Blargh Blog

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

What shall we talk about?

Conservatives in America claim to value small government and low taxes, but why do they talk so much about the size of America's government and America's tax rates, and so little about the other countries where taxes are much higher, and government much larger? Why do they save so much of their fury for America? When a prominent American politician has an extramarital affair, Americans talk about it endlessly, yet Americans are oddly muted when a foreign politician is caught sleeping around. Do they have some special hatred for America? Do they get some perverse pleasure out of embarrassing their country in front of the world? When the U.S. economy sinks into a recession, or even when unemployment just rises a bit, it's all over the news in America. Yet you just hear a peep when other countries have recessions, and hardly even that about the much higher rates of unemployment that are maintained throughout the world. Why is it that only America's economic woes seem to get under their skin?

In all three cases, the answer is obvious: they are plagued by moral equivalence Americans. Of course they're always thinking and talking and complaining about America and Americans. That's what they pay attention to. Such silly questions.

There's one version of this question, though, that strikes many people as a deep rhetorical strike. Why do liberals in America talk about the abuses that our military is committing so much more than they talk about the abuses committed against us? You hear it just about any time a liberal brings up Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo or Haditha or any of the other cases. Our enemies have done much worse! Beheadings! Targetting civilians! Take the Euston Manifesto:
The violation of basic human rights standards at Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo, and by the practice of "rendition", must be roundly condemned [...] . But we reject the double standards by which too many on the Left today treat as the worst violations of human rights those perpetrated by the democracies, while being either silent or more muted about infractions that outstrip these by far.
Or here's Tim Sandefur:
Many very vocal critics of the war are so angry about wrongs committed (or, often, merely alleged to have been committed) by American troops and their allies—and yet are eerily quiet, or even lenient, when it comes to the beheadings, torturing, and other hideous barbarities committed by our enemies.
I'll let you fill in the third example yourself with the power of memory.

Despite the insinuations here ("treat as the worst violations", "even lenient"), these arguments are mostly just based on volume. So why do we hear so much from liberals about our government's abuses? Why talk so much about our government torturing people? Because
our government is torturing people. My government is torturing people. Your government is torturing people. Doesn't that hit close to home? Doesn't it make you feel kind of dirty, like you're somehow implicated? Isn't that worth talking about? A lot? Shouldn't we keep talking about it until our government stops torturing people? And of course this doesn't just apply to torture, it also holds for killing innocents, perpetually detaining people without a trial or even any specific charges, and the rest of the abuses.

There's one other point that people sometimes raise against those who talk about the US doing these bad things: is not! (at least not outside of a few isolated incidents perpetrated by low-level individuals). Or, they make the related but more sophisticated argument: the evidence isn't really clear at this point, so we shouldn't be making these accusations against our government without all the facts.

This isn't the place to give a thorough reply to these arguments, but the short answer is that there is ample evidence of systematic abuses, with responsibility going all the way up the chain of command. And the reason why this point is relevant to our discussion is that there are lots of people out there who don't believe that our government has been committing these abuses. Of course we should be talking about it - a lot - because lots of people don't even believe it yet.

Obviously, pure volume isn't going to convince a lot of these people, which is one reason why the more sophisticated argument is relevant. There's some truth to that argument. We really do only know a fraction of the information about the abuses and alleged abuses that our government has been committing. Which is yet another reason to keep talking about the abuses (and apparent abuses) that we do know about. We have to direct attention towards the abuses we know about in order to find out about the ones that we don't know about. Our lack of information isn't just something that's happened, it's intentional. The Bush administration is trying to keep its conduct secret and free of oversight, from the American people and even from the other two branches of government. The way to get more information is to keep talking about it, and to push for investigations. Quieting down won't help you find out more.

To get back to the main thread of this post, it's worth talking about the abuses that our government is committing. And the fact that some other people are doing things that are even worse has no bearing on this. If your were in the midst of yelling at your friend for robbing some lady at knifepoint, and he pointed out that plenty of people raped and murdered and you were beeing oddly silent about them, you'd tell him to shut up, stop bringing up irrelevant things, and (to get your tirade back on track), stop robbing people.

There's a difference, though, between this example (and the examples at the top of this post), on the one hand, and the war abuses, on the other. Unlike the other abuses, which were entirely disconnected from us, the worse abuses in the war are being committed against the United States and our allies. So that does give us a reason to talk about them. And, in a different way from our government torturing people, it does hit close to home when an American soldier is beheaded. So why don't liberals talk more about the abuses being perpetrated against us and our allies?

The first thing to recognize is that this is a completely separate question from "why do liberals talk so much about American abuses?" There is little reason why talking about one would be related to talking about the other. Those who think that there is some deep relationship between the two, or that people who talk more about one than about the other must be treating American violations as if they were worse (or morally equivalent) are just confusing themselves (and many of those who listen to them).

The second thing to note is that none of the pragmatic reasons for talking about American abuses apply to abuses perpetrated against America. You don't get Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to stop beheading people by getting a bunch of Americans to shout stop beheading people, or by getting Congress to investigate the beheadings or issue resolutions against them. You get Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to stop beheading people by dropping a GBU-12 laser-guided bomb and a GBU-38 GPS-guided bomb on the house where he is meeting. In some cases there may be alternatives to bombing, but loud moral condemnation by American citizens is not going to be central to any of those alternatives.

The third response to the question, which would actually be a good first response to just about any question, is to ask: is it true? Are liberals not talking much about the bad things that various Iraqi forces are doing to Americans? A lot of the time we hear the opposite. Liberals (and the media) are always going on and on about all the bad things in Iraq - roadside bombing this, accelerating death count that, "despite this military success the attacks against us are going to continue unabated". Too much gloom, too much about sensationalist violence, not enough of the good news and the steady progress. So which is it? Or, if liberals are getting attacked from both sides (by the same people) does that mean that they must be getting things right?

I think that there is some truth to the claims that liberals don't talk all that much about the terrible things that our enemy does. At least for some specific kinds of abuses, like beheadings, and especially when compared to conservatives, you don't hear as much from liberals. Why not? I don't think that there's the same kind of unified, deep, principled reason here as there was for talking a lot about American abuses, so instead of trying to maintain the narrative thread I'll list some reasons for not talking so much about beheadings and such:

- What is there to say? Any direct response (it was wrong of him to behead that man!) just seems obvious, and any indirect response or attempt at analysis of why this was happening seems to miss the point and the emotional power of the event (and would not satisfy many of the people who criticize liberals for this, since a disturbingly large number would be convinced that you were justifying or explaining away their violence). It's unsatisfying to talk about what's wrong unless you can segue into a possible response, or at least some larger point, but beheadings or torturing of soldiers don't make a convenient jumping-off point for many solutions or larger points that liberals believe in (though they do make a nice segue into the "kill all the bastards" response).

- These are terrorists trying to attract attention by doing terrible, grisly things. Don't they want people to talk on and on about it?

- The most barbaric, most sensationalist attacks aren't representative of most of the insurgency, or the main problems that Iraq is facing. If you pay too much attention to them, you're liable to be distracted from the real difficulties of the American occupation of Iraq and the ethnic conflict within Iraq, and to think that it's just a bunch of evil maniacs who are causing trouble.

- There are a lot of things happening to Americans in Iraq that could "hit close to home" if we devoted some emotional attention to them. Indeed, too many of them for any normal human being to be engaged with more than a fraction of them. So people have to be selective. Why dwell on ones that inspire outrage, anger, and vengefulness? Those emotions aren't fun, they aren't a particularly appropriate way to honor our soldiers or our country, they aren't conducive to clearheaded thinking about the proper responses to the threats we face, and most of us already got more than our fill of them on the eleventh of September (and have them refreshed more often than necessary).

You may have noticed that some of these factors (like the one right before this, and especially the one before that)
could be read as implicit criticisms of many conservatives. Well you're right. These things aren't just happening on an individual level - there's the whole political angle. And it's no coincidence that the President highlights some elements of the enemy and downplays others, highlights some bad things that they do and downplays others, highlights some of our wartime tactics and downplays others, highlights some of the enemies' beliefs and desires and downplays others. Lots of people are trying to encourage certain kinds of emotions and thinking in order to rally support for the President, the Iraq war, the President's view of the war on terror, and a more violent and dramatic approach to our military actions. They'd like to use grisly, sensationalist events like beheadings for these purposes, and dwelling on those events at length (especially in a public forum like a blog post) would play into their hands. (I've described both sides here as if they were being strategic, but they don't have to be - intuitions and emotions often turn out the same way as cool calculation. Maybe those conservatives just feel these things are worth talking about because they resonate with their worldview, and the liberals feel like they'd be talking too much like Bush and his backers.)

So the next time you hear someone make the accusation that it's somehow immoral or un-American to place more weight on American abuses than on the abuses committed against Americans, just tell them this.

Or, I suppose, you could quote them this: "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right."


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