Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Democracy Evolutions 3 -- Into The Age of the Santorumites

On May 17, a story ran that quoted Rick Santorum as criticizing John McCain [see post] for not understanding, in the words of the article, "how effective waterboarding and other harsh interrrogation techniques can be". What followed what a field day of Internet commentary, ridiculing Santorum.

I don't doubt Santorum is, as people put it, "an idiot". But that doesn't mean his argument -- or the arguments of waterboarding enthusiasts generally -- won't have a discernable effect on public discourse. Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the pro-torture argument isn't countered with sufficient rigour. Personally, I thought McCain's speech was quite strong. Note, though, that it's not winning over people like Santorum, who want to place the discussion in terms of some weird kind of utilitarian framework.

image source: Wikipedia

McCain is right: if America clearly rejects torture, it takes a clear moral stance. But I suppose that Santorum et al think their own "realism" is founded in morality, too. The anti-torture argument stumbles when it confronts this kind of mindset. 

I wish McCain would also call into question one of the murkiest areas of political morality: the Realpolitik of geopolitics-based war. We still don't know enough about the origins of the wars in Afghanistan/Iraq. Why did the Bush administration act so passively in terms of shutting down al Qaeda before 9/11? Or if that smacks of being overly conspiracy-esque, why did it choose a disordered, half-hearted strategy when bin Laden was first on the run in Tora Bora? Bush once revealingly commented he "didn't much care" where bin Laden was while the Iraq war was revving up. Yep.

art: Finn Harvor

Waterboarding would not have been necessary if bin Laden had been caught much more quickly and al Qaeda dismantled more vigourously. The ex-Afghan intel chief is now saying he knew bin Laden was in Pakistan four years ago. That's smack in the middle of Bush's second term.

This issue, incidentally, can be seen from an artistic-aesthetic perspective; what is at work here is partly the news cycle working another lump of political gristle through the hardened tubes of its digestive tract. But it is also, to my mind, a quintessential example of Kulturkampf. As night follows day, conservatives who are inclined the same way as Santorum will find new ways to justify the laws and practices they are already in favour of. Progressives -- known to conservatives sneeringly as "liberals", or, even worse, "socialists" -- will counter those arguments. But neither side will win many converts from the opposing camp. The discourse of politics is largely the discourse of opposing teams, each seeking advantage on the field of elective play.  They are not trying to speak to each other; they are trying to speak to each party's respective base, and those who are undecided.

Artistic discourse tends to feel uncomfortable with all this even as it takes sides -- usually (but not always) with the left. When conservatives speak disparagingly about liberals they are often speaking about a personality whose type par excellence is the professionally successful artist. But art-liberalism of this sort itself needs to be analyzed with care, because it comprises only one element of the left-leaning population, and it probably is not, despite its beliefs about itself otherwise, a particularly effective element of the left.

Why should it be? Not only does North American art discourse play footsie with politics, making art "about issues" while shiftily avoiding commitment to the idea of explicitly political art, it tends to trade in rather general ideas that at times veer toward cliche. War is bad. Conservatives are dopes. Support green enterprise.

In this universe of predictable, complexity-free cultural production, the administration of George W. Bush makes a tempting target. However, artists-creating-commentary do not produce art that is particularly effective because it itself commits the same fundamental error as the conservatives it criticizes: it is uninformed. Bush was not a bad president merely because he waged an unnecessary war or because he "funded" it by cutting taxes; he is a bad president because his administration was pseudo-democratic. In the name of saving democracy, it ratcheted back its institutions several dangerous notches. America is still not back on an even keel. It is off-center -- politically, culturally, economically. But being off-center happens to suit conservatives who are serious about manipulating public opinion rather than treating it with respect. One result of this has been, for example, an enervated anti-war movement in the U.S. The three(!) wars the U.S. is now engaged in are treated as missions to be managed, rather than part of an overarching geopolitical policy that needs analysis. 

What is current U.S. foreign policy? We don't know in any holistic way. And what was it under George W. Bush's administration? We don't know that, either. By contrast, the Korean War -- and the Cold War it helped turbo-charge -- existed within the framework of policy papers such as NSC-68. This is how governments in fact organize themselves. Yet when one listens to the criticisms by artist-progressives of politician-conservatives, the rhetoric is often as simple-minded as one finds at the most key-board thumping blogs: the discussion is all about who is an "idiot" or not.

Look at the policy, and demand that all policy related to these wars be made transparent. That may or may not provide some shocking answers, but the odds are that at least enough information will be revealed to show that torture techniques are not in fact necessary if a war against a small, albeit tenacious and dangerous enemy is waged in a way to win as fast as possible, rather than to nurse the conflict along.

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