Thursday, December 09, 2004

Blogstorms and Bumper Stickers

This Peter Beinart article in The New Republic has been thoroughly masticated by my elders and betters in Blogtopia. So I'll try to keep this somewhat brief. (heh -- we'll see)

Beinart's piece is thought-provoking, and it outlines the Democrats' dilemma in a useful way. Hence all the hubbub in Democratic circles. And some of his criticisms of the Kerry campaign on foreign policy are on target. For instance, while I think Kerry was right to oppose the $87 billion of additional funding for the Iraq occupation, it was a mistake to justify that vote in isolationist terms (e.g., why build firehouses in Baghdad but not in New York). Kerry should have cited the poor progress of the Iraq occupation, and Bush's refusal to pay for the war by rolling back tax cuts--to seriously re-align his administration's priorities. There IS a way for the Democrats to extend their core principles (such as human rights and the rule of law) into the realm of foreign policy and anti-terrorism. Beinart mentions the Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps: examples of Democratic initiatives that have used economic developments (carrots) in tandem with military power (sticks) and have achieved positive results. And congruent with this approach, there was room for Kerry to attack Bush from the right on his conduct of the anti-terror campaign: Why didn't we finish the job in Tora Bora? Why do we tolerate embarrassing distractions such as Halliburton and Ahmad Chalabi? Abu Ghraib -- WTF? Kerry could've hammered Bush much harder on grounds of incompetence and less than total commitment, and affirmed traditional Democratic values at the same time.

It being The New Republic, though, naturally some things in the article grated on me. Beinart writes, "Had Kerry aggressively championed a national mobilization to win the war on terror, he wouldn't have been the Democratic nominee." That's exactly wrong, as fellow TNR writer Noam Scheiber establishes here. (If anything, Kerry missed an opportunity to reach toward the center-right.) Another thing that got my goat was that Beinart implies that the right has undergone "a historical re-education," significantly adapting its worldview to the new post-9/11 reality. Where's the new thinking? The outline of the Iraq invasion and Middle East "democracy promotion" has been on paper for 10 years or more, and the 9/11 attacks were no lesson at all, but an opportunity. 9/11 energized the right, and it gave them great fuel for propaganda and fear-mongering. But the right has less insight into the causes of Islamist terrorism, and in fact are more implicated in the conditions that cause it, than we are. They have no answers, just tough talk. And fewer scruples about demagoguing and using US troops as political pawns.

Bumper-sticker semiotics is one of my favorite hobbies. On the way to the coffee shop this morning I saw a car festooned with Bush/Cheney stickers, and with the familiar support-our-troops yellow ribbon decal-—and beside it, something that shocked me: a black ribbon that had the letters POW-MIA on it. What the fuck is anybody doing with a POW sticker in late 2004? It's just to feed somebody's persecution complex. It’s ain’t rational. It’s animal.

The country is still absolutely reeling from September 11th: left and right, in different ways. We will be nowhere close to a consensus on what 9/11 meant for decades, if ever. It’s like Vietnam in that sense. In fact, what Beinart writes comparing exit poll data between Dems and Reps and between '00 and '04, is mostly meaningless. 9/11 messed with our heads profoundly enough that our common language is shaken, and what "Iraq" means to people across the political spectrum is hardly worth comparing.

What most people mean by national security is really national pride. Liberals can talk until we’re blue in the face about how the Iraq war is counterproductive against terrorism, and most people aren’t even listening. The whole point of Iraq is animal vengeance—-who cares that it’s misdirected-—and getting our national mojo back. And the GOP is infinitely better at tapping animal instincts than we are. And I don't envy them in that respect.

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