« A Primer on Workers Comp. | Main | Carnival of the Capitalists »

Before We Argue - Lets See If We Are Living In The Same Universe

Back some years (decades, eek!) ago when I was in college, I used to really burn hot in political arguments. I could not let any statement go from anyone without an argument. And, being a libertarian, I could always find something to disagree with someone about. Since then I have mellowed a lot, and can let a lot of things pass.

Today, its hard to resist arguing about the war in Iraq, but I often find myself in the odd position of opposing the war in Iraq but disagreeing with most of the premises and assumptions of other people I meet who are opposed to the war. Though I oppose the war, I find myself sharing assumptions about the world that are more prevalent among proponents of the war. This might have made me uncomfortable at one point of my life, but as a small-government individual-rights libertarian you get used to this kind of thing, after seeing everyone argue if the government should be in the boardroom (Democrats and increasingly Republicans) or the bedroom (Republicans and some Democrats) or both (Pat Buchanan).

Over time, I have devised a couple of tests to get at these conflicting assumptions. These tests have evolved over time but they seem to retain their power to sort out people who are operating in an alternate reality.

Here are the two tests, in their current form (though longer for this print edition). In each case, choose either A or B, based on which seems more correct to you. Elements of both A and B will have been true from time to time and in isolated incidents. Try to choose which represents the fundamental truth to you.

1. On America

A. Over the last 100 years, America has, by a wide margin, been the world's single greatest force for good, in terms of promoting freedom, democracy, and individual rights. By defeating totalitarianism in Germany, Germany again, and the Soviet Union, and attempting to check its spread in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, and any number of other countries, the United States has nearly single-handedly been responsible for the success of plurality in the world today. Going forward, the US, given its ideology and its relative military and industrial power, is in the single best position to make the world a better, safer place and is probably the only real hope available to peoples living under totalitarianism today. As its economy grows, the US and its corporations continue to bring prosperity to more and more people around the world. This is not to say that the US is perfect, and, as it is governed by fallible humans, has made mistakes in the world. These mistakes tend to be exceptions, and are generally corrected over time.

B. The United States represents the greatest source of instability, grief, and misery in the world today. Its corporations bring misery to the poor the world over, greedily forcing the poor out of the rural lives they have known for centuries into low-paying sweatshops. The imperialist American military mostly acts at the beck and call of these wealthy interests, attacking or threatening countries to gain access to their natural resources or to protect their commercial interests. The American military has no qualms about waging brutal campaigns in countries like Kosovo and Iraq that kill thousands of innocent civilians who just want to live in peace. American adventurism is primarily responsible for creating most of the terrorist organizations in the world, who rise up in opposition to US hegemony.

2. On Our Enemies.

A. The Islamic fundamentalist terrorists we face, and the countries that harbor them, are among the most brutal totalitarians in modern history. The societies they come from and want to spread to the rest of the world are horribly repressive. Most are effectively apartheid states, keeping their female population more thoroughly suppressed than blacks ever were in South Africa. Their terrorists have no desire to live in peace and harmony with the rest of the world. And, like any bully, they understand only violence and react to weakness and conciliation with more forceful attacks.

B. Muslim insurgents are driven to violence as a last resort because of the indignities forced on them by America and her allies (particularly Israel). America and Israel have waged brutal oppressive war on the Islamic people for decades, leaving millions of Palestinians homeless and killing and disrupting the lives of Arab people who just want to live in peace. While many Muslim nations are not exactly democratic, they have the kind of government that they want, and most of their people are not ready for democracy. If the Americans gets their military out of the Middle East and Israel will finally give up sufficient territory to the Palestinians and stops taking preemptive action against Palestinian government officials under the guise of anti-terrorism, then most terrorist activity would stop.

Obviously these are closely correlated questions, so most people are either A-A or B-B. I have found that as an A-A, it is very difficult to argue with a B-B, because we start with such fundamentally different views of the world.

By the way, this does not mean that all A-A's will agree. Far from it. For example, while I supported the war in Afghanistan, I have never been comfortable that the Iraq invasion was the right next step in fighting terrorism. The war in Iraq strikes me as a lot of time and effort and money to neutralize a country that is not necessarily even in the top 5 remaining sponsors of terrorism. I think we invaded Iraq because we could, not because they were necessarily the highest priority target. Yes, Saddam sucked (please, anti-war commentators, stop defending this jerk) and I am happy he is gone, but there is not enough money in the treasury to cleanup all the brutal dictators in the world one-by-one by military overthrow. Many A-A's disagree with me, and many B-B's agree with me, but for very different reasons reasons (e.g. this whole thing about not having the French allied with us - come on, the French were allies of Saddam - we were more likely to get Mussolini to join the allies against Hitler).

I think that many anti-war folks have gone overboard in their anti-Americanism. I can't figure out if they were always B-B's, which drives their being anti-war, or if being anti-war have changed their perception of the world into the B-B camp. As I observe them, though, B-B's seem to make at least three logical mistakes in arguing their case:

The first mistake is taking historical actions out of context. One can list a a number of questionable international moves the US has made over the last 50 years. In particular, you can rattle off a series of names, from Batista in Cuba to the Shah in Iran to Hussein in Iraq to the Taliban in Afghanistan who we have supported at one time or another, much to our current embarrassment. It continues to piss me off how bad we screwed up blindly supporting Batista or the Shah. However, trying to paint our support for these jerks as a result of systematically evil intentions is ridiculous - in most of these cases we were trying to find allies to counterbalance what at the time seemed the greater evil (in these cases, the Soviet Union and Fundamentalist Iran). The fact is that when we move outside of North America and Europe, and we go looking for allies, their are dang few ethically acceptable regimes out there. For God sakes, we allied with Stalin for 5 years in WWII! Just walking in the door of the UN as a member forces one to accept scores of brutal dictators as one's peers and to treat these thugs as legitimate statesmen. I will say that we as a nation have an irritating tendency to give these allies-of-convenience a complete pass on human rights -- I do think we can be more aggressive about applying pressure to get our friends to clean their own house, but that is another topic.

The second mistake is in setting up outrageous moral equivalencies. For example, while soldier's isolated misdeeds in Vietnam or in Iraqi prisons should rightly embarrass us all, they do not by any stretch of the imagination put us in the same category as our enemies, who are filling mass graves with bodies. Oddly enough, mistake 2a, which I have heard B-B's make in the same sentence as mistake 2 --is to take morally equivalent situations and declare them to be different. While no B-B would ever accept a religious fundamentalist authoritarian society for themselves, they declare it to be OK for those in the Middle East, who they claim are not ready for democracy (which, to my southern ears, sounds suspiciously like what bigots used to say about African-Americans).

The third mistake is one of transference. Many people tend to transfer their own values and outlook to our enemies. They assume that since they themselves desperately want peace and justice, and would never imagine using violence for violence sake, they assume our enemies are the same and are motivated by the same things. The fact is that our enemies are not like us and do not think like us. My wife expressed a mild version of this mistake the other day. She wondered out loud why the 9/11 terrorists, many of whom lived in our country for months, did not, by living in our society, recognize its virtues. This logic might have worked for the average eastern European citizen trapped on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, but it does not work for our current enemies. In point of fact, the 9/11 terrorists were probably horrified by what they saw of our society, the freedom of expression, the freedom and power granted to women, the dominance of the secular over the religious. Living in our free society probably strengthened their resolve.


By the way, now that we are in Iraq, I think it would be a disaster to cut and run - whether we should have gone to Iraq or not, we are there now and need to make it work - we can't run away like we did, with disastrous consequences, from Lebanon under Reagan and from Somalia under Clinton. I am not very happy about picking up the check, but I am thrilled to see millions of Iraqis trying to make a go of democracy, and millions of women released from virtual slavery. It would be criminal to leave these folks hanging, to fall into the chaos and misery that is nearly inevitable without our military trying to keep some order.

Posted on October 17, 2004 at 09:28 PM | Permalink


I would have voted A, then Neither, for the second question. I'd also note that our current enemies are certainly brutal - moreso than many seem to recognize - but their proclaimed threat is outsized. It principally exists because of the nuclear proliferation of nation states. Without that threat, they'd be more akin to the Mafia, though a little less choosy about their targets.

However, in mishandling our response to terrorist groups, and to Muslim nations, we run the risk of helping to mainstream their threat through Islamic populations, in which case, we'd share the blame for the danger they'd pose then.

Posted by: Kevin Hayden | Oct 20, 2004 11:08:14 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.