Alex Blaze

Exceptionalism

Filed By Alex Blaze | March 24, 2008 10:40 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, Politics
Tags: Andrew Sullivan, Iraq

I2008-03-24-picsmal.jpg posted last week about Jeremiah Wright's comments that got played and replayed in the news, particularly those that criticized America ("God damn America..."). They were generally assumed to be offensive, even if no one really explained why a US Marine criticizing America is all that bad - we've simply come to a place where any criticism of the US, which is implicit in any attempt to improve the US, is an attack and must just be swept under the rug.

So Andrew Sullivan has written up an explanation as to why he was so wrong on the war five years ago, why he, like most pundits at the time, cheered it on and demonized those who dared to argue that it was either morally wrong or that it would have reprehensible consequences. He gets a few points for being honest (finally) on this matter, and I think that what he's said is rather insightful when it comes to understanding how, no matter who wins an election in the US, the interests of those in power are always protected.

From him:

When I heard the usual complaints from the left about how we had no right to intervene, how Bush was the real terrorist, how war was always wrong, my trained ears heard the same cries that I had heard in the 1980s. So I saw the opposition to the war as another example of a faulty Vietnam Syndrome, associated it with the far left, or boomer nostalgia, and was revolted by the anti-war marches I saw in Washington. I became much too concerned with fighting that old internal ideological battle, and failed to think freshly or realistically about what the consequences of intervention could be. I allowed myself to be distracted by an ideological battle when what was required was clear-eyed prudence.

I don't really agree that it was an "ideological battle" that distracted him from seeing what would happen with an Iraq invasion and that his use of the phrase "trained ears" is much more telling. It's not that he really considered any sort of arguments against the war (that wars for plunder are wrong, that imposing democracy on a people doesn't make much sense, that two groups that have historically fought each other aren't going to lay down their arms to worship Bush, that no one likes to be occupied) and instead simply heard goddammed hippie talk and took up arms for the other side.

It's something we see all the time with these folks, they're used to working within an established narrative, knowing who's right and who's wrong because of who they are rather than what they're saying, and then making conclusions from there. The only way that opposition to the war could just be "faulty Vietnam Syndrome" is if he was making connections between Iraq and Vietnam himself and then dismissing those on the wrong side of that Cold War discussion because of whatever mental sickness he applied to them.

It's how the Right escapes criticism: if you say something anti-American, then you're an America-hater; if you talk about race at all, then you're race-baiting; if you say something about how women should be treated as equals, then you're a man-hating feminist; and if you think that invading a country and telling them that they're going to have a democracy might not work out that well, then you're just a DFH who doesn't understand foreign policy.

It's a quick and easy response, and it's what we saw from the media and our punditocracy when it thought that it didn't even need to explain why Wright's comments that were critical of America were wrong (not talking about the AIDS comments here).

And when the Right gets us to internalize such visceral reactions, to make them on our own instead of evaluating the consequences, then they win even when they lose elections.

More:

But my biggest misreading was not about competence. Wars are often marked by incompetence. It was a fatal misjudgment of Bush's sense of morality.

I had no idea he was so complacent - even glib - about the evil that men with good intentions can enable. I truly did not believe that Bush would use 9/11 to tear up the Geneva Conventions. When I first heard of abuses at Gitmo, I dismissed them as enemy propaganda. I certainly never believed that a conservative would embrace torture as the central thrust of an anti-terror strategy, and lie about it, and scapegoat underlings for it, and give us the indelible stain of Bagram and Camp Cropper and Abu Ghraib and all the other secret torture and interrogation sites that he created and oversaw. I certainly never believed that a war I supported for the sake of freedom would actually use as its central weapon the deepest antithesis of freedom - the destruction of human autonomy and dignity and will that is torture. To distort this by shredding the English language, by engaging in newspeak that I had long associated with totalitarian regimes, was a further insult. And for me, an epiphany about what American conservatism had come to mean.

I know our enemy is much worse. I have never doubted that. But I never believed that America would do what America has done. Never. My misjudgment at the deepest moral level of what Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were capable of - a misjudgment that violated the moral core of the enterprise - was my worst mistake. What the war has done to what is left of Iraq - the lives lost, the families destroyed, the bodies tortured, the civilization trashed - was bad enough. But what was done to America - and the meaning of America - was unforgivable. And for that I will not and should not forgive myself either.

And digby's response to that:

That is a mistake that Reverend Wright would never make. Neither would I. And not because we hate America or even hate George W. Bush. I can't speak for Wright, but I love many things about my country and being an American is as much a part of my identity and worldview as my family and life experience. I get tearful about the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, which I consider to be among the most idealistic, progressive documents in human history. I miss it when I'm away too long.

But our nation has a past which should preclude any person who's taken a high school level course in American history to believe what Andrew Sullivan claims to have believed prior to the invasion of Iraq. America has a long history of immoral deeds, done by men who at the time we all might have assumed were moral and upright too. Unless you think that Native American genocide, slavery, lynching, jailing without due process, apartheid, medical experiments on prisoners and military personnel, forced sterilization, wars of aggression etc are moral acts, you can't possibly think that what Bush has done is unique to despoiling "the meaning of America." The meaning of America has always been ambivalent and confused. (Thomas Jefferson, the writer of that great document about liberty and unalienable rights owned slaves, for gawds sakes)

Indeed. It doesn't take all that much in terms of knowledge to see through Sullivan's old belief that America simply could not do any wrong and that evidence of evil committed in the name of America, like Gitmo, is just "enemy propaganda." But this isn't about knowledge or intelligence - this is about image and narratives and the emotional and subconscious reactions we have to certain arguments and actions.

Two years ago I taught an evening enrichment course in Hennebont, France, for adults who wanted to read American literature. They wanted to talk about the war, of course, about why America went ahead with it when it was such an obviously bad idea. I printed up some Thomas Frank articles and we had a good discussion, but they kept on going back to the idea that many Americans were fooled because of the complete failure known as the American educational system (and for all the America-haters reading this, no, it's not, and I've seen enough of "the best educational system in the world" to know it ain't all that).

It's hard for many in the American left to understand that American politics doesn't work on arguments and evidence; rather it's a system of competing narratives and power. And fortunately one of the wars most ardent cheerleaders just lay it all right out for us - it had very little to do with arguments and a whole lot to do with judgment clouded by an exceptionalist Teflon the Right has sprayed over everything that could question their position of power.

Even Sullivan's post still shows vestiges of this, calling his behavior leading up the war "unconservatism," since conservatism isn't anything besides what conservatives like, and when they don't like it anymore it isn't conservative anymore. But at least he's transparent about his reasons for supporting this war now that it doesn't matter much anymore other than for us to try to learn something from this.

(image from Nico Pitney)


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I think you are being a little hard on Sullivan, who is guilty more of gullibility, than anything else.

There are many in this country who, warts and all, believe in the ideals of america, and what it stands for. Most people will pick a side and let the leaders on that side tell them what is right and what is going on. In their own way they are just as idealistic as many on the left, who will also do the same thing, pick a leader and follow blindly.

Conservatives after 9/11 looked to the bush administration for guidance. Face it, right after 9/11 bush actually showed some leadership, enough to fool the right into thinking he might actually know what he was doing. His first moves against Afghanistan was supported by many around the world, and seemed to be a bold first stroke in the "war on terror".

It was enough to make those who should have known better complacent, and willing to allow bush to conduct the war as he saw fit. When opposition arose against attacking iraq, it was simple to plant the idea that this was the same sort of thing that 'lost' vietnam. Since many conservatives had never forgiven the left for "losing" that war, they just fell for bush's
rhetoric and lies more easily. (yeah I know, there was no freaking way america could have won vietnam without resorting to nuclear weapons and the complete destruction of north vietnam and it's people.)

Defeating Saddam's army was the easy part. Despite what bush might have said, the embargo had worked, Saddam had little in the way of modern armor and weapons, no airforce, and of course, no wmd's. The conservatives start congratulating themselves on a job well done, and figure now we can bring democracy to the iraqi's while making a hefty profit on the side. So what if there are no wmd's, a stroke of the pen, and the mission chenges to bringing democracy to the middle east.

They put a fool in charge, who disbands the only organization in the country that has a chance of keeping the peace, blindly get rid of everyone who would know how to run things, put more idiots in charge of things that they have no idea how to run, and then do not even plan for the possibility of an insurrgency.

Mission accomplished my pretty little white a$$.

All invading iraq has done is put a big target on american soldiers and a big sign saying
"come this way to kill americans". Who needs a plane ticket and a way to sneak into the US when we send our people over there to be targets in alquida's shooting gallery. We have ruined the readiness of our military, sunk lives and treasure into a botomless pit, and made enemies of pretty much everybody.

And just now the conservatives are starting to catch on that, maybe bush was pretty stupid to start a war that he isn't able or willing to finish.

You have to give sullivan credit for finally coming around and realising that, not only was he screwed, but bush didn't even use lube, or kiss him.

Well put, Diddly.

America has never lived up to the founding ideals. We just keep trying; keep pushing in the right direction. Slowly, true. Too slowly. But the Bush administration obviously chose a different path.

As far a being screwed, it's not yet in the past. And the consequences have only just begun. Collectively, we share in the guilt. Too few cried "stop". And too many just spread open their legs. And as obscene as that imagery may seem, it pales in comparison to the reality.

And we still have to pay for the indiscretion.

Does anyone besides me wonder why Kucinich was unsuccessful in his effort to impeach Cheney? Why Congress treated that effort like a joke? And why it didn't include Bush? Why does a people reward their oppressors and ridicule those with the courage to defend us? It all makes me very very tired.


Michael Bedwell | March 25, 2008 11:51 AM

If there is any error in his comments, it's not that Alex is being too hard on Sullivan. It's that he's being too easy on Jeremiah Wright.

Having been a Marine does not mean Wright can’t also be wrong; that he isn't a black racialist whose calendar still reads 1859 and a dimwitted contributor to the destruction of his own people by perpetuating conspiracy theories that cause many to make the worst choices when it comes to their and their loved ones' health—from refusing to vaccinate their children to refusing to use condoms [see Rand Corporation study at http://rand.org/news/press.05/01.25.html]

For all the real good he did do, Wright was ultimately a one-eyed king who, despite all pretenses to the contrary, built his kingdom more upon preaching dead end victimhood than self worth and self actualization.

Why not "too hard" on Sullivan? He may have finally gone through a type of political puberty on Iraq and Bush, but, as Alex puts it so well, Sullivan, for all of his self-imagined and ascribed brilliance, was willfully deaf, dumb, and blind to everything that went before. If he loves everything that America ever did up until Iraq the Sequel then he must think his native Britain's colonialism was the cat's meow.

And just because he finally came to experience his own "shock and awe," just because a light finally went on in the fat head of the pretender to the throne of Einstein that has been burning brightly in the heads of what a tinpot Tory like Sullivan would probably consider “commoners” since long before the first bomb fell on Bagdad, we must not suddenly ignore the many other areas in which he remains a dangerous punditocrat armed with columns in "The Advocate," "The Atlantic Monthly," a book contract, and a warm waiting chair on the sets of every talking heads show from Bill Maher to Chris Matthews.

First, I’ve yet to see any evidence that his idol Obama is anything to him but an exception to the racist theories that Sullivan has promoted in the past such as the
“blacks are genetically stupid” fake science of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray [“The Bell Curve”] whose work he praised when he was editor of “The New Republic.” Is devout Catholic Andrew giving Obama a dispensation simply because he’s only half black, or is it simply "anyone—even an African American—but Hillary"?

Is Sullivan any less of a hypocrite today than when he was when demonizing gay men for their ”libidinal pathology" AND.....drum roll......Pres. Clinton for his "sexual recklessness” while, despite being HIV+, trolling the Net as “RawMuscleGlutes” for bareback “bi-scenes, one-on-ones, three-ways, groups, parties, orgies and gang bangs" but no "fats and fems"?

Would privileged male Sullivan no longer overturn “Roe v. Wade” and does he no longer believe that job protections bills like ENDA create unfair "special rights"? Would he no longer say that “the push for gay employment rights is unconvincing and whiny. ...gay men and lesbians suffer no discernible communal economic deprivation and already operate at the highest levels of society"? [Yes, he kinda supported a trans-inclusive ENDA but that appeared to be more about using it as an excuse to bash HRC than any change of cold heart on legal job protection for any of us.]

Does he no longer believe that “AIDS is over,” that we have seen the "end of the plague"? Has he stopped viewing it solipsistically through the eyes of a wealthy white male British import with easy access to doctors and anti-retrovirals and begun to see the tens of millions of poor, infected people of color around the world even if they might be, per his featured author Murray, "genetically inferior"?

And just because he’s throwing mea maxima culpas around now for the way he attacked any who dared disagreed with him about Iraq and the Bush Reich is there any reason to believe that the next person who disagrees with him about whatever will not, as described by a writer at Salon, be treated to “Sullivan's Taliban style of argument and his rigid habit of separating the world into the blessed and the damned [that] turns American politics into a free-fire zone where any deviation from his view of the national program is immediately leveled”?

People like Sullivan are no more capable of being “gullible” than a piranha is capable of becoming a vegetarian.

I think that if anything I was far too easy on Sullivan. The dude's a power sycophant who can't see past his hero worship, no matter the object of that affection (Reagan, Thatcher, Bush, Obama). He's either incredibly stupid (I refuse to believe that), or he's somehow just programmed to worship people and ignore their possible flaws.

His libertarian style argumentation, complete with an over-reliance on abstract principles that always seem to benefit those in power, is annoying, but even worse has to be the importance he places on pundit values - "civil" discourse, bipartisanship, color-blindedness, masculinity, sexual purity - in place of things that Americans actually value - economic security, equality, justice.

He's a professional chatterer whose history is that of (possibly willful) gullibility. It's alright if he's just gullible, I agree, but that's not a quality we should be looking for in journalists.

MB~ Your links broken.

But all in all, I don't really care about what Wright said. I'm much more concerned with the media's reaction to it.

Michael Bedwell | March 25, 2008 3:19 PM

Thanks for addressing broken link due to bracket. Working link to "Study By Rand And Oregon State University Finds Conspiracy Beliefs Among African Americans Deter Condom Use":

http://rand.org/news/press.05/01.25.html

As for "But all in all, I don't really care about what Wright said. I'm much more concerned with the media's reaction to it," is that not the same as beginning with the premise that you agree with him at least in major part? Otherwise why be concerned about the media's reaction at all?

I agree with him that America isn't perfect, that in general the experiences of Black people differ significantly from those of white people, that the American media let's people in power off the hook when it comes to human rights abuses, and that 9/11 was directly related to US foreign policy, to name a few things. I disagree with him on his conspiracy theorizing around AIDS and drugs and the whole Jesus-is-our-savior thing (I'm not a Christian).

But the point isn't whether I agree or disagree with him on every little thing, just as I don't see that as being the point with Obama either. People, no matter how close they are emotionally or politically, are going to disagree. It's inevitable. What I'm concerned with is the fact that anyone who uses colorful language like "God damn America," which others have pointed out is strikingly similar to language used by Jesus, who questions American foreign policy, or who appears to be an angry Black man, gets the substance of their message erased and is written off as a fringe element, while someone like Pat Buchanan is regularly on the McLaughlin Group and MSNBC as a respected commentator. I'm also concerned, and I didn't write about it in this post, with how the media focused almost exclusively on white people's comfort with Wright's words, instead of substantive truth (they actually do have fact-checking departments), their impact on people of color, and what it means that large numbers of people take time out of their schedules each week to hear sermons like that all over the country.

Thanks for updating the link.

Wright has been overly criticized for his comments. As I have previously stated, most of Wright's comments were correct. They could have been expressed with more compassion and less venom...but for the most part I believe he was correct. This nation carries the burden of many past sins...and we go on repeating the same mistakes.

An article was just published in salon.
http://www.salon.com/opinion/kamiya/2008/03/25/rev_jeremiah_wright/index.html?source=newsletter
MB, I am sure it will provide something for you to comment on. IMHO, it is pretty close to on the money. I am not a flag waver, though. i am a veteran of a war, and I believe in the ideals of this nation more than i worship the reality. It will be interesting to see how others respond. be well...

Michael Bedwell | March 25, 2008 6:32 PM

Interesting essay, Jerindc. Would you be surprised that the author has also written,

“if Obama weren't black, he would not be the Democratic front-runner. .... Obama's blackness is his indispensable asset. Without it, he would not have a snowball's chance in hell of being elected president. ... This does not mean he's not qualified. He is—and if he weren't, he wouldn't have a chance to be elected either. I support Obama for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with his race. ... But if Obama were a white junior senator from Illinois with the same impressive personal and professional qualities -- the same intelligence, empathy, speaking skills, legislative tenure and life story -- there'd be no way he'd have the name recognition to mount a major campaign in the first place. And if he did manage to run, it's unlikely he would have inspired such a passionate and widespread following.”
- http://www.salon.com/opinion/kamiya/2008/02/26/obama

We hope Geraldine Ferraro is still enjoying the humongous bouquet of flowers he surely sent her.

As for this piece, IMNSHO he and you make much the same analytical mistake that Alex does— though I think that Kamiya, drunk on Obama Juice [yes, that's what his inner circle have actually called it for years], is, unlike you and AB, also trying primarily to change the subject.

The issue is not that Jeremiah Wright did not say some true things; not that other, more nationally known extremists from the Right rant with impunity while he is damned. The point is that two wrongs don't make a Wright.

Much as most early gay activists never conceived at the time of legal "gay marriage," when I participated in my first ever demonstration—against racist Gov. George Wallace when he ran for President—I doubt if imagining a black President was rattling around in my naive little head. But I didn't need Wallace bringing his campaign to ISU's campus to inform me about the depths of racism in either Alabama or Indiana.

And Wright's having been a Marine makes his comments about the US no more insightful, no more beyond criticism, than my having been indicted by a federal grand jury for refusing induction.

Wright's language is no more simply "colorful" than is the N-word. The context in which Isaiah Washington referred to TR Knight as a "faggot" [it wasn't even to Knight but about him] doesn't minimize its bigotry. I'm quite confidant that basketballer Tim Hardaway didn't simply pull up in his Mercedes to the McBigot Drive Thru Window and say, "Hmmm. I’ve never seen that before. I’ll have a double “I hate gay people” with Biggie Fries and an Extra Large “It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States." Such beliefs were as inculcated in him as Wright’s experiences with Jim Crow. And those facts might explain but they do not EXCUSE either Hardaway or Wright....or Buchanan or Dobson or Fred Phelps. A line must be drawn somewhere and it is neither racist nor reactionary to draw it in the same place for Jeremiah Wright as we’d draw it for Buchanan, et al.

As Christopher Hitchens—who BTW thinks Samantha Power should not have been forced to resign from Obama’s campaign for “simply stating the truth” about Sen. Clinton—put it in another Salon piece, ‘The statements of clergymen like Jeremiah Wright aren't controversial and incendiary; they're wicked and stupid.”

- http://www.slate.com/id/2187277

OMG! MB, you wrote a whole essay, complete with a biography! but after all that...what is your point? you make a lot of digs, but what do you think? in three simple paragraphs would be great...

ps- i am surprised about that other comment.