Monday, March 20, 2006

OT: How I Got Here

You may have noticed, if you're a regular reader (and there's no reason you should be), that my blog has incorporated an increasing number of politicized posts. I want to apologize for that, since I never intended this blog to be that way, and I'm going to try to return the focus to arts and pop culture as originally intended.

But maybe it would help if I posted a little bit about why this happened. If you look at my old posts from usenet -- the ones from 1996 through 2003 or so -- you'll find that whenever I mention politics I come off as neutral or even conservative on many issues. I really wasn't interested in politics; to the extent that I was, I would have defined myself as a moderate, middle-of-the-road type.

And then came the Iraq War. If 9/11 was a defining moment for some people, the Iraq War was a defining moment for many others, particularly for political moderates who tended to believe in the good faith of political leaders. For here was a moment when something big was happening, and it clearly wasn't in good faith. We had governments and media people arguing that the proper response to 9/11 was to invade a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, and that the solution to Fundamentalist Islam was to topple a secular dictator. Even assuming that Saddam needed to go, the constant tie-in with 9/11 made no sense whatsoever. But, of course, polls soon showed that 70% of people believed that Saddam was responsible for 9/11, and without that, there would never have been any kind of popular support for a war. For a lot of us, it was our fullest introduction to how governments can deceive people without actually lying directly (so they can always claim they never actually said X); you just let people believe what they want to believe, and frame the issue so as to encourage these mistaken beliefs. Governments do this all the time, of course, and being as cynical about politics as the next person, I'd come to expect this. But I'd never seen a government try so hard to keep people ill-informed, scared and paranoid in an attempt to get them to support a war. War isn't a farm bill or a drug law; it's the biggest thing a government can do, and there was something deeply fishy about the way it was being done.

One of the odd things about the run-up to the Iraq War was how rare it was to find, in the media, a critique of the war on practical grounds: that is, the idea that such a war would be more trouble than it was worth. The talk shows were split between people who wanted to invade unilaterally and people who wanted to invade only with lots of allies; the idea of not invading at all was hardly discussed. Even the Chomskyite left had trouble stirring up opposition to the war, because the lefties had spent years objecting to the Iraq sanctions regime -- and opposing the war essentially meant defending continued sanctions. It was left to the so-called "paleoconservative" right, the Pat Buchanan, Eric Margolis types, to make the obvious case against the war, but even those of us who agreed with them found it tough to stomach their tendency to blame the whole thing on Israel.

So who was out there speaking for those of us who felt that it was just a terrible idea -- terrible because, bad as Saddam was, there would be a good possibility that what would follow him would be worse; and also because there was no good reason to believe that the West had any vital interest in taking him out? Not many people. There was hard-ass realist Brent Scowcroft, semi-exiled from the Bush II administration for pointing out the obvious; and there was moderate Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who made a speech in February 2003 which, as blogger Glenn Greenwald pointed out, was almost painfully prescient about what could go wrong with a war like this, and stands as a model of moderate good sense compared to most of what you heard on the right and left in 2003, including the simple point that "The Administration has not explained how a lasting peace, and lasting security, will be achieved in Iraq once Saddam Hussein is toppled."

But, you know, when there's so much consensus on a particular point, you tend to doubt your own judgment. Here you had the war supported by most major spokespeople for both U.S. political parties; by Tony Blair (note: it is an example of how pathetic liberals can sometimes be that some liberals of my acquaintance still admire Tony Blair. Stop it. Every lie the Bush administration told, Blair told, and sometimes originated); by most big media spokespeople -- you get the picture. How could all these people be wrong? So I didn't stop believing that the war was a mistake; but I did retain my belief in the good faith of these people, that they had their legitimate reasons for doing things the way they did them. I don't tend to assume that people go into politics just for money or power (they can get those things outside of politics). Even as late as November 2004, I had an argument with someone who was furious at Bush's re-election. I was upset too, believing that Kerry would have hired better foreign-policy people than Bush and listened to them more than Bush did; but I defended the good faith of the Bush administration in the sense that the so-called "neoconservative" approach to foreign policy was based on a legitimate, if misguided, belief. You can be wrong without being evil.

Well, the last years and a half, which has reduced Bush and Blair to new heights of lowness, popularity-wise, has changed a lot of my perceptions. I don't want to elaborate on the various scandals and screw-ups since then. But what's changed is that I no longer believe that there was any good faith involved here. What emerges from the revised picture of the Iraq war is of politicians determined to exploit 9/11 for political gain. We've seen politicians playing on people's paranoia about terrorism and trying to keep people afraid; we've seen the threat of terrorism exaggerated out of all proportion and various fear-crazed politicians and pundits taking to the airwaves to express their cowardly, childish belief that all rational thought must cease because some Muslim, somewhere, might have a box-cutter. And the final straw for me was the revelation of the illegal wiretapping story (yes, it was illegal, yes, I've heard the silly arguments about why it's not "really" illegal, but it's very, very illegal), the final revelation that these people were treating the metaphorical "war on terror" as though it were a real war, and that therefore the government could grab "wartime powers" essentially forever.

I could take the disaster of Iraq as a sad outcome of a good-faith mistake. But the exploitation of 9/11 for political purposes and power-grabbing has been the most shameful thing I have witnessed in my lifetime from a once-admirable political system. And the transformation of "conservatism" and even "libertarianism" into a mixture of cowardice, mendacity and sheer fantasy has been upsetting too. (Guide to the difference between good-faith conservatives and cowardly conservatives: if a writer uses the term "our jihadist enemy," accuses war opponents of being "pacifists," tries to change the subject to the oil-for-food program, or says that the U.S. needs to "win" in Iraq without explaining what winning would entail, he or she supports the war out of sheer cowardly fear of any and all Muslims anywhere. Luckily there are some non-crazy war supporters out there and I have had instructive conversations with them.)

Three years ago today, as the war was starting, I thought some of the people I knew -- who also opposed the war, but doubted the good faith of those running it -- were over-the-top lefties. Some time later, I thought they were over-the-top lefties for talking about torture and illegal government power-grabs.

Now I know they were moderates. Sad, angry moderates who never thought they would witness something like this from governments they had been taught to respect and even admire.

Like me.

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