The Better Rhetor

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."

This is not to say that Iraqis would not want to live one day in an honest, decent, free society. But it is to suggest that they are likely to misinterpret everything about such a plan, at least in the short term. 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.

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.


For faulty links. Think I've fixed them all.

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!

News Item:
Blacks Showing Decided Opposition to War


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.

The team decided to leave for a number of factors, including the fact that food is becoming increasingly scarce. In consultation with the Iraq Peace Team, they decided that Having twenty people doing the work of eight was a poor use of resources. "Everyone in Baghdad is making cutbacks, so we decided to cut back too," said Scott Kerr in a phone interview.

Kerr reported that 95% of street activity has ceased, especially since the allies have begun bombing in the day as well as in the evening. For the most part, said Kerr, the bombing's degree of accuracy has been "incredible. But what people don't realize is that each bombing blows out all the glass from the windows for two or three blocks around the bomb site. That's what's causing most of the injuries. We had pictures shaking in our room and felt gusts of air when bombs fell blocks away. These gusts can blow out birthday candles even when the bomb falls several miles away."

When asked about civilian areas that have been bombed, Kerr wondered whether such bombings were intentional--including the bombing of a school they visited. "In baseball, we call it 'chin music' when a pitcher throws a baseball at a batter's chin to shake him up. Maybe the bombings in the civilian areas are meant to show that no one's safe."

After a while, air raid sirens became so frequent and unreliable that the team stopped listening to them. What made more of an impression was the the Muslim call to prayer coming from mosque minarets on most nights just as the bombs started to fall. "In the middle of the bombing, you are reminded that God is great," Kerr said.

When asked to comment about increasing restrictions that the Iraqi government had placed on the team, Kerr said, "It's like after 9/11 when our government became more watchful of foreigners. This included being more concerned for our safety. They didn't want someone who had just lost a child in a bombing to take revenge." Additionally, the Iraqi government was concerned that photos the CPT delegation was taking might be used by U.S. intelligence. It has been burning oil around Baghdad to make U.S. satellite photography intended to assess the damage its bombs were inflicting more difficult.

However, at the time of the team's departure, they were still mostly experiencing great hospitality and friendship from ordinary Iraqis.The team in Amman will spend the next few days discerning next steps. They are not ruling out a return to Baghdad, and still feel a deep concern for the plight of civilians there. "Like CPTers have seen in Colombia, Palestine and Afghanistan, we have seen that most of the people killed and injured in this war have been civilians," he said.

Only Clear Being There:
Jelaluddin Rumi

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.

By quick and decisive action, our troops are preventing Saddam Hussein from destroying the Iraqi people's oil fields. Our forces moved into Iraqi missile launch areas that threatened neighboring countries.

Many dangers lie ahead, but day by day we are moving closer to Baghdad, day by day we are moving closer to victory.

It is impossible to describe. It is like we are submerged in a glowing yellow-orange cloud here in the city. Our Iraqi friends say they have never seen anything like it. It is eerier than any science fiction film I?ve ever seen. Some say it is caused by a combination of the burning oil and the billowing smoke from the bombs. Both near and far the bombs continue to fall.

Heavy bombing woke me out of a deep sleep last night. Earlier I,d been on the telephone with a friend who told me that in her neighborhood a missile had struck the day before wounding 29 and killing 5. Among the dead was a 12 year old. Cathy, she said, please tell them (the U.S.) to stop talking about humanitarian aide. Apparently this keeps coming on
over the television news. Please tell them to shut up!? How ludicrous to speak of humanitarian aide as the country is being bombed, people being killed and wounded and their homes destroyed!

Our victory will mean the end of a tyrant who rules by fear and torture.

Our victory will remove a sponsor of terror armed with weapons of terror. Our victory will uphold the just demands of the United Nations and the civilized world. And when victory comes, it will be shared by the long-suffering people of Iraq who deserve freedom and dignity.

The Bush administration said a couple of days ago that the war has been successful because so far there havebeen only 500 casualties. I am anxious to get word to you about some of these casualties as I’ve been to the trauma hospitals these last 3 days to see for myself. This is not to mention the trauma of fear and terror of the bombing which has no end. As I write you the bombs continue and the windows threaten to explode. Should I move somewhere else? There really is no safe place.

Let me tell you about Amar, a 7 year old boy whom I saw in the hospital this morning. He has an emergency chest tube to drain blood as he suffered multiple shell injuries. His mother, Hannah, died in the direct hit to their house this morning. He is from a farming village on the outskirts of Baghdad. Then there is Mueen, 8 years old also the son of a farmer, but from another area. He is in the bed alongside Amar and also has a drainage tube. But his is from the abdomen. The doctor showed us a plastic bag holding parts of his small intestine which had to be removed during surgery in order to try and get to all of the shrapnel. His father died in that bombing, and his 6 year old brother Ali was wounded in the head.

The people of Iraq have lived in this nightmare world for more than two decades. It is understandable that fear and distrust run deep. Yet here in the city where America itself gained freedom, I give this pledge to the citizens of Iraq: "We're coming with a mighty force to end the reign of your oppressors. We are coming to bring you food and medicine and a better life. And we are coming and we will not stop, we will not relent until your country is free.

Shall I go on? Ten year old Rusel was wounded in an explosion outside her door. We saw the shrapnel in her chest on the Xray and she too has a chest tube. Her right hand is fractured. I had seen her yesterday and to my surprise she remembered me. We played with the finger puppet of the frog for a moment and I decided to leave it with her. I told her that I was going to tell other children what a brave little girl she is. Her father said Bush said he’d bring democracy to Iraq. This is not democracy. This is terrorism!

Nada Adnan is a 14 year old high school student who came in with a deep gash and fracture to her right forehead. She also has a hunk of shrapnel in her upper thigh.

Some of our folks were present when she and her family were brought into the hospital. Her mother had to be restrained as she was so distraught. A missile had crashed into her uncle’s home where they were staying, causing the walls to collapse. Nada’s 8 year old sister had died as a result. Nada said Is this good what is happening here? How many children have been killed? How many wars they’ve done to us? And we have so much pain? All the countries know that Bush has committed a crime.

After our nation was attacked, on September the 11th, 2001, America made a decision: We will not wait for our enemies to strike before we act against them; we're not going to permit terrorists and terrorist states to plot and plan and grow in strength while we do nothing.

The actions we are taking . . . are making this nation more secure. And the actions that we are taking abroad against the terror network and against the regime in Iraq are removing a grave danger to all free nations. In every case, by acting today we are saving countless lives in the future.

An elderly woman, Fatima, had fallen in fear during the bombing and fractured her hip. She had already had surgery for the hip, but her ankle too is in a cast and her knee is wounded. Mohammed her husband said We are not the enemy or against you. We love freedom for everyman, for every human in the world. Bush is not human. He is the enemy against humanity.

We meet Ali and his wife in the hospital, the parent of four young children. They tell us that they want the war to stop for the children’s sake, for the mothers. They say that families are all leaving their homes to run away from the bombs. They try and stay all together at one of their relatives homes. If we die, we want to die together. Ali works in a food shop, they explain. But all of the stores are closed
and there is no work. No money coming in. The children no longer go to school. All of their children are fearful and hiding under the covers.

And Mr. Bush says the war is successful. Children maimed for life. Children orphaned in an instant. Their homes destroyed. Their young men forced to fight. A peaceful people visited by unspeakable terror and violence. Oh tell me Mr. Bush, what should I do with my anger, with my rage? Can you tell me what to say to the people here when they ask me what have they done?, when they ask me why is this happening?

May God bless you ... and may God bless America.

They know I am from America. As I meet their questioning eyes and despairing expressions I have no words. Mr. Bush, shall I tell them that the war so far is a success. I can only say "I'm sorry" on behalf of us all. And, please God stay the hand of my nation.

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.