Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Reflections on the recently deceased

No, I'm not talking about the characters in Beetlejuice; I mean Jesse Helms and Tony Snow.

If there are two things the death of Jesse Helms has taught us, they are 1) that the conservative establishment feels no qualms about embracing this monster, and 2) that for the rest of us, it is "ok" not to feel that sad about the North Carolina Senator's death. Or rather, we shouldn't necessarily wish that he had never been born, but instead that he had not chosen to pursue the policies that he did, especially as regards race. The general feeling, among "centrists" and "mainstream liberals" alike, is that the world would have been a better place had Jesse Helms not taken his odious stances.

This is all well and good, but as I was saying to the Sheriff the other night in a delightful phone conversation that spanned continents (and which was united by, among other things, an admiration for Irish whisky), there seems to be some serious cognitive dissonance afoot. Senator Helms' chief sin was to be an unreconstructed racist -- I discount as lacking in anything resembling good faith conservative protestations that he merely opposed the "equivalent evil" of "race quotas." Now, Helms' racism probably resulted not only in extreme psychological discomfort for certain minorities, but also in some cases in actual, physical disadvantages, whether through the conscious barring of minorities from opportunities for advancement, or simple, naked terrorization.

My question is: Is this fault on the part of Senator Helms really worse than the decision, promoted by this administration and approved by almost all Republicans and a significant number of Democrats, to invade the country of Iraq, in the process creating a situation which has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths? If not, why not, and according to what calculus? If so, why is the fact of Helms' racism, which has certainly made many people's lives worse, considered (generally/in the press/in the "mainstream media") more egregious than hundreds of thousands of human beings' lives being ended? (I should emphasize that Senator Helms is of course to be included among such warmongers, and is of a particularly grotesque and shameless type, whose bloodthirstiness predates Iraq by several decades. When told by peace activists of murderous activities on the part of the Contras in Nicaragua, Senator Helms' office replied, "Well, they're just communists -- they deserve to die.")

Now for Mr. Snow. As far as I can tell, Tony Snow is the first Bush administration official to have died in the aftermath of the Iraq War. This fact has challenged me on several levels, and I confess that consideration of them throws into confusion certain of my assumptions. For example, I have for a while now considered the actions of the current administration to be in line with some form of rational thinking -- that is, I am not content with theories that ascribe "radicalness" or "craziness" to their reasons for wanting to go to war. Instead I see their ratiocinations as on a spectrum of thought which falls within the boundaries of what previous superpowers/empires have considered their first principles of action (they are extreme, but they are ultimately intelligible). This means that, barring a few cases of purblind ideological allegiance, most administration officials "know better." They recognize the results that their policies entail, for example, the enrichment of private persons, individual and corporate, by means of aggression and exploitation. They must also recognize that their methods are in stark contrast with at least one strand of American thinking, which is the consideration of policy among free and equal citizens on a standing of mutual respect and honesty.

The mundane dictates of greed mean that so long as individuals stand to gain from such practices, they will engage in them. However, the fact of mortality throws them into stark relief. Once a person is faced with the "final curtain," what prevents him or her from admitting the errors s/he committed while pursuing such profit? There are several answers: loyalty, intransigence, and perhaps even sincerity. Tony Snow exhibited one or more of these traits up til the end, with no regrets.

Am I naive for thinking he might not have done so, that his conscience might usually have weighed so heavily as to prevent his abiding fealty? I'm certainly not suggesting that "deep down, everyone thinks in their hearts of hearts just like I do." That is naivete for sure. Even though several of the everyday transactions of, for example, capitalism seem to me inherently unjust, I don't expect people to feel the same way. The processes are too embedded, people too accustomed, individuals too honestly invested in the supposed justice of the cause. But the especial heinousness of this administration's actions seems atypical, almost prima facie wrong. Perhaps it is not so, and perhaps Snow would dispute me.

I'm at a loss here: Are this administration's crimes par for the course? (In which case "sensible people" might regard them as no crimes at all.) Is the world really so ideological that anything (namely, something of this level of depravity) can pass for acceptable? If not, then why has nothing been done about it? (I don't expect "good" to triumph, but I at least expect it to put up a fight.) In short, what kind of a world is it that we inhabit when the White House spokesperson can go to his ultimate end without a hint of remorse? I'm not looking for a "good" or "bad" world, but one that can merely be comprehended, for better or for worse.


Blogger Robot said...

A lot of excellent points. I think you may well be right, and that it's only a matter of time (or not) before support for the Iraq War looks a lot like support for the inhumane treatment of blacks. That said, I think the existence of American casualties in Iraq coupled with its overwhelming popularity with the American people make it somewhat of a tough sell as something really abominable at the moment.

11:31 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

What is its "overwhelming popularity"? Originally? Currently?

12:08 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

I'm not sure about your point Robs. If anything, our various small wars have managed to sooner fade into history than find opposition (e.g. every US dirty war or Op. in Latin America). Even Vietnam, though seen as a debacle, is still not so reviled as to give me any hope in this regard.

I think that the distinction that makes all the difference for Scantron's question is that it's very easy to oppose a particular, very limited sort of racism, easy without any serious critique. I'm definitely not saying that Helms is only racist in a limited way, he is quite the extreme case, but then again it's always easy to oppose the extreme cases, whereas there's been hardly any serious opposition to pervasive racism in this country outside of such cases.

2:53 AM  
Blogger John Liberty said...

This is dreamland. why are you comparing events in iraq to the treatment of blacks?? do you really think those events are going to be remotely similar in american historical conciousness? its a ridiculous statement. think about that.

is it abominable or overwhelmingly popular? i think this is too big a range being set here. and that is indication to me that you have missed the historical consequences of this administration's "crimes" - this is the new era - worldwide - where blood will be spilled for treasure, an era of realpolitik and nationalism, and of corporate hierarchies in government - as the corporate hierarchy has replaced all other methods of organizing and governance(ah, the effects of unrestrained capitalism). and the big one you missed - is that in the new era the ends justify the means - that human life itself is justified to an end - the war is overwhelmingly popular because people accept the death in the interest of a worthy cause in the interest of the united states(which includes more oil).

this is not the 1960s civil rights movement. this is quite the opposite. you know that.

2:22 AM  
Blogger John Liberty said...

fact u gave such a range of emotions in iraq is indication that you may have misjudged the situation - iraq marks the beginning of a new age with cold calculation as its hallmarks.

i think obama will lose so the washpost article irrelevant - but i do think this young lad will get power hungry - just as he did by gerry mandering districts in chicago. brutal dude.

2:29 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Robot's response seems to me the "kinder, gentler" version of Liberty's "dreamland" pronouncement. It disturbs me somewhat to see a fair amount of this aloofness and "pragmatism" passing for blog commentary, just as my "range of emotions" and "irrelevance" may piss some of you off for all I know.

However, given that this blog exists basically only for each other (or for our own egos), personal ethical considerations and decisions don't seem out of place -- if anything, they are more warranted here than endless variations of "that's the way it is."

I'm not absolving myself of having engaged in this sort of talk; I'm sure a quick search would reveal many instances. But for the moment I'm pretty put off by the response "That sounds pretty good, but how will it play in Peoria?" This is an answer of a sort, but ultimately it's a dodge, unless, that is, you're really at peace inside with the status quo. I don't need to elaborate what's wrong with that way of thinking, whether you live in a time of war or peace, poverty or plenty, past or present. If you aren't asking questions about *what you really believe* and *how you're going to interact with a world that in all likelihood falls far short of your basic expectations*, you're abdicating one of your chief abilities as a rational human being and perhaps living the sort of "pinched and hidebound" existence that a great thinker once deplored.

It's obvious, of course, that even if you think nothing can be done and you can only "observe," the decisions you choose to make within this framework nonetheless reflect whatever additional formulations you've made concerning "the good life," or at the very least "the least bad life."

There, I hope there will be much less proselytizing on my part now.

3:04 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

I'm a bit bewildered about your reaction to my comment, Scantron. I interpreted your post, in part, as asking an empirical question about the injustice of the Iraq War and the injustice of racism and why the reactions to both have been so different. My hypothesis is that, at the moment, the war cannot be compared to such other awful events in American history, because this kind of rhetoric and sentiment is unpopular with the American people. I'm not suggesting that one should therefore avoid such rhetoric. Quite the contrary, and given that the opening sentence of my comment meant to suggest that I agree with the moral tone and outrage of your post I resent the idea that I have descended into mere "pragmatism," whatever that is supposed to mean. Equally curious is your suggestion that my comment in any way relates to that of John Liberty's response. The latter attacked the very substance of your thought experiment while the former addressed these ideas' ability to move mass audiences. I'm not sure how this distinction was lost on you.

As for the substance of my contention about public opinion, I'll get back to that later when I get more time.

7:15 PM  
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4:08 AM  

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