Wednesday, March 22, 2006

"It is all lies and false propaganda!"

"It is all lies and false propaganda!" That line by the fictional Soviet boxer Ivan Drago, played by Dolph Lundgren in the propaganda filled Cold War boxing movie Rocky IV came to my mind as I was reading this article this morning. The U.S. has managed to do something which I had thought impossible: make me feel at least a little bit of empathy for Saddam Hussein.

Don't get me wrong - Saddam is anything but a sympathetic character. But that his demise was built on falsified intelligence which placed him in the impossible situation of having to turn over weapons which had not existed for quite some time makes me question further the direction of our country.

This past weekend I finally watched the great film Good Night, and Good Luck. While it depicts events from Sen. McCarthy's reign of terror, it is also a timely reminder of the value treating one's enemy in an ethical way. McCarthy was fighting a real (if somewhat inflated) enemy. And reading a book, Chronicles of Tao: The Secret Life of a Taoist Master by Deng Ming-Dao, which depicts the brutal repression of religion and the desecration of monasteries in China after their communist revolution, it is difficult for me to muster any sympathy, much less empathy, for communism. Yet watching McCarthy's brutal treatment of accused communists and communist sympathizers, watching his systematic trampling of the civil rights which are the foundation of our supposedly free society, I got the distinct impression that McCarthy was a greater threat to the American way of life than communism ever could be.

While McCarthy was fighting an enemy which was within the borders of our country (there were certainly communists in America, and some of them no doubt represented a legitimate threat), he was really fighting the enemy without when he should have been fighting the enemy within.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Letters and Papers From Prison said this line, which I often quote, both to myself and others:

There is nothing we despise in another which is entirely absent from ourselves.

This is perhaps the best encapsulation of the Protestant doctrine of universal human sinfulness. When we focus on the misdeeds of others we fail to see how we participate in those same misdeeds. When we look at the evil in another we often fail to see that same evil lurking in ourselves.

By making compassion rather than purity the focus of his religious ethics, Jesus not only turned the Jewish purity laws on their head, he also reminded us that when we are focusing on sin we should focus on our own tendency towards sin rather than on that tendency in others. When we see ourselves as we really are, as flawed, frail and fragile sinners in dire need of grace, we then have compassion on those around us, who are in the same boat. As such we don't divide the world into "Us" and "Them," because we know that there is only us.

The biggest mistake made by the Bush administration is one of the same mistakes made by McCarthy and his ilk: the division of the world into two opposed camps. This labeling of "Us" and "Them" leads to a number of obvious problems. First, it allows for no nuance, and as such fails to accept the world as it is, but rather imposes on the world an obviously false structure. This is most obvious with President Bush's proclamation that you are either with Us or against Us. You are either on the side of "freedom" (which is anything but free, evidently) or you are with the so-called enemies of freedom, the "terrorists."

Bush has correctly identified one enemy of his beloved freedom, an enemy from without. But he has lumped too many people into that category. Per his artificial structure, if anyone disagrees with his methods in fighting this anonymous enemy, then they are in fact part of the enemy.

This method is very McCarthian - going after the person of the critic rather than dealing with the substance of the criticism. Bush, like McCarthy, is prone to (through his minions) toss out all kinds of ad hominem attacks, accusations, and labels, hoping that if enough of these stick people will be distracted and not pay attention to the substance of the criticism.

But the real moral problem, the most serious moral problem, with this division of the world into two camps, "Us" and "Them," can be best phrased like this:

We (who are part of "Us") are right even when we are wrong (factually or morally).

They (who are part of "Them") are wrong even when they are right (factually or morally).

This is how all sorts of evils - from the suppression of the rights of the accused to outright torture; from unwarranted domestic wiretapping to the falsification of intelligence - are justified. If We (who are part of "Us") are fundamentally right and They (who are part of "Them") are fundamentally wrong, then in our struggle with the evil "Them" we can do whatever we think is necessary to win.

Of course, this kind of thinking, which both McCarthy and Bush have engaged in, represents everything that we thought was wrong with communism. The greatest evil of communism was ultimately that it was a kind of valuing of the collective above all else. Communism (as a historical reality in both the former Soviet Union and red China), in establishing the collective as the primary moral agent, and in seeing the "good" of the collective as the ultimate aim, could justify the trampling of rights of the individuals who comprised the collective in order to bring about the desire "good" for the collective.

[note: this is a standard criticism of Utilitarian ethics, and a pretty good one. But Utilitarian ethics does not necessary consider the trampling of individual rights to be in the best interests of the larger group. Here is a short dialogue I wrote on the subject as an undergrad philosophy student.]

The tragic irony of McCarthism is that it engaged in the same sort if thinking. This was the height of its hypocrisy. "National security" as in the interests of the group, tramples on the rights of many of the individuals who comprise the group. "America" as an idealized collective was defended at the expense both of individual Americans who had done nothing wrong, and at the expense of the ideals which represent the idealized "America" being defended.

McCarthy, then, in fighting the enemy without (communism), failed to see that what made that enemy so evil was within him. He, and our country, would have been better served if he directed his assault on evil inward rather than outward.

President Bush participates in McCarthy's error, preserving "freedom" as an ideal by trampling "freedom" in many places where it actually exists. As he employs more and more draconian methods to deal with the enemy, he himself becomes an enemy to the values which he holds dear.

His treatment of Saddam Hussein in the events leading up the our invasion of Iraq, in which he demanded that Saddam produce weapons which we should have known did not exist in order to avoid invasion, is a way of trying preserve the ideal "justice" by acting unjustly toward an enemy.

This is the danger of hypocrisy: not only is it dishonest in a most profound way; but it ultimately destroys that which it tries to preserve.

In fighting for "freedom" abroad, Bush is destroying freedom at home. In fighting against the evils of "communism," McCarthy brought the worst of those evils with him to the fight. Edward R. Murrow was right when he said that these methods only serve to provide aid and comfort to our enemies.

McCarthy managed, through his outrageous actions, to make communists look like sympathetic characters. Bush has managed to do the same for Saddam Hussein. But worse than that, he has also managed, at least in the Middle East, to make the cold-blooded mass killers of innocent civilians look like just knights of a noble cause.

This is the most pressing problem with the way in which we wage our so-called war on terrorism. We fail to appreciate that terrorists are not born, they are made. There are not a fixed number of terrorist, they attempt to make recruits and converts. And the way in which we propagate our fight against them looks almost like their propaganda, their recruiting videos.

By dividing the world into two camps, "Us" and "Them," Bush and his supporters hoped to force the world to choose a side. But by acting the way that they have, in their morally arrogant treatment of anyone who falls into the opposing camp, they have done their best to make the camp of "Them" look attractive.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that we would be morally justified in becoming terrorists. But I am saying that in the name of our country we have a patriotic duty to oppose those who abuse that name and betray our cherished ideals. We cannot tolerate lies told in the name of a deeper "truth." We cannot tolerate injustices done in the name of some abstract "justice." And while we all should appreciate that security demands some loss of liberty, we cannot tolerate the trampling of freedom done in the name of propagating "freedom" around the globe.

Ivan Drago said, when faced with a criticism of his homeland: "It is all lies and false propaganda!" When I look at the case with which the Bush administration seeks to justify their immoral acts, I have to say the same thing.


Brian Cubbage said...

You say a mouthful! Hey, as long as we're pointing out Bush and Co.'s argumentative fallacies, check out this story, written by Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press(!), on Bush's frequent use of straw man arguments. Per my usual doofusness, I've simply cut-and-pasted the URL for the story into my post:

Mad propz to my man Dan Froomkin and his Monday "White House Briefing" column on for this link.

I'm sure some blogger somewhere is trying to rip Loven and the AP a new one for "biased journalism." To which I say, give it up: Fallacies are fallacies, and when the President argues in this way, it's news. This is years of instruction in logic and critical thinking talking.

Sandalstraps said...

For those too lazy to fight through Brian's doofusness (I like that word!) here's a link to the Strawman article.

Welcome back, Brian. I thought you'd weigh in while we were being invaded by atheists and agnostics. That was interesting. I almost miss those guys. I wonder where they went.

Exbeliever and Formur Fundy, if you're out there and just not comment, sorry for the assumption that your silence indicates a lack of presense. We often make that same assumption about God.

Brian Cubbage said...

But remember that the atheists and agnostics, silent or not, can't really "invade," since they are also "us."

On the Guardian article: this confirms a lot of what we have already come to know since Saddam's regime fell in 2003. But before the war, no one-- not even France!-- thought that Saddam's regime was really coming clean with the weapons inspectors or with the world in general. Google Larry Wilkerson's remarks to the New America Forum (I believe that's what it's called-- I can't find the link!?!???!) and his subsequent article in Foreign Affairs for an eye-opening discussion of that whole issue. So there's a certain Monday-morning quarterback feel to implying that we should have known that Saddam was telling the truth. There was a failure of intelligence involved in the WMD rationale for the war, but it seems to have been a tad more widespread than the war's critics routinely acknowledge.

None of this touches the fine substance of your post in the least, Sandal-man. To that I say, Right on!

Sandalstraps said...

Tom reminded me that Ivan Drago did not say the line I attributed to him. It was one of his handlers that said it. Evidently Drago never said anything nearly that intelligent. His best line was "If he dies, he dies."