The Better Rhetor
In Search of the Good Person, Well Spoken
Saturday, April 05, 2003
Contours of Debate:
Theirs and Ours
Just when you think irony is really, truly, and finally dead:
In a recent editorial in The New York Times, Ethan Bronner argues that the long dictatorship of Saddam Hussein has so degraded Iraqi political discourse that most people, far from thirsting for democracy and freedom, may not understand or even be capable of imagining it. Bronner says that the Iraqi reluctance to greet Americans as liberators, so famously predicted by Cheney, Wolfowitz and others, cannot be explained solely in terms of Iraqi fears of Saddam Hussein. Instead, Bronner writes, many Iraqis actually support Hussein over their alleged liberators, i.e., the United States—a state of affairs that makes no sense to Americans raised on ideals of liberty and free expression:
I know this seems unfathomable [Bronner writes]. How could any people support a leader of such cruelty and megalomania? Don't Iraqis, like other people, thirst for freedom? Maybe, but political freedom is such a foreign concept that most Iraqis have no context in which to thirst for it. The contours of debate within Iraq are so narrow that there is no meaningful way to discuss negative feelings about Mr. Hussein. Indeed, the language of Iraqi politics has been so degraded that it provides no framework for opposition, let alone for what might be imagined as an alternative. It is, as one diplomat put it to me, "like a church — people don't stop to ask if the God they are praying to is good."
There is an important truth here. There is also an irony about as subtle as a safe dropped on one’s head from ten stories up.
The truth is that the corruption of public discourse can limit debate. When you have been fed an Official Truth for so long, and when you have seen others persecuted for dissenting from this truth, and when there are no competing voices or alarms, there may come a time when Official Truth becomes, finally, just plain truth. You begin to believe. You begin, at last, to love Big Brother. Bronner puts it this way:
Part of the explanation is the nature of totalitarianism: millions of Soviets wept when Stalin died. Part of it is the nature of being held hostage. Iraq is a nation of Elizabeth Smarts.
The Elizabeth Smart reference is regrettable—a gratuitous & foolish remark—but I think Bronner is essentially correct. The degradation of political discourse can make it hard for many people to think thoughts that are contrary to Accepted Truth. (Of course the opposite is equally possible: Many Iraqis may harbor convictions that are poorly understood by Saddam Hussein and Ethan Bronner, and which will be the basis of a vibrant civic discourse. We assume what Iraqis "think" and "believe" at great risk.)
Either way, it is not hard to see that language is the basis of our reality, shaping who we are, what we believe, and what we can imagine in the world. And it is not hard to see that for many Iraqis such questions have always been framed in the language of Saddam Hussein. And this would indeed corrupt healthy public discourse.
But the irony here, well, you wonder how Ethan Bronner missed it. We in the U.S. are, of course, a people who pride ourselves on our freedom of expression and fierce individuality. That’s part of our mythos, our ideology. But we are also—increasingly and more stridently—a nation of Official Truths that narrow debate and corrupt thinking.
It is not permissible, for example, to discuss in our major media the question of whether George Bush is a war criminal and a terrorist, a man responsible for the murders of children and parents in Iraq. That’s the view of many people around the world, but we do not seriously discuss such things here. It’s beyond the pale. It’s not "rational discourse." Nor is it permitted to sustain a discussion in the major media of whether the current war is just the latest manifestation of a genocidal foreign policy that has resulted in the suffering of millions of people across the world, from the Philippines, to Vietnam, to Guatemala, to Iraq.We do not discuss such things on shows like 60 Minutes or 20/20. Such conversations are beyond the borders of Acceptable Discourse.
Are such claims—made by people across the world—actually true? Is George Bush a terrorist? Has U.S. foreign policy been the cause of enormous suffering and death? In terms of our public discourse, it doesn’t matter. Such ideas are so far outside the boundaries of Accepted Truth that we cannot even begin to address them. To quote Ethan Bronner again, "The contours of debate . . . are so narrow that there is no meaningful way to discuss" the uncomfortable or the subversive.
Instead, we are seeing an ever more aggressive enforcement of acceptable truths: The Dixie Chicks ostracized for criticizing the president (in a campaign apparently orchestrated by a major corporation); shoppers arrested for wearing the anti-war t-shirts in public malls; journalists fired for expressing the wrong views. (Does anyone really think Peter Arnett would have been sacked if he praised U.S. policy rather than criticized it? Would his "judgment" and "objectivity" have been questioned? Or wuld he have been celebrated for his "courage" and "clarity"?)
Bronner finishes his column by writing, with seeming exasperation, that Iraqis cannot even understand all that we are currently doing for them in this war:
They believe that the United States, which has led the international boycott of their country, has been keeping them down for the past 12 years. Tell them the same country has decided to spend billions and risk its young people to liberate them, and they will probably have no idea of what you might be talking about.
They believe our sanctions have been killing them. They don’t realize we are liberating them. Their contours of debate are too narrow, according to Ethan Bronner. It's the White Man's Burden revisited: They don't understand we are killing them for their own good.
The people of Iraq may well need a new language for their public discourse. They'll need a great many things once Saddam Hussein is gone. But I'm more worried about the public discourse in our country, and how we will find the language to question our own versions of Official Truth.
What to do in a Terrorist Attack!
(Helpful Hints from the Dept. of Homeland Security)
"Hurricanes, animal corpses and the biohazard symbol have a lot in common. Think about it."
For more invaluable advice, go here!
Blacks Showing Decided Opposition to War
From the GALLUP NEWS SERVICE:
The beginning of war with Iraq brought about a rally in support for military action, from percentages in the high 50s prior to the breakdown of the diplomatic process to the current 71% who say they favor the war. A closer look at the data from two Gallup Polls conducted since the war began shows that a majority of most demographic groups favor the war, with two exceptions being blacks and ideological liberals. Opposition among blacks is especially widespread, at 68%.
Maybe this would be a better country if everyone were black.
Friday, April 04, 2003
More Christian Peacemaker Team Members Leaving Iraq
For my money, the truly Hard Cases in this war, the toughest of the tough nuts, are neither the soldiers from either side, most of whom are poor and working class kids caught up in the violent fantasies of the powerful, nor the various Special Ops types, the SEALS, Rangers, and other practitioners of the military black arts, and certainly not the celebrity journalists who doff army helmets and flak jackets so they may stand before a camera to parrot the jargon of the American military.
No, the hardest of the Hard Core, to my mind, are the members of the Iraq Peace Team, who have chosen to remain in Baghdad throughout the bombing as witnesses to the mechanized carnage of modern war. They are neither invaders ("liberators," if you prefer) nor defenders, and they certainly aren’t hanging around to enhance their careers. Instead, they are living through the war to testify to its effects on ordinary people, most them desperately poor and all of them at risk.
Some of this team is leaving now as food is getting scarce and resources limited. Here’s a report, filed from Baghad a few days ago. Scott Kerr, interviewed in this report, has since left Baghdad.
On April 1, members of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq and the Christian Peacemaker Team delegation to Iraq arrived in Amman, Jordan. On the trip from Baghdad they saw many civilian cars, buses, ambulances and houses that allied bombing runs had destroyed.
Only Clear Being There:
Jelaluddin Rumi was a poet born in 1207 in the area today known as Afghanistan. He began life as a scholar but then encountered the wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz.
"What I had thought of before as God," Rumi said afte this encounter, "I met today in a person."
Rumi later founded the Mevlevi Order of dervishes, better known as the Whirling Dervishes of Sufism. In this order, one achieves ecstasy, or union with God, turning movements, body posturing, mental focus, and sound.
New York poet Dan Marsh sends along one of Rumi’s poems:
I honor those who try
to rid themselves of any lying,
who empty the self
and have only clear being there.
Tuesday, April 01, 2003
One War, Two Languages, One Speech
Remarks by Bush on Homeland Security and an e-mail from Cathy Breen, one of the Iraq Peace Team, members of which have stayed in Baghdad throughout the war to act as witnesses. I have interspersed these two texts, combining two languages to make one speech. You can, no doubt, figure out who’s who in the following excerpts.
In 11 days coalition forces have taken control of most of western and southern Iraq. In 11 days we've seized key bridges, opened a northern front, achieved--nearly achieved complete air superiority and are delivering tons of humanitarian aid.
This is my first posting after a long trip and hiatus from this site. I’d planned to write much more tonight, but reading this again has taken all my words away.