailey's terminology, they are examples of the moral mind at work.  By paying tribute to America's high ideals and practice, one establishes one's bona fides and qualification to participate in serious commentary.

Even non-mainstream commentators feel the need to say such things.  I've often referred to the late Molly Ivins's lament from 2007:
What happened to the nation that never tortured? The nation that wasn't supposed to start wars of choice? The nation that respected human rights and life? A nation that from the beginning was against tyranny? Where have we gone? How did we let these people take us there? How did we let them fool us?
Ivins certainly knew better than this.  (Which probably can't be said for Phillip Rucker.)  I daresay she'd have turned her considerable powers of mockery on any Republican who'd said such things.  But before you can oppose a war, or criticize your President's fondness for dictators, you have to wave the flag.  So too Katha Pollitt felt compelled to assure her readers that she's "never been one to blame the United States for every bad thing that happens in the Third World" before criticizing US policy in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.  (This ploy never deflects the criticism from jingoes, of course.)

Glenn Greenwald himself has come a long way, since he wrote in 2008:
Yes, I'm well aware that the U.S, like all countries, was deeply imperfect prior to 9/11, and that many of the systematic excesses of the Bush era have their genesis prior to 2001. The difference (a critical one) is that what had been acts of lawbreaking and violations of our national values have become the norm -- consistent with, rather than violative of, our express values and policies.
And this was in a fine post detailing and condemning Bush-era crimes.  At that time Greenwald still was a bit nervous about going too far out on the political spectrum; he's become much more comfortable since then, following facts and principles where they lead even if it infurates self-styled moderates.  He's posted a good article today on US support of dictators since World War II, though the policy is older than that.

Something else should be remembered, though: mainstream commentators, including (or especially) liberal ones, have always seen human rights as a bargaining chip to be used with "authoritarian" regimes rather than something desirable in themselves.  As Stephen Walt put it early in the Obama administration, "No U.S. President--not even Jimmy Carter--was ever willing to spend a lot of blood or treasure solely to advance human rights, and Obama isn't going to be the first."  This was quoted with approval (via) by Eyal Press, a writer at The Nation.  Notice the bit about "blood and treasure," a virtual Homeric epithet that tends to turn up when someone wants to pretend that doggone it, the US has just been too idealistic about defending human rights at home and abroad, and we can't afford to do it anymore.  Expending blood (of dusky foreigners) and treasure in the service of suppressing human rights, however, is just fine.