Thursday, November 26, 2009

Fear Itself

This morning, while reading The Washington Independent's Daphne Eviatar's excellent report on the death penalty for terrorists, two things occurred to me.

First, there's been much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the right about trying Khalid Sheik Mohamed in New York City because, apparently, KSM said he wanted to be tried in New York. As Rudy Giuliani said, "I didn't think we were in the business of granting the requests of terrorists."

Giuliani's point is of course silly -- as Dahlia Lithwick put it, "Funny, that. I didn't think we were in the business of caring one way or another what the terrorists want from us" -- but let's assume for the moment that Giuliani really wants to follow the principle he articulated. If we shouldn't grant terrorist requests, what would Giuliani have us do with terrorists who want to be put to death, who believe that being executed by infidels will make them martyrs? Would Giuliani argue that because a convicted terrorist asked for the death penalty, we shouldn't execute him? Hard to imagine. So what principle is really behind Giuliani's remarks? And if there is no principle, what's motivating him instead?

Second, a common complaint on the right is that we mustn't try terror suspects in America because doing so would make us unsafe (similarly, we can't imprison terrorists even in supermax prisons from which no one has ever escaped because... well, it's not clear why, exactly, but incarcerating terrorists in quality American prisons scares some people a lot). For example, John "Surrender is Not an Option" Bolton says he's practically ready to evacuate his family from New York if we try KSM there, because such a trial will render New York unsafe.

Let's do for Bolton what we've done for Giuliani -- extract the principle he's articulating, and see whether he's serious about applying it. The principle is: we should deviate from applying our rules of justice if we're afraid that following those rules could increase the danger of a terror attack. Well, what if it's possible executing terrorists would do just that? It's hard to imagine John Bolton or anyone like him arguing we shouldn't execute terrorists because doing so might lead to new terror attacks. But then what principle is really driving him? Or what's driving him in the absence of principle?

There was some spirited debate in the comments to my previous post over my use of the term "rightist." I'll have more to say on the topic of nomenclature in a future post, but for now: if you're talking about rhetoric and policy positions fueled by fear (or the cynical exploitation of fear), rhetoric and positions so unprincipled they crumble in the face of even the most cursory logical scrutiny (like that applied above) you're almost certainly talking about the right -- meaning the Republican party. I don't know why someone would dispute this. You can either embrace it ("Hell, yes, I'm afraid, and you should be too, and with good reason"); or you can disassociate yourself from it ("I'm not a Republican"). What you can't do is say, "Well, that's just George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Steele, Glenn Beck, Hannity, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton, Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Andy McCarthy, Rich Lowry, et al. They're not really representative of the GOP."

One of the things I always find telling is when a person or institution stands for something, but won't acknowledge standing for it. If you advocate torture, say so! Why go all mealy-mouthed and hide behind euphemisms like "alternate interrogation techniques?" Similarly, if you're afraid and think the country should be afraid, too, why not say so? The GOP, by its rhetoric and policy positions, is indisputably the party of fear. And what's wrong with that, if we really ought to be afraid? It's the "Be afraid" rhetoric and positions, coupled with the refusal to own up to it, that makes me suspicious.

More on nomenclature, right and left, next time. Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Economist Again, and Those Funny Rightists

War is Good

I don't mean to pick on The Economist (and I doubt they'd care if I did). I love the magazine. But the oddities are piling up.

The current issue is dedicated to "Dealing With America's Fiscal Hole." In the leader of that name, and in "Stemming the Tide," the three-page briefing that follows it, the magazine proposes a number of ways America might reduce spending and reduce its current $12 trillion national debt. Yet among all its proposals, which include innovative and politically risky schemes like a carbon tax and a national value added tax, and which include a call to cut social security and health care spending, not a passing thought is given to war. Not a single word on the subject in the leader, and only a few lines in the briefing -- lines devoted to dismissing the notion of reducing military spending.

When military spending is so sacrosanct it doesn't even get mentioned as reducible in the service of America's economic health (if for no other reason), something seems amiss. Especially when one considers that our wars since 2001 have thus far cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $935 billion (eventual costs of the Iraq war alone are reckoned to be in the $3 trillion range).

The kindest explanation I can come up with is that The Economist, like others in the media, puts a high priority on war. I wonder, though, why they don't explicitly say so?

One of those Essential Rightist Moments

Here's Bill O'Reilly, declaring, "I don't care about the Constitution."

In fairness to O'Reilly, I imagine he'd explain his remark by saying he was just trying to get his guest to offer his personal views on the matter of terror trials in civilian courts: "The Constitution isn't here," as he put it. "You're here." But why would O'Reilly care about what someone thinks irrespective of what the Constitution provides? His follow-on is telling: "Don't be a pinhead." Translation: "Don't be one of them, one of the out-group. Show me you have the right loyalties, that your loyalties are tribal, and that those loyalties trump your adherence to an objective application of the rule of law."

I like this clip because it captures something essential to the rightist mentality. It's not that rightists don't care about the Constitution (despite O'Reilly's claim); it's more that they don't get the Constitution. They don't get that you can't apply the law through a tribal filter, with one set of rules for your group and another set of rules, or no rules at all, for the "pinheads," or "enemy combatants," or "terrorists," or whatever other designation the tribalist employs to avoid having to apply the law impartially.

Another Essential Rightist Moment

Another incident I like for the way it illuminates rightist thinking (or what passes for rightist thinking) is Obama's recent bow to Japanese Emperor Akihito. Obama's bow precipitated predictable outrage on the right, with cries of "treason," "weakness," etc.

It's as though these people don't know that in Japan, the bow is a sign of respect. Or maybe they know it, but believe the purpose of diplomacy is to show other countries we're so badass we can ignore their customs? That we can disrespect other countries and still get what we want? What do these people think diplomacy is for? Do they have any capacity at all to look at things from the other side? Or are they so insecure that they can only imagine a show of respect being taken instead as a sign of weakness?

Rhetorical questions, I know. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of temperament in America today: one that's so weak and fearful it declares a bow off limits even in the land of bows; the other confident enough to understand adopting your neighbor's custom will be taken as a sign of respect. One, delusional enough to believe you can get what you want in life through disrespect; the other, competent enough to understand that respect in human relations is essential. One, so brittle it's afraid -- literally -- to bend; the other, sufficiently supple to recognize that diplomacy without flexibility is just a metaphor for pigheadedness -- and futility.

Obama's bow was also useful because of the way it exposed rightist hypocrisy. Did anyone who criticized Obama for bowing to the Japanese Emperor criticize Bush for holding hands and kissing the Saudi King? If not, the kindest explanation for the discrepancy is that there's something more verboten in America about a man bowing to another man than there is about a man holding hands with and kissing another man. That would be a tough argument to support, given rightist homophobia, but even if I bought it, we'd be back to the explanation above: rightists are relatively brittle, fearful, and insecure.

Despite its shortcomings, though, the right does have a talent for communication (usually fear-based). True, Democratic marketing geniuses decided to apply the shockingly banal label "public option" to their health care reform proposals, thereby ensuring they would have the world's most boring rallying cry with which to respond to GOP "death panel" accusations. But still, think about it: the right managed to convince significant segments of the voting public that government subsidized health care would be bad for them -- and that trillions spent instead in Iraq and Afghanistan would be good! Even with marketeers as feckless as the Democrats for opponents, convincing people to turn away a government subsidy and send the money to foreigners instead is no easy task. I wish the right would do it for sugar beet farmers, bankers, and mortgage holders, too.