Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Zen and the Art of Big Lie Maintenance

I am beginning to feel like a dime-store Keith Olbermann here, riding my WaPo hobby horse much as Keith rides O'Reilly. But Cohen provides such a target-rich environment...

From the latest:

For many who supported going to war in Iraq, the nature of the regime was important, even paramount. It is disappointing that this no longer gets mentioned. I suppose the handwriting was on the wall when Michael Moore failed to mention Saddam's crimes at all in his movie ``Fahrenheit 9/11.'' Years from now, someone coming across the film could conclude that the U.S. picked on the Middle Eastern version of Switzerland. Now, all the weight is on one side of the moral scale.

But what would have happened if the war had actually ended back when George Bush stood under that ``Mission Accomplished'' banner? The U.S. combat death toll then was 139. (It's now approaching 2,500.) Would it have been worth 139 American lives to put an end to a regime that had murdered many thousands of its own people and had been responsible for two major wars? After all, aren't some of the people who want Washington to do something in Darfur the same people who so rigorously opposed the Iraq War on moral grounds? What if we could pacify Darfur -- immense, arid and without population centers -- at the cost of 139 American lives? What is the morality of that? Two hundred thousand have already died there. Should we intervene?

Pardon me for raising the question without answering it. I do so only to discomfort, if I can, some of the people who are so certain of their moral righteousness when it comes to the Iraq War. I want to know why the crimes of Saddam Hussein never figure into their thinking and why it was morally wrong -- not merely unwise -- to topple him. Raising this question in no way excuses the Bush administration's incompetence, fibbing, exaggerations and the way it has abused American democracy. All that remains -- but so does the lingering question about morality.

This is why the trial of Saddam Hussein is such a calamity. The only redeeming element of this wretched war is its moral component -- the desire of some people to do good by ridding the world of a thug and his regime -- and that story, once so simple, has been obfuscated by delays and antics. We have somehow turned a criminal into a clown. It's a metaphor, it's a commentary, but mostly, like everything else about this war, it's just a damn shame.
There is a wonderful story in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that I think captures some of the current wrongheadedness manifested by Cohen and the other nominally liberal folks who were so gung-ho to go to war in Iraq.
All kinds of examples from cycle maintenance could be given, but the most striking example of value rigidity I can think of is the old South Indian Monkey Trap, which depends on value rigidity for its effectiveness. The trap consists of a hollowed-out coconut chained to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside which can be grabbed through a small hole. The hole is big enough so that the monkey’s hand can go in, but too small for his fist with rice in it to come out. The monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped...by nothing more than his own value rigidity. He can’t revalue the rice. He cannot see that freedom without rice is more valuable than capture with it. The villagers are coming to get him and take him away. They’re coming closer—closer! -- now! What general advice...not specific advice...but what general advice would you give the poor monkey in circumstances like this?

Well, I think you might say exactly what I’ve been saying about value rigidity, with perhaps a little extra urgency. There is a fact this monkey should know: if he opens his hand he’s free. But how is he going to discover this fact? By removing the value rigidity that rates rice above freedom. How is he going to do that? Well, he should somehow try to slow down deliberately and go over ground that he has been over before and see if things he thought were important really were important and, well, stop yanking and just stare at the coconut for a while. Before long he should get a nibble from a little fact wondering if he is interested in it. He should try to understand this fact not so much in terms of his big problem as for its own sake. That problem may not be as big as he thinks it is. That fact may not be as small as he thinks it is either. That’s about all the general information you can give him.
Richard Cohen, like Joe Lieberman and most other pro-war Democrats, is trapped by his insistence that his support of the decision to go to war must be defended at all costs. They cling to that value even as reality surrounds them. In their panic, they spew absurdity after red herring, desperately trying to yank the handul of rice that is their self-respect out of the coconut.

The result is nonsense like the language quoted above. The brutality of Saddam Hussein (a) has never been denied by anyone on the left that I am aware of; (b) had virtually nothing to do with the case for war made by the Bush Administration, and (c) was similarly absent from the published rationale given by Cohen himself way back when. Demonizing Michael Moore for focusing on our crimes rather than Saddam's is just plain silly. When Moore included the footage of Don Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam the friendly dictator, who was the hypocrite?

Cohen actually asks an interesting question: would it have been worth 139 American lives to put an end to a regime that had murdered many thousands of its own people and had been responsible for two major wars? (There is another important question begged here -- whether Saddam was wholly responsible for the Gulf War, but let's put that aside.) This is a worthwhile question, and I think it would be very productive for us to have a national discussion about it. But (a) we did not have that discussion or anything remotely like it in the run-up to our virtually unilateral invasion of Iraq over WMDs and al Qaeda links, and (b) at least as to Iraq, that question is no longer relevant.

And finally, there is the desperation and rigidity in displayed by Cohen's pathetic moralism. This is of course an echo of his "surfeit of altruism" howler. No objective review of the data could possibly lead to the conclusion that there was, or is, any moral component to the decision to invade or to stay now that we have violated the Pottery Barn Rule. But all other rationales have been debunked. If Cohen admitted that this last, best hope was also nonsense, he would have to confront the really hard questions about his own complicity in a disasterous, criminal war. And that, of course, is why his hand still grasps the rancid rice that is his vain hope of vindication. In reality, admitting his error and pulling his hand from the coconut would be a liberating experience in every sense of the word. But we should not be surprised at the rigidity in his thinking.

Oh, and on the plus side, in another recent piece, Cohen has essentially conceded the thesis of my current Raw Story column:
A long time ago, I discovered the word ``serendipity.'' (Possibly, I was looking for another word.) Once I had it -- the word, the concept -- I loved it because, at bottom, it explained why I was in journalism in the first place.
For once, Richard, I am in complete agreement with you.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rove Deputy Peddling False Claims About Pre-War Iraq Intelligence


3:43 AM  

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