The Politics of Cruelty

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As usual, Will Saletan has some good rhetorical analysis from last night's debate. Chuck Freund's piece from our May issue on politics and "media intimacy" is also interesting to reread in light of the debate.

What strikes me here is that we're getting a Republican version of a mode of thought that conservatives used to love to mock when liberals deployed it. That is, you get the sense reading certain lines of argument in defense of social programs that whether or not they're effective is secondary: These programs are (as Robert Nozick famously noted in an essay from The Examined Life that fueled the belief he'd gone apostate) a way of signalling a kind of collective caring about the plight of the badly-off. Opposition to them is a sign that Republicans are mean, regardless of whether any particular critique is on point. Similarly, any suggestion that some people are badly off because of bad choices they've made risks "blaming the victim." That position always struck me as a kind of metastasis of a good rule of interpersonal etiquette: If a friend calls to tell you he's lost his job because of poor performance or chronic lateness, your first response (even if you might more gently raise this point later) is not to say, "well, it serves you right, slacker," rather, you commiserate.

A similar attitude now seems to be prevalent in foreign policy apologists. The problem with negative appraisals of the situation in Iraq isn't that they're wrong, as such, but that it's somehow cruel to the families of soldiers to suggest they've died for an error. And if you point out that the U.S. is bearing the brunt of the war costs in both blood and treasure, you're debasing the contributions of our allies.

In both cases, independent of which side is ultimately in the right, this seems distinctly unconducive to serious and frank discussion of either domestic or foreign policy.

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  1. Yes.

  2. The worst of it is suggesting the expression of criticism of the effort makes one unfit to lead.

  3. There’s something of a Heisenberg problem here.

    Criticizing welfare doesn’t make the welfare problem worse (indeed, arguably, it might make it better because uncertainty about the future of welfare would reduce its moral hazard).

    Criticizing the war effort does make the situation worse. It demoralizes the troops, emboldened the opposition, and dismays allies.

    Of course, this puts loyal opposition in a ticklish spot. Unswerving lip-service to the president is not an option, but outright attacks start to sound like aid and comfort to the enemy.

    Hey, if you cannot handle tough situations, maybe you shouldn’t be running for president…

  4. I daresay that hearing politicians criticize a war effort is less demoralizing for our soldiers than hearing them lie about how swimmingly everything is going, when you can see right before your own eyes what is really going on. In short, I don’t think it does make the situation worse to criticize a war effort, as long as the criticism is responsibly accurate.

  5. I agree that to many people use political viewpoints as group identity makers and that people refuse to listened to arguments that challenge this group identity. But that is in the main not the case in war. Unlike social welfare policy, the statements and opinions of leaders and ordinary citizens have a direct and immediate impact on the course of a war.

    Morale is a critical component of warfare. Struggles against terrorist are nothing but wars of morale. The entire goal of terrorist is to use relatively small attacks to destroy the morale and political will of a larger population. The public reactions of people in the target population provide the feedback to the terrorist they use to guide their strategy and tactics.

    The war in Iraq fits this mold directly. Like General Giap, the anti-Iraqi forces expect to win this war on the streets of America. What we say here influences their strategy, tactics and the overall morale of everybody in Iraq. The more people here who declare the war hopeless the higher the morale of the anti-Iraq forces and the lower the morale of the pro-Iraqi forces.

    We don’t need to stifle debate but we do need to be aware that were are all players in this conflict. We are not disinterest academic historians discussing events of a hundred years ago. We are instead all active actors in an ongoing war whose public statements and attitudes directly effect the course of the war. We should all remember that when speak.

  6. Politicians and the military must be aware, when fighting wars of choice, of the difficulty of sustaining positive public opinion. A war of necessity will always be supported by the public, while a war of choice must go exceedingly well to sustained public support.

  7. Well, Shannon, this is a free country. One in which people are going to say any damn thing they please. If that’s inconvenient for the government, too bad. The fact that people are going to bitch and moan if things go south needs to be accepted as a permanent condition.

    The lesson here is that the government shouldn’t start wars unless they absolutely have to, because they could go bad at any time. If they do start an optional war, they’d better have a plan to win the war and to win the peace, and they’d better make sure the public’s support for that war runs broad and deep. Neither of these conditions was followed in this invasion.

    You know what you’re getting into when you start a war as the president of a democratic republic, especially one that doesn’t really support your expansive geopolitical vision. Bitching about the bitching, after the fact, is like bitching your tanks have run out of fuel. No shit, Sherlock, that’s what happens when you don’t prepare properly.

  8. Well, Shannon, this is a free country. One in which people are going to say any damn thing they please. If that’s inconvenient for the government, too bad. The fact that people are going to bitch and moan if things go south needs to be accepted as a permanent condition.

    The lesson here is that the government shouldn’t start wars unless they absolutely have to, because they could go bad at any time. If they do start an optional war, they’d better have a plan to win the war and to win the peace, and they’d better make sure the public’s support for that war runs broad and deep. Neither of these conditions was followed in this invasion.

    You know what you’re getting into when you start a war as the president of a democratic republic, especially one that doesn’t really support your expansive geopolitical vision. Bitching about the bitching, after the fact, is like bitching your tanks have run out of fuel. No shit, Sherlock, that’s what happens when you don’t prepare properly.

  9. Shannon:

    Einstein defined insanity as repeatedly doing the same thing in the hopes of achieving a different result.

    As casualties mount, I think it’s unpatriotic not to question how the war in Iraq is being waged and whether or not it is making America safer.

    I’m not a Kerry supporter, but I will say I thought Bush’s attempt to dodge some of the bigger issues by hiding behind this sort of genteel notion that there are certain types of criticism that aren’t allowed because they insult our troops was total sophistry.

    Hackworth gets e-mails every day from troops in Iraq and Afghanistan alleging high-level incompetence. Should he clam up because that’s “insulting”?

  10. Thank you, Cletus. Also, should the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan stop complaining about deadly incompetence because it, in some (always theoretical and undemonstrated) way, helps the enemy?

    When Thomas Jefferson said “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” should he have qualified “dissent” with the word “careful?”

  11. Shannon said:

    We don’t need to stifle debate…

    The first three paragraphs in your post completely contradict the quoted remark. If you are more sensitive to what the enemy thinks than to what your government is doing — which you clearly are — then I’d argue you are catering to terrorist expectations, while those of us who refuse to fall in line with the state mantra are demonstrating a healthy disdain for the misguided application of federal power.

  12. “blood and treasure”

    Please stop

  13. Shannon Love,

    The Giap quote is an urban legend.

    http://tinyurl.com/ywja7

  14. Shannon said: “Unlike social welfare policy, the statements and opinions of leaders and ordinary citizens have a direct and immediate impact on the course of a war.”

    Well, yeah, maybe if the war is an internal one in a country the size of Rhode Island.

    Shannon, do you honestly believe that people of Iraq, both good guys and bad guys, are sitting around watching TV (during the few hours a day when they have power) listening to John Kerry say negative things? Sheesh.

    Or that if they were actually watching GW on their TeeVee they’d be believing him when he said that every day in every day they’re getting better and better.

    Or when they dodge the bullets and IEDs and strafings by American helicopters to get down to their local internet cafe, when it’s got power, they use their few preciou minutes to surf H&R to discover that, oh, say, joe, said something negative about the situation over there?

    Do you believe that Sadr or al-Zaqarwi has a Minister of What-Kerry-Said, who spends his days watching above-mentioned TVs and combing the internet for those demoralizing quotes to then be used to instantaneously turn the course of battle?

    I mean, really.

    Besides, if we stifle the loyal opposition, then the terrorists have won.

  15. jean,

    I think it’s pretty clear Shannon does believe those things. Especially that Minister of What-Kerry-Said part, although I believe William Saletan once held that job and didn’t last long.

  16. Jean,

    Do you honestly believe that our enemies in Iraq don’t know that there’s an election going on in the US, that Kerry is Bush’s opponent, and that Kerry regularly makes negative remarks about the war and the U.S.’s ability to win it?

    They don’t need to listen to live broadcasts of his speeches any more than I need to listen to live broadcasts of Gerhard Schroeder to know that he isn’t a supporter of Bush or the war and that he isn’t going to help. They just need to know, “Kerry’s running and he’s anti-war.”

  17. “They just need to know, “Kerry’s running and he’s anti-war.””

    And what, exactly, can they do with this information? Are they going to get new weapons with it? Are they going to formulate new, more successfully destructive strategies with it? Or are they just going to fight harder with big, evil smiles on their faces?

    Certainly the greatest military power the world has ever known should have no difficulty dealing with hypothetically increased morale among a third world enemy in exchange for the folks at home maintaining, as Andrew so eloquently put it, “a healthy disdain for the misguided application of federal power.”

  18. Certainly the greatest military power the world has ever known should have no difficulty dealing with hypothetically increased morale among a third world enemy in exchange for the folks at home maintaining, as Andrew so eloquently put it, “a healthy disdain for the misguided application of federal power.”

    AMEN!!!!

    BTW, in regard to “How dare you forget Poland!”, I think the real motive for that comment was to win over a few swing voters on the south side of Milwaukee. WI is expected to be close, and so you need every vote you can get from people named Orlowski, Maijeski, and Losinecki.

    BTW, I really hope there isn’t a recount in Wisconsin. Not having lived there for a while I don’t know the state of the voting machines. But I do know the sort of local politics that will rear its ugly head if there’s a recount. Trust me, it won’t be pretty. Race will be a BIG factor.

    Finally, any time somebody says “How dare you forget Poland!” my instinct is to figure out if there’s a Polack joke in there somewhere. So far no luck.

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