Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Legitimize Me All Night Long

The US/DPRK summit has enraged a lot of people in the US, and one of their favorite themes is that Trump "legitimized" Kim Jong Un by meeting with him.  I've seen many complaints about North Korea's undeniably bad human rights record, almost all of them from people who have nothing to say about the undeniably bad human rights records of so many US friends, allies, and clients.  When Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia visited Washington, for example, he was fawned on by Democrats and Republicans alike, by the full range of American corporate media, and hailed as a "reformer."  (This is typical of elite US reception of right-wing dictators for a century or more.)  Justin Trudeau and the Canadian establishment followed suit. The word "legitimize" was not to be heard, as far as I know, though it surely applied.

So, Glenn Greenwald wrote contemptuously today: "US foreign policy elites have invented a whole slew of meaningless phrases to justify a state of permanent militarism & aggression in the world, then trained people to recite them. That US should avoid negotiating with Bad Guys because it gives them 'legitimacy' in a good example".  He continued: "It's critically important that the country which lavishes the Saudi regime with weapons, intelligence, diplomatic cover, and constant praise not do anything to give legitimacy to dictators."

Someone calling himself "Vincent Adultman" riposted: "So is giving weapons, intelligence, diplomatic cover and praise to Saudi Arabia wrong, or is legitimizing dictators OK? Which lane are you picking?"

The most obvious point is that Greenwald doesn't endorse "giving weapons, intelligence, diplomatic cover and praise to Saudi Arabia."  Not only Trump, but most of the American political and chattering classes do favor doing so, however.  The question for such people, then, is why they don't favor giving the same benefits to Kim Jong Un; as a brutal dictator with no regard for human rights, he would seem to qualify.

Nor, as far as I know, does Greenwald believe the US should treat North Korea like Saudi Arabia.  Nor do I.  The Onion recently mocked the very idea.  The two cases are dissimilar in many ways.  Unlike Saudi Arabia, North Korea is not attacking another nation or creating a vast humanitarian catastrophe with US support.  The only country North Korea has attacked is South Korea, which is not a separate nation, in 1950; that was a civil war, not a war between nations.  I would certainly oppose the US giving or selling weapons or technology to North Korea, but I doubt Trump or most of the US political and business community have any such reservations.  I think the only nation, except perhaps Japan, that feels threatened by North Korea's nuclear weapons is the US, because of our own paranoiac fantasies.  Like much (most?) of the world, North Korea has much better reason to feel threatened by the US.

I believe that Vincent Adultman was trying for a version of a popular attempt to flummox those who oppose the US starting another aggressive war: Don't you libs want the US to "intervene" in Saudi Arabia?  Aren't you always complaining about the human rights in American client states? So why do you now object if the US bombs Kosovo, Iraq, Libya?  You have a double standard.  This line is often accompanied by a admission that America has not always got it right before, but this time we'll do it right.  Shouldn't we at least try?  Can't you just give America another chance?  I've heard this sort of thing at least since the US invasion of Panama in 1989, though I'm sure it's older, and every time it quickly became clear not only that America had blown another chance to get it right, but that our leaders didn't care.  They had other concerns on their agenda.

Here we come to another popular buzzword, "whataboutism" (or "whataboutery").  It comes in handy when someone points out real hypocrisy and double standards in US policy and conduct.  Given that we're not talking about parallels that are distant in time but are quite recent, it seems entirely fair to ask why it was horrible for Trump to meet Kim Jong Un but not Mohammed bin Salman, especially when meeting and praising Kim Jong Un is decried as an atrocity unprecedented in American history.  Some of these preachers get a bit testy when they're corrected as to the American record, too.  But then they never meant to be taken literally.

Admittedly, nobody can denounce, let alone work effectively against every bad thing in the world.  But think of all the nice, sincere liberals I interacted with online who were distraught over wounded Syrian children and asked why America couldn't do something about them.  When I asked them, they mostly said they didn't know what we could do, though some were up for bombing Syria (and some others didn't say so, I suspect, because they knew it would sound bad).  I then asked them what they thought about wounded Yemeni children, since the US is partly responsible for their suffering and could mitigate or even stop it simply by stopping our direct support for Saudi aggression.  None answered, and most of them stopped posting even about Syrian children before long, thanks to the famous American short attention span.  Even granting that nobody can do everything, how hard could it be to admit that US involvement in killing and starving Yemeni children is a problem, and maybe post a meme denouncing that involvement?  And pretending that Trump's behavior is unprecedented makes life easier by erasing all the other evils you need to keep track of, doesn't it?

Whataboutism has an honorable history, going back to Martin Luther King Jr.'s declaration in 1967:
I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
It becomes a dishonest tactic when the comparison is invalid, as they often are. Vincent Adultman provided a good example: he seemed to think that Greenwald was being inconsistent in denouncing US support for Saudi aggression while favoring peace in the Korean peninsula.  Another example is someone who responded to Greenwald's criticism of US commentators who "really believe that the US owns, or at least is entitled to exercise supreme dominion over, the Korean Peninsula."  Someone called Bohique replied: "I have not heard you reporting on the concentration camps Trump is setting up in Texas. Have you seen thebimages [sic] of children in cages? Maybe that will give you better context."  Of course Greenwald has criticized the viciously inhumane US immigration policy, going back at least to the days when it was Obama's policy.  I presume that Bohique was alluding to North Korean prison camps, on the assumption that US should exercise supreme dominion over the Korean peninsula because of them.  Leaving aside that there's no reason to believe that the US government or most mainstream pundits care about human rights (except when pretending to care for propaganda purposes), I don't see how US Korea policy has, or could, produce any improvement in North Korea's behavior.  But then it's not meant to.

You could go with Arash Karami, who very properly wrote today, "I can’t believe North Korea negotiated with a regime that just helped launch another catastrophic bombing campaign against Yemen."