Thursday, November 17, 2005

Large Dead Animals

Kate McMillan reprints part of an article by Mark Helprin over at the Claremont Institute, and proceeds to discourage rebuttal, saying that the piece should simply be read as the reason she and her political co-religionists see us on the Left as enemies. Fair enough; it's her site. But the article does call aloud for a strenuous rebuttal--it is a characteristically dishonest and tendentious screed, a small army of straw figures out on a Wild Man Weekend. Here, then, is Mark Helprin, with my comments.

Why does the Left so often abstain from defending not only American interests but, after September 11th, the United States itself? During the Cold War, one could always suspect that democratic socialists lusted in their hearts for Leninism, and might have given themselves over had the balance of power shifted eastward.

Some of the most savage red-baiting I have ever encountered took place among social-democratic ranks here in Canada. In the US, to argue that such people as Norman Thomas were closet Leninists is tinfoil-hat stuff, not even worth refuting. But it is clear, on the other hand, that brute fascism has a visceral appeal to many mainstream "conservatives": witness Margaret Thatcher’s great admiration for Augusto Pinochet, the bloodstained Butcher of Santiago, for example. Or Ngo Cao Ky, one of a string of US-installed puppet princes in South Vietnam, saying, "My only hero is Hitler." Or recent attempts to rehabilitate Francisco Franco as merely a misunderstood conservative.

This was at least a plausible explanation for their opposition to virtually any measure of Western defense, and their perpetual horror of anti-Communism.

Our "perpetual horror" was of freaks of nature like the House Un-American Activities Committee, the endless witchhunts, the use of the code-word "communist" to apply to everything from trade union organizing to the fluoridation of water, and imperialist wars of intervention allegedly to "contain communism" but in fact to advance US interests, corporate and geopolitical: Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Vietnam, Nicaragua, the list goes on and on. Our own RCMP played the same games, infiltrating campus organizations, the usual. Even student opposition to the war in Vietnam, or to the mutually-assured destruction of the nuclear stalemate, was branded "communist."

But no force, it would seem, should be capable of transforming even a lifetime of socialist ardor into sympathy for absolutist mullahs, 10th-century tribal warriors, decapitators, and circumcisors of women.

And no force has, except in the fevered minds of conservatives, who were quite happy to support such reactionaries themselves when it suited them, as in Afghanistan, and still do (the torture-state of Saudi Arabia, for example). Now the word "terrorist" has become a new signifier for everything the right hates and fears, the word "communist" having lost its energy.

It would make no sense. And yet as the immense plumes of smoke and dust still were rising in strength from the ruins of the World Trade Center, and not a single shot had been fired or a single soldier sacrificed in what was to become the War on Terrorism, the worldwide Left mobilized instantaneously to assert that such a war—the particulars and extent of which it could not know—would be unjust.

Let's be clear, here. A group largely made up of Saudi nationals flies a plane into the World Trade Centre. This is followed by two wars: one in Afghanistan, the next in Iraq (which had no ties to Al Qaida). The Left has pretty good antennae when it comes to predicting the wild lashing-out of the Right, but our prescience in the instant cases is criticized, although we were right from the get-go. Now we have (in capital letters, to accent the fetishizing of American foreign policy that’s currently going on) a "War on Terrorism" the "particulars and extent of which" we still don't know (and by "we" I mean all of us). And we're supposed to sit back and simply trust in Bush and his loony advisers? What's good for the country is good for Halliburton, it seems, but the rest of us have some questions we'd like answered.

It is true that since then many opponents and proponents of the war, despite being not even decimally aware of pertinent facts or relations, have managed to enlarge their unexamined notions into either complex and disconnected conspiracy theories involving oil, or manic crusader-atavistic visions of remaking the Arab and Muslim worlds, and that the dust from these ignorant armies as they debate with the finesse of English football hooligans rises into a plume of its own.

Does anyone here have the remotest idea what Helprin is wittering on about here? In the fog of obscurantist language appears the silhouette of a notion that we on the Left stand for this or that proposition, all of which he is about to demolish with the finesse of an arsonist setting fire to scarecrows.

But, like a mammoth perfectly preserved in ice and uncomplicated by subsequent infections, the Left's purely reflexive impulses immediately following September 11 are worthy of attention.

We shall dub this the “Large Dead Animal (LDA)” thesis.

Most remarkable is the initial and continuing indifference both to those who perished and to the country itself as it came under attack. On a political level, the Left could summon no indignation after assaults upon America's capital, defense headquarters, civil aviation, embassies, warships, and chief city, any one of which would be a classic and unambiguous casus belli, while in strange contrast it seemed to regard the mere presence of Americans in Saudi Arabia, the trade in oil, and the Arab world's exposure to American popular culture as unpardonable aggressions.

The Left showed no such indifference, of course, to this atrocity. But what I find remarkable is the Right’s initial and continuing indifference to those who have perished in its recent foreign adventures: tens of thousands of civilian Iraqi men, women and children, thousands, too, of Afghan civilians; before that, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children dead due to sanctions, deaths that were, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it, “worth it”; the use of white phosphorus in battle, originally denied; und so weiter. Not a tear shed, not a hand wrung.

And the Left, rather than considering this airplane full of nationals from an allied power as erupting from some conspiracy that is everywhere and nowhere, began to ask questions about the root causes of such hatred and violence. For that, we were, and are, excoriated by the Right, whose level of analysis rarely rises above the "Let's do it" plane.

Irrationality on a political level from these quarters has never been a shock. On a personal level, however, the predominant response of the intellectual Left was a mystery. It was as if the thousands of crushed and incinerated men, women, and children—those who threw themselves into a quarter-mile abyss rather than have the flesh seared off their bones as they stood in the wind at glassless walls, the small children who died in terror after watching hysterical fanatics slit the throats of screaming stewardesses, and so on, for there are almost three thousand stories—simply did not exist. How does one explain such an egregious absence of sympathy (much less assertions that "they" deserved it, or that it was a work of art) among endlessly self-proclaiming empathetics whose stock in trade is to milk compassion even from the Rock of Gibraltar? This is a real rather than a rhetorical question, because it is significant of a great division.

No, this is a rhetorical, not a real question. And, like other rhetorical questions, it contains precisely the answer that Helprin wants to assert in the first place--a bald, lying assertion based upon nothing at all. But I do wonder, in this connection, why he and his co-religionists are so silent about the Iraqi civilians, screaming as white phosphorus eats into their flesh, or, just before the war, the kids in hospitals dying long and painful deaths because of sanctions, or, earlier than that, the roasting to death of Vietnamese civilians drenched with burning napalm? Could it be that only white people are capable of feeling pain?

The nature of one's reaction to aggression against one's country will often be determined by whether one sees the polity primarily as individuals who must struggle with the imperfection of being bound into a collective, or as a collective that must overcome the circumstantial imperfection that it comprises individuals. For wildebeest thundering across a plain in Africa, it takes a village. The herd defends itself by sacrificing a minuscule proportion of its number and moving on. If the herd were to turn upon the jackals preying upon it, the jackals would be pulverized almost instantly. Nonetheless, if the price for the escape of ten thousand is the sacrifice of only a few, that is how it is done when the collective is paramount.

But animals like bears, tigers, and lions, that wander individually or in small groups, know that their survival depends upon how they fight, and their willingness to fight is so well understood that they are seldom attacked, whereas to a predator a herd in flight is a living contradiction of the maxim that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Mankind is not a genetic set piece, divided into lone wolves and lemmings, but rather the division is a reflection of habituation to the collective—indeed, worship of it—as opposed to a habitual resistance to it. Capitulation and appeasement may sometimes be merely subcategories of a controlling impulse that produces both. When the Left bends to America's enemies it may not be a result of cowardice or betrayal, but of loyalty to the omelette so single-minded that it precludes consideration of the eggs.

The LDA thesis here gives way to small animals and ultimately eggs, but in such sloppy writing do we not discern a reverse ontogeny, a large, thundering argument recapitulating phylogeny in reverse? The best that Helprin can do in his laboured analogy would appear to be to argue that individual large-animal responses are better than animal collectives. The former seem to avoid all casualties, while the latter accept some as the price of survival.

For the life of me, I can't follow this analogy, if that is what it is really what it is supposed to be. But I'll try. Since the casualties of the current US overseas initiatives are legion, may I take it that the American people, in a kind of herd instinct, have agreed to sacrifice more than 2,000 of their own and inflict many times that number of fatalities upon foreign non-combatants, because they have mindlessly swallowed the Administration's rhetoric that this is the price of survival? I guess I can accept that.

But Helprin does get a little confusing when he reduces animal collectives to herds of wildebeest. There are also, of course, prides of lions and packs of wolves, whose instinct to hunt and kill is always in the foreground--perhaps like the US, which can’t seem to get though a decade without invading some other country. (I'm just trying to follow the analogy, so don’t jump on me, folks, for mocking the rhetorical ineptness of a conservative attempting to sound like an intellectual.)

At times, of course, the collective should take precedence. It is a matter of finding the appropriate balance for impulses that contend eternally because man was created as an individual and yet there is more than one of him. And, depending upon the wind, one must occasionally tack to port even if one's preference is to tack to starboard. But by its hostility to virtually every part of the War on Terrorism, and its continuing assertion that in this war almost every step America has taken is an unnecessary and wasteful overreaction, the Left implicitly makes the argument that the dead of September 11 represent only one one-hundred-thousandth of the American population, and that although intelligent people understand the implications of this, the impatient jingoes who 'control' the country do not.

As the Right, I suppose, asserts that the countless dead Iraqi and Afghan civilians are only a small percentage of the total population, their deaths "worth it" to reconstruct the American version of democracy around the world. This is their implicit and explicit argument, in fact. [Editorial note: the word is "jingoists."]

After all, a herd of 100,000 wildebeest would neither miss just one of its number, nor even pause to reflect. But where the Left in all its wisdom gravely miscalculates is that the dead of September 11th were not wildebeest, and neither are we. That is why America, for all its failings and sins, has not gone down, and will not go down, on bended knee.

No, clearly it will not. Instead, it will continue to use brute force to ensure that the rest of the world goes down on bended knee to its imperial might. It will whine in fatuous columns like Helprin's when a few voices are raised in conscientious opposition; and, if people resist more forcefully, it will greet this resistance with bombs, artillery, more bombs, white phosphorus and a cloud of triumphalist rhetoric.

And here I would echo/mirror Kate’s comment: articles like this go a long way to explaining the Left reaction to the Right’s hypocrisy, lies and frankly sociopathic lack of empathy. As for the large dead animal that we have been compared to, I feel that a more realistic deployment of this analogy (mammoths in ice don't have reflexes, Mark) might be to look at the fate of a small children's zoo in Ramallah, and juxtapose it with the comments about Ramallah as a zoo here.

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