Thursday 03 April 2003

Ideas and actions

An opinion I expressed in my previous entry—“If the coalition ‘wins’ militarily, they will eventually lose the war of occupation”—provoked the following comment:

It’s just pure racism to suggest that the Iraqi people are incapable of democracy. Or, if you’re not racist, then please explain why in the world you think democracy will fail in Iraq?

Statement Comment
If the coalition “wins” militarily, they will eventually lose the war of occupation the Iraqi people are incapable of democracy
democracy will fail in Iraq

Given that the only common words in my statement and the comment are “the”, “will”, and “of”, I simply cannot comprehend the imaginative leap (or linguistic distortion) required to make them equivalent.

This style of discourse is, however, the the logical outcome of years of political correctness: instead of addressing someone’s ideas or opinions with counter-arguments, you dismiss them as racist. Or sexist. Or anti-Semitic. Though quick, effective, and infinitely easier than thinking, it is at best intellectually dishonest and at worst an unwarranted calumny.

Why do I believe the coalition (mainly, in fact, the United States) will “eventually lose the war of occupation”?

Because, as I wrote in an earlier entry, “it will take perhaps a half a million troops to occupy Iraq and defend its fledgling ‘democracy’ against a new intifada that will make the last twenty years in Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel look mild by comparison.”

Because I believe that the Bush administration has neither the political and diplomatic skills nor the long-term commitment needed to establish and nurture a genuinely democratic Iraqi government in the face of internal dissent from those Iraqis who remain loyal to Saddam Hussein’s memory and external subversion from the many Middle Eastern states who are deeply hostile to Western democratic ideals.

Because I have no faith in the Bush administration’s ability to avoid what Steve Himmer describes as “another shameful and bloody Chile-esque manipulation, in which the democratically-elected leadership was unacceptable to the United States and was therefore sacrificed along with our ideals of fostering freedoms.”

The Iraqi people are just as capable of democracy as were the people of Chile. I was simply expressing my doubt that they will be given the opportunity to transform a capability into a reality.

I’ll note in passing the irony that the people of Iraq are being promised freedom and democracy by a man whom Ray Davis sums up as “consequence-free”:

Bush went AWOL, and speaks as a patriot; he failed in business, and remains rich; he snorted and drank and raised those who snort and drink, and pushes life imprisonment for dabblers; he lost an election, and became President; he dragged the FBI off his Saudi business associates and some of them attacked our country and Bush hid and bin Laden still hides, and Bush was praised for his bungling; he squanders our national treasury and destroys our tax base and increases government spending on anything that might profit his domestic business associates, and I still don’t see the so-called fiscally responsible turning against him. He keeps inviting disaster, and retribution keeps passing harmlessly through him and onto the nation.

But, let us return to the accusation of racism, which I’ll address by recalling an episode of NYPD Blue that screened recently in Australia (a year after it aired in the US). Detectives Baldwin Jones (played by Henry Simmons) and Greg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp) are investigating the firebombing of an electrical store, a crime for which the Arab owners accuse a neighbor who has obviously held a grudge against them since the September 11 attacks.

As Jones and Medavoy are about to interview the family in the hospital corridor, Detective Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) makes a throwaway remark that “they should give them [Americans of Arab descent] their own hospital until this blows over.” Jones, who is African-American, takes exception to the remark and rebukes Sipowicz, though he later confesses to his Assistant District Attorney girlfriend (Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon) that he’s had similar thoughts himself.

“It’s not what you think,” she replies. “It’s how you act.”

Her remark touched me, since the belief it expresses is so deeply at odds with what I was taught as a child: that thoughts, as well as acts, can be sins. They can’t, of course, since that would make us morally culpable for the murky depths of our unconscious, over which we have only the most tenuous control.

Unusually—since I can’t help analyzing the story structure and the niceties of the writing of any movie or TV show I’m watching—it only occurred to me a few days later what an extraordinary piece of dialog the writers, Bill Clark & Matt Olmstead, had crafted for actors Simmons and Beauvais-Nilon. And with what ingenuity they had devised a way to help viewers of the show deal constructively with the dark thoughts and feelings that had welled up in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

Thinking is one thing, they told us, acting is another. In this belief lies the essence of tolerance: for if we cannot forgive ourselves, how can we look upon and deal equitably with those around us? Between the “wrong” thought and the right action lies a process that David Brooks describes in a passage I’ve quoted before. Discussing Christopher Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters, Brooks wrote:

Hitchens argues that Orwell’s most prominent quality was his independence, and it was an independence that had to be earned through willpower. Orwell was, Hitchens continues, something of a natural misanthrope: “He had to suppress his distrust and dislike of the poor, his revulsion from the Jews, his awkwardness with women, and his anti-intellectualism.” It was through continued acts of self-mastery that Orwell was able to overcome most of his natural prejudices, in order to see things as they really were and champion groups that needed championing. Orwell was always checking himself, which perhaps explains the tone of cool reserve that marks his prose.

All of us, like Orwell, harbor prejudices and anyone who says differently is either a liar, a hypocrite, or a fool. Just as anyone who has traveled extensively will have seen and experienced racism of one form or another. The best we can offer ourselves and each other is to try to emulate Orwell’s practice of “checking himself,” his “continued acts of self-mastery.”

Championing one group frequently requires criticizing another. While I do not resile from my remarks about Muslim fundamentalists and Islamic terrorists, I’m well aware that—as I’ve previously noted—“I need to occasionally corral my instictive exuberance, my heartfelt belief that conflict, and only conflict, offers the key to engaging an audience’s attention.” Though there is sometimes a fine line between the provocative and the offensive, nothing I have written could be construed by any reasonable person as “racist.” My recent entries have been all been written with the goal of contributing to what Steve Himmer describes as “a valuable conversation about how the peace movement should proceed.”

Steve’s own responses to my arguments, with which he finds much to disagree, have been exemplary in their honesty and intellectual rigor. I look forward to continuing the conversation in the direction he has mapped out.

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A successful liberal democracy requires not just free elections, and a free market, but a vibrant civil society. If we could create this balance by brute force, we could have sent the 82cnd Airborne to America's inner cities, put them to the torch, liberated the poor, and established Iraqi Freedom right here in America.

Posted by The Happy Tutor on 4 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

If democracy succeeds in Iraq then we've won the occupation.

Posted by Lawrence Krubner on 4 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

If we were all to be tried, judged and sentenced for our inner thoughts we would all be on deathrow.

Posted by lolacatkin on 4 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour