Friday, October 27, 2017

Our Atrocities Are Not Atrocious Because Our Motives Are Good

The danger of Trump is, everybody looks good by comparison, everybody can stand up and look like a hero, I mean, I live in Canada, right? So I know.  So I think the logic needs to be, we're not gonna give you a pass because you're better than Trump. We're gonna demand so much more of you, because of Trump...
There's been some attention to a recent Economist/YouGov poll which found that 51% of Democrats have a favorable view of former president George W. Bush, compared to 42% who do not.  A new Fox News poll "puts Bush at 48/46 among Dem voters, 50/43 among Clinton voters."  Predictably, politically correct haters in the pay of Vladimir Putin, like Glenn Greenwald and myself, were displeased.

The Blogger Formerly Known as IOZ argued, sensibly enough, that "This reveals exactly nothing useful about people's political leanings or attitudes except that they are mercurial", because "People have recently heard some okay things about GWB, who they've barely heard about in 8+ years. So, okay, they 'approve.'"  I'd agree more if so many Democrats (including pretty much all the ones I know on Facebook) haven't been defending and justifying this change in attitude.

The usual response, unsurprisingly, is that Bush wasn't as bad as Trump. "No doubt due to a comparison." "It's simple a lizard looks pretty cute and harmless next to Tyrannosaurus Rex." "This is only because we're now dealing with pure crazy in the WH. Even Bush looks ok next to Trump. Sad."  Or: Bush lied to us more elegantly.  This one is particularly funny because Dubya infuriated Democrats back in the day by his often incoherent speaking ("Is our children learning?", "nukular"), his Commander-Codpiece posturing, his clumsy and offensive humor ("Some call you the elite; I call you my base"; "No WMDs over here"; "'Please - don't kill me'")

One of Greenwald's critics wrote, "So I guess we have to hate him for the rest of our lives. No one gets a break at the Intercept right?" (It isn't "have to," it's "get to.") This was a common lament of liberals I know after Bush's recent speech sort-of-denouncing Trump: C'mon, can't you accept that people change? If liberals want to slobber over Bush's probably ghostwritten discovery of high Amurrican ideals, that's their lookout and their right under the Constitution.  As it says right there, The Intercept shall make no law restricting liberals' right to slobber on war criminals.  No one has to hate him if they don't want to.  What's significant is that they are indignant if someone else does hate him.  Let's have some freedom of hatred around here, okay?

And, as I've said often before, "hate" is irrelevant.  Making it personal is a handy distraction from attending to policies and actions.  I believe I've mentioned the young college student I once knew who refused to discuss Bush's policies and actions because she had once attended a dinner in the Governor's mansion when Bush was governor of Texas, and she liked him. That was very nice and all, but what does it have to do with -- just picking an example off the top of my head -- lying in order to start a few wars that cost hundreds of thousands of lives?  As Greenwald wrote years ago, "'trust' is appropriate for one's friends, loved ones, family members and the like -- but not for politicians."  Most of us have no personal connection to politicians at the national level anyway; we shouldn't evaluate them by our reaction to their simulacra on TV and computer screens, but by what they do. What Bush did as President, much of which stands condemned by his speech, should be judged harshly -- all the more so because he has not faced any accountability for it.

When Greenwald wrote with bitter sarcasm, "Stop being so judgmental and purist. They were well-intentioned war crimes. And W jokes with Obama and Ellen", someone took a different tack.  "Question," wrote a user called muddletoes. "Hypothetically speaking, do you see no moral distinction pertaining to the motives which lead to a war crime? Is a G. W. Bush as culpable as a Bashar al-Assad?"

Greenwald didn't reply as far as I saw.  I and some others took the question on.  "I absolutely believe that many sides in many wars are completely indifferent to whether or not they are 'right'. I think that it's a mistake to assume that an equivalent moral calculus exists on both sides," muddletoes wrote. "That's actually the crux of my question to GG. Granted the premise that the US under GWB committed war crimes, and were mistaken to believe that their actions were moral, does it make no difference that a requirement of their reasoning was that their actions be moral?"  The remarkable aspect of per questions is the assumption that the Bush regime believed that their actions were moral, and that, say, Assad does not.  (There's also an assumption that everyone in the Bush regime had the same beliefs on that score.)  When I declared that Bush's actions were amoral, muddletoes brushed that objection aside: "There are contexts in which you could argue that, but on the other hand it doesn't seem like a very useful summation when comparing their actions to, for instance, any of the genocides of the 20th century."  The trouble is that Assad's crimes don't really compare to other genocides of the 20th century either; certainly muddletoes offered no calculus for deciding.

I don't know how muddletoes knows Assad's motives, which in the final analysis are probably as unknowable as Bush's.  This al-Jazeera article probably tells as much as anyone can:
We know from his semi-regular longform interviews that he sees himself as carrying the flame of Syrian unity against a conspiracy of foreign actors looking to destroy Syria.

We know that he denies the existence or use of barrel bombs as he does reports of his government blocking aid to Syrian civilians around the country.

We know that his consistent line is that he is fighting against terrorists and his future will be decided by the Syrian people and nobody else.
In other words, Assad denies that he does bad things, and appeals to noble values like fighting terrorism, appealing to the judgment of the Syrian people; essentially the same rhetoric used by Bush (or Obama) to justify their wars.

I have a question of my own about this, which I've asked in various forms before: If the Bush gang had such noble motives, why did they choose to lie about the reasons for invading Iraq?  They knew perfectly well they were lying, as shown by their evasions, and those of their apologists, when the lies were exposed.  The use of lies to generate popular support for unjust wars is commonly invoked as one of the characteristics of the genocides of the 20th century, which would put Dubya in their camp rather than distinguish him from them.  One must also ask whether high ideals can ever justify aggression, attacks on civilian populations, torture, disappearances / rendition, abrogation of civil liberties at home and abroad, etc.  It's precisely such actions which discredit any pretensions to moral purity.  muddletoes complained that person was being accused unfairly of making an "endorsement of Bush."  I don't think it's unfair at all; I think that trying to ameliorate Bush's crimes by a purely fanciful claim that he acted out of a concern for justice is, if not an endorsement, certainly an apologia for him.

I wrote that I consider such questions a distraction, one beloved of apologists for American crimes.  "Is a G. W. Bush as culpable as a Bashar al-Assad?" is like ranking football teams, making a list in order of your favorite Beatles songs, or asking whether the Predator or the Terminator is more badass.  These are popular American pastimes, but they're irrelevant to the serious problems we face; certainly they're not an acceptable response to them.  Even if Bush deluded himself about the criminality of his actions, that doesn't make him less culpable; or if it does, it might at most shorten his appropriate prison sentence from, say, one hundred consecutive life sentences to ninety.  In the absence of reliable information about the innermost thoughts and motives of either man, it's impossible to compare them, and unimportant.  Assad is not an American ex-President, and Bush is.  As an American, Bush is my business in a way that Assad can't be.

It's also hard for me to see how Trump could make Bush look any better, if one isn't dedicated to a willed amnesia that erases Bush's actual offenses, which aren't limited to the invasion of Iraq or the "war on terror."  Many Democrats clearly are.  His economic policies, for example, were disastrous both for American citizens and for people around the world.  If he now attacks Trump without acknowledging his own culpability, he's just throwing up a smokescreen; if Democrats let him get away with it, they discredit themselves.  Certainly their judgment, their conviction of superior knowledge and rationality compared to the stupid Rethuglicans, is open to serious question.  That's not news, of course; it's just continuity.