I 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.
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.
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)