Vox Populi

Lamentations in the Fray.

How much responsibility does the citizenry bear for a nation’s course — particularly in a time of war?  And while there are those who feel that staying the proverbial course is essential in a time of crisis, have we failed as a nation to take proper inventory of our collective moral and political spirit?

Subject: “Quomodo sola sedet civitas
From:     Fritz_Gerlich
Date:     Fri May 14 0057hThe United States is losing in Iraq, just as it lost in Vietnam, and for the same reason: we long ago put our faith in technology (and its administrative cousins, management and public relations) rather than in spirit. “Spirit” not as in metaphysics or religion, but in the sense of elan moral, moral force or thrust, the temporary fusion of individual and group wills that lifts people to do great (and often terrible) things. Brief wars against greatly inferior enemies (which describes every war the United States fought between Vietnam and the present Iraq war) do nothing to test a nation’s spirit, and hence may be won solely by a professional military wielding lethal technology. Long, hard wars requiring national sacrifice, including especially the re-examination of dearly held notions and emotions, cannot be. They quickly reveal their emptiness of widely shared moral purpose; and then they become monstrous by attracting the worst instead of the best, Calleys instead of McCains. This is one reason war is nothing to trifle with.

Leadership does not create spirit. But it recognizes, articulates and channels it. “Leadership” does not mean just the White House; it means the collective national leadership, as most potently symbolized by the president. From the standpoint of the evocation of spirit, our leadership is comically inept. It is easy to make the current hapless president the whipping boy, for his malapropisms, his shapeless thoughts and clumsy evasions, but in truth his more clever and articulate colleagues in both parties (with exceptions that might be counted on the fingers of a well-maimed hand) have no more ability than he to command broad loyalties oriented toward the noble. Citizens understand that the entire system was corrupted long ago by money and well-intentioned deception; the current president merely makes blatant a reality that had been sloppily veiled.

Myopia and pretense at the top lead to confusion at the bottom. Here, “bottom” can mean both the soldiers and sailors hired to carry out the will of the leadership, and also the citizenry. Increasingly, it appears that American forces within Iraq are confused about their mission (to defeat an enemy? or to rebuild a nation?) and frustrated by their inability to feel progress in accomplishing whatever it may be. The misbehavior of the prison guards and interrogators is one symptom of this moral degeneration within the military; many others are doubtless still hidden from sight. But little frustration is yet evident among the citizens. In all probability that because it is an election year, and most people are hoping that these issues will be sufficiently clarified by the election to be able to make a choice, and if necessary a change, to set matters right. An illusion, alas, in view of what was said above about the labyrinthine fraudulence of the political system. Mere substitution of a president cannot in itself supply the missing ingredients: a viable objective, a plan based on knowledge and critical thinking, and the inspiration of citizens to adopt that plan as their own and be willing to discipline themselves for the sake of it. With those, indeed, a new leadership might be able to accomplish something. But the president is just the most colorful clown on the stage. Yanking the old one and putting a new in is not going to change the fact that it is still a clown show.

Meanwhile, we are still the same rapacious, impatient, self-righteous nation we always were. These characteristics express themselves irrespective of political party. And the probability is that they are going to keep getting us into trouble, as they always have. Either they will entice us to further rash military entanglements which then begin to disintegrate along now-familiar lines (since they will have no more moral force behind them than the present one does), or they will drive us into abrupt changes of course not in the interest of regional or world stability, or in our own best interests.

Actually, the United States is one of the greatest causes of instability at present, because of its abiding Cold War conviction that it has both the right and the ability to meddle anywhere around the globe. During the Cold War, this was somewhat constrained by our recognition that we could not “contain communism” without building lasting alliances, which required us to behave in predictable ways and with the consent of others. But now that we choose weak targets of opportunity, like the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and North Korea (not to speak of anybody anywhere whom we label a “terrorist”), we dispense not only with meaningful or lasting alliances, not only with international institutions, but even with international law. How a freelance global hegemon like that could be anything but destabilizing is hard to see. The end point of such a trajectory, if it is not cut short by internal decisions, is the formation of an international alliance against us. Niall Ferguson said in Slate just a week or two ago “that is now just a matter of time.”

Our reckless international trajectory will not be stopped by internal political developments. Our civic culture has decayed to the point of incoherence. Our political culture is a matter of bribery under other names (and it is very likely only a step or two away from street warfare, especially if Mr. Bush is re-appointed president). In such soil authentic leadership does not thrive and spirit, therefore, remains subterranean. This leaves the way open for opportunists who crave the presidency like Romans of old schemed and murdered for the emperorship. After all, the American president now rules with the prerogative of private war — covert, overt, or both, as he chooses. (The present war retired any lingering illusions about an opposition party making him actually prove a case for war.) Few other modern leaders have that … except in the countries we now choose as adversaries.

The future is bleak for the United States. The reason is not so much any external trend or adversary, as who, and what, we have become. September 11 called upon us to exact due vengeance, to protect ourselves, and above all to conduct a great national inquiry into who we are and who we should try to be. It gave us a priceless opportunity to question whether the habits and instincts built up over the preceding half-century were the best to serve us in the next half-century. It was a moment of our history that cried out for greatness. And we were found wanting.

Our walls still stand, pennons still fly from the battlements. But where the spirit has fled, vultures gather.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Moral Equivalency, Part II: In response to locdog’s Vox Populi, frankly_ writes:

As soon as I start regarding my government and members of my armed forces as terrorists and holding them up to the same standard as a bunch of fucking terrorists, I will start agreeing with your “what they did was far worse than what we did” argument.
“It’s not enough to repeatedly assert that American democracy is self-evidently good, and militant Islam is self-evidently bad,” writes Thrasymachus here:
You’re looking at identically shitty examples of human conduct and saying that they symbolize two completely different things because Americans are “good” and militant Islamists are “bad”.

Goodness is as goodness does, Loc. Atrocities have been committed in our name, on the orders of our government’s lawful representatives, by people who wear the American flag.

Does what happened to Berg change the smallest detail of that horror? Should it mediate our response in any way?
Shrieking_Violet tells locdog, “Though we may disagree on nearly everything else in American politics,” she shares his view that
this whole Mess-o-Potamia has now become a front in the war against AQ and militant Islam. This is a war we need to win, and we cannot afford to run away or allow our enemies to convince the world that we are no better than they are.
SV continues here:
We can’t merely be BETTER THAN the terrorists. We have to be near-flawless examples of why democratic values are superior. The policy of performing random street sweeps, and subjecting civilians, many of them innocent, to brutal interrogation methods was not the result of a breakdown in the chain of command. These orders came from the top, and the people at the top need to be held accountable for creating an environment where this could happen.

Yes, it’s damned hard to hold our military to civilian legal standards in wartime during a guerilla insurrection. This is why it was a very risky idea to invade Iraq in the first place. But we’re there now, and we need to pull it off.
SV sets the bar in Iraq exactly where it should be. Ticking Clock: Was 60 Minutes II wrong to have broadcasted the Abu Ghraib photos to the world? Mickey Kaus agrees with Jonah Goldberg that it was a lousy decision. A host of fraysters disagree, including sb1564 here and greedytriallawyer (!) here:
All Democratic institutions pre-suppose the public has enough sense to make rational decisions if provided with the relevant information. What otherwise is the hope of a system that entrusts the vote to beings incapable of deciphering right from wrong and truth from untruth.

In supporting are true free press, I mean to support publishing all relevant information, regardless of which candidate it hurts or helps. That means that the decapitations see the light of day, as readily as do the prison photos…If we are too weak or timid to face the truth, there is no future for Democracy.
While greedy conjures up John Stuart Mill in his post, drlaz offers a more deliberate, point-by-point rebuttal of Kaus:
(1) The Iraqis who were suffering torture knew all about it. Perhaps photographs sped up the recruitment of terrorists, but as the victims re-entered society, word would inevitably spread. And as usual with cover-ups, the American people would have been the last to know. Indeed, we would have been sitting there like idiots, saying “Why do they hate us and our enlightened occupation?” Kaus says that a description would have been enough, but it isn’t because…

(2) Far fewer Americans would have believed this story in the absence of seeing photos with their own eyes. Why do you think we made Germans walk through the liberated concentration camps instead of hearing all about them on the radio, or some other non-visual way? Kaus says OK if we didn’t remedy the problem, then CBS could show the photos, but that’s silly because…

(3) The coverup was already in place. Even now the Administration is desperately trying to divert attention from its network of black-hole prisons at Gitmo, Afghanistan, and Iraq…
Irony alert: The new batch of photos is being withheld at present in part for legal considerations. Which considerations are those? The Geneva Conventions—the release of said photos may violate the privacy of Iraqi prisoners … KA 9:10 a.m.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

As the war trudges on—as atrocities and killings are measured against one another in a competition of outrage—”moral equivalency” seems to be the maxim that’s emerged as rhetorical currency in the raging debate. Here’s one frayster’s take on the developments of the past week:

Subject: “nick berg and abu ghraib
From:     locdog
Date:     Wed May 12 1219h hindsight is 20/20, but if i were may 1st nick berg and a magic genie offered me a choice between the worst of abu ghraib and the best of the sort of folks we keep incarcerated there, the choice would have been pretty damn clear.

i just saw some photos of the berg execution. i won’t link to them, but they shouldn’t be hard to find if you’re interested. they aren’t for the faint of heart. they aren’t for anyone, really. no one should ever have to see such things. but see them i did and i’m glad i did and here’s why.

today members of congress will be given full access to the infamous abu ghraib photos. all the stuff we’ve seen, plus tons of stuff we haven’t, and, as usual, it’s the stuff we haven’t seen that’s supposed to be the worst of it. now here’s what you do. you take all of those pictures and put them together into one powerpoint presentation. you can cherry-pick the worst of the worst if you like, or you can march them all before us in one long, brutal parade. then you take those photos of nick berg having his head sawn off–or even the video of you think you can stomach it–and prepare a second presentation. no adornments to either. no narration. just the facts. you then show your presentations to every american of voting age.

i promise you this: by tomorrow, every one of those accused prison guards will have shiny new medals of honor pinned to their chests and there won’t be enough left of iraq to fill a coffee can.

am i suggesting that the deplorable conduct of the abu ghraib guards is somehow justified by the to-the-nth-power behavior of five of their potential wards? no. if those very five were locked in abu ghraib tomorrow, we would be remiss were their treatment not precisely that prescribed by the geneva convention. i believe with every ounce of my being that our way is superior to that with which we have been thrust into conflict, but that belief is meaningless if it isn’t practiced. may i suggest that if you don’t share this conviction, or think you do while simultaneously holding to the belief that abuse of such men is warranted, then perhaps america isn’t the country for you.

may i further suggest–and this is the real point–that what we see here is as useful a contrast between democracy at war and terrorism, whose very nature is war, as any. what we know of abu ghraib thus far, not what we wish or what we’d like to believe, is that the abuses occurring there were the actions of a few individuals engendered by nothing less than the near-total incompetence of their superiors. a total breakdown in the chain of command. we saw what happens when democracy goes wrong. nick berg saw what happens when militant islam goes right.

already the rats of abu ghraib are scurrying. pfc. lynndie england, who aimed imaginary six-guns at the genitalia of hooded prisoners from behind a cigarette-chomping grin, has given us perhaps the most memorable image of an abuse of power since a guard of a different sort pointed an actual gun at the chest of elian gonzalez’s american guardian. her defense? “I was instructed by persons in higher rank,” which, in the case of a pfc. could be anyone from the president himself to the guy who cooks her chow in the prison mess hall. didn’t work for the nazi doctors and it won’t work for her. enjoy prison, dear lynndie, and i hope your captors are more merciful than ye.

supposing that lynndie’s version is the gospel truth, that psy-ops types were encouraging their conduct with an eye towards more useful intelligence–that rather than a breakdown in the chain of command, we have it functioning as reliably as ever towards nefarious ends–what will come of it? those responsible will be tried, found guilty, and punished. because when democracy goes wrong, democracy fixes itself. free people demand it. when terrorism goes right, well, democracy has to fix that too.

before i ever even heard of the unfortunate nick berg, i thought the response to the wicked goings-on at abu ghraib was blown out of proportion. but now i find something heartening in it, and, what’s more, i find something heartening in the fact that the pentagon feared the release of lynndie’s portrait, et al. you see, at the end of the day, the death of nick berg was nothing more than a publicity stunt. it was a calculated media event, one banking on the opposite reactions of two groups of people: fear in the hearts of americans, and courage in the hearts of muslims. i feel confident that, for americans at least, the terrorist arithmetic is as poor here as it was on september 11th. i have hopes that the arab world will sense the gross disproportionality and respond negatively, but that hope is lessened by the fact that most of their knowledge of abu ghraib is gotten from people who hate america only slightly less than nick berg’s executioners. at the very least, i hope they’ll fear america’s response enough to turn on their would-be provocateurs, which will be good enough for now.

when nick berg was beheaded, his face shone toward the camera and his captors wore masks. at abu ghraib, it was the other way around. there’s something encouraging in the symbolism. it says that however deeply flawed we may be, on balance, we’ve got it right. and however flawed our decision to go to iraq may have been, it’s a fight we must win.

locdog is back from vacation, but wishes he wasn’t.

Monday, May 10, 2004

The Cultural Effete? Amid the high volume sludge on Bushisms Fray, some quality responses to Jacob Weisberg’s “The Misunderestimated Man: How Bush chose stupidity” found their way onto the board. One longstanding view on the substance of Bush’s intelligence is that the office of president doesn’t require a silver tongue. BusinessInterest challenges Weisberg here:

Weisberg is a word smith and it’s very obvious that he is extremely well spoken. He’d better be, too, since his electric bill requires him to be able to do his job. The fact is, however, that if I was to judge Weisberg’s intellect on his ability to do my job, then he could certainly be shown as an idiot.
RelativeTheory follows this strain here, claiming that
I’ve known more genius failures in my lifetime than I’ve known successful geniuses. Perhaps what makes a competent president is some parts of intelligence, leadership, charisma, vision, etc., with the times dictating the importance of each. I’ve heard that Carter is brilliant, but his face will never be carved on Mount Rushmore.
The_Bell rings in, conveying the important distinction between idiotic and incurious:
I think that [Weisberg] is correct in quoting the sources of the President’s mental state, particularly the element of laziness. I once made a similar observation and another poster challenged me, saying they could see no (practical) difference between someone who couldn’t think versus someone who could but simply wouldn’t. However, that distinction is important to understanding Bush’s other qualities (inattention to details, unwillingness to question/learn, etc.) in my opinion. Yes, Bush may have chosen stupidity, as Weisberg concludes, yet it was more a choice of convenience than a conscious one.
But The_Bell clues into the true cultural estrangement between Bush and those cackling at Bushisms:
But to understand Bush’s success and connection to people, you have to look beyond Weisberg’s internalized analysis of the man and instead look at how Bush most effectively portrays himself against the very thing that Weisberg himself represents—the highly educated literati. If Weisberg wants to understand how someone can thrive by being a dedicated fool, he also has to take a hard look at himself to understand why some Americans both feel comfortable with and even admire that choice.
Read The_Bell in full here, and check out hargroveman here who contrasts Weisberg’s invective with that of Clinton-hating Republicans of the mid-’90s. Publius belongs to the school of Bush opponents who believe that Weisbergian rants are counterproductive … and just plain wrong:
Misunderestimating W is indeed endemic among liberals and on the left. This man is not a dope; his rise is not a fluke of luck; and he is not simply a puppet of more clever men.
To see how Pub threads the needle from Grace Hospital in New Haven to his high likability numbers, click here. The_Slasher, in a concurring opinion here, feels as if the whole drill of sizing up Bush’s foibles and alleged stupidity is “irrelevant”:
The only important thing about Bush’s intelligence is that he has learned how to use it to cause others to identify with him as one scorned by “liberal intellectuals.” An elitist to the marrow of his bones … he nevertheless has figured out how to make his critics appear as elitists. How? Because they say he’s dumb, and every other person who went to school resenting the kids in the front row who got the A’s identifies with that.

If Weisberg wants to write an academic article on the psychological directions of Bush’s political life, God bless him, but it has no place in a political discourse.
Two Fray political stalwarts weave a smart thread here, beginning with BenK’s insistence that, “Smart people don’t run for president.” Jack_Baltimore responds here with his catalog of brainy occupants of the office. And kaycee offers up here the theory that “Bush’s SUBSTITUTION of faith for intellect” is a key to his presidency. On-Base Percentage, Fray Style: My favorite post of the week? Courtesy of john_manjiro here. Granted, Fr_Ed is a certified Sabermetric geek, but jm’s formula introduces an entirely new calculus into Frayology:
I have a theory that the quality of a given fray-identity can be described with a simple mathematical curve relating post quality and frequency.

(1) Q = k / (F - n)WhereQ = Posting quality

k = Consistency Factor - a constant which determines the rate at which your posting quality deteriorates. A bigger k means a slower rate of deterioration.

F = Frequency of posts.

n = Post Threshold - number of posts before quality begins to deteriorate. A bigger n means a higher threshold.To help with visualization, I have prepared an example curve for Frayster X. X’s values are k = 0.1 and n = 1. Note the decrease in quality if X posts more than once per (unit of time).
Fr_Ed wonders if a few additional considerations should be taken into account. For instance, should a Frayster’s most negligible 10 percent of posts be thrown out of the equation (á la the East German judge’s score), thereby not penalizing a “Thank You” post?

The formula, of course, prompts the question: Who leads the RPI rankings? Thrasymachus? The_Bell? Zathras? Some possible dark horses—IOZ, Sissyfuss1, TheNewSnobbery? … KA 3:05 p.m. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2004

English-Arabic Phrasebook: By trade, zinya is a sociolinguist; so it is the phraseology of President Bush’s comments on Arab television that concerns her, specifically his use of the phrase, “The Iraqi people must understand…”:

Saying to ANYONE, ‘You must understand … ’ is a conscious or unconscious formulation which puts the onus on the listener, seeks to suggest that it is YOU, the listener, who has a problem here, YOU don’t fully understand something. This is the kind of formulation which BASIC, BASIC diplomatic language awareness should teach ANYONE is NOT the language of ‘winning friends and influencing people.’
For zinya, the problem runs much deeper than mere pragmatics:
It captured EXACTLY what is most dangerous about Bush’s non-diplomacy and inflammatory ‘governance’—He always thinks it’s just a question of arm-wrestling others into seeing HIS view of the world… And nothing captures it more incisively than launching a talk to Iraqis with “You MUST understand…”
For zinya’s complete post, click here. In the same thread, Steve_R offers a really interesting take on Bush’s address:
I suspect that Bush was speaking more to the American electorate through the Arab media. That is, I think Bush may have been more concerned with perceptions here in this country that he was ‘doing something’ about the situation and defending our ‘good intentions’ in Iraq, more so than communicating to Iraqis and others in the Arab world that he was actually confronting the issue of prisoner mistreatment.
Was Bush trying to mollify the  Arab world or merely answering his stateside critics?  Sound off here. Homage to Babylonia: Zathras rips off a solid post here in The Book Club Fray in response to a dialogue hosted by Niall Ferguson and Robert Kagan. In case you missed it, Zathras wrestles with the classification and nomenclature of “empire”:
The various people talking about an American empire mean at least three different things by it.

One is the traditional American view of empire, in which an empire is only such if it claims the right to occupy indefinitely territory of a country not an integral part of itself …A second is the use of “empire” and “imperialism” as a pejorative, along the lines that George Orwell though the word “fascism” was used after World War II. America is disliked, imperialism is bad, therefore America is an empire …Gaddis, Mead, and Kagan seem to be circling around a third view, trying to define an academic definition of imperialism that would identify commonalities between America now and empires of the past without necessarily saying they represent exactly the same thing.
For a more comprehensive discussion of Z’s taxonomy—particularly the third definition which “prompts us to think about our country’s position in the world today in a historical context,” click hereKA 4:35 p.m.