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November 29, 2004

Being forthright

Seana Shiffrin: November 29, 2004

This website’s mission statement asks how we might better express our values.  We might make a start by expressing them in the first place instead of shrinking from the opportunity.  In at least three respects, I feel we should have been more forthright in this last election: more forthright about being appalled about the conditions at Abu Ghraib and at Guantanamo, more forthright about finding intolerable the number of Iraqi casualties and the conditions of life in Iraq, and more forthright about our concern for the poor.  Plenty of people have expressed concern over these matters and in public fora, but primarily in sites that only the choir encounters. 

Our candidates were not forthright on these issues and we let that happen.  John Kerry avoided all of these topics as though discussion of the wrongness of torture, of rampant killing and destruction, and of the needs of the poor might reveal some sort of inner weakness. 

I felt the opposite. It was weak to hide his judgments about what mattered most. It was shameful that we did not make a centerpoint of the campaign the deprivation of basic liberties and the disrespect for human dignity shown at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. A leader should demand that the government take responsibility for compromising our commitments to fairness and decency. 

I was also shocked that, by and large, the press permitted all of the candidates to evade these issues. Poverty and the poor were mentioned two or three times in the candidates’ debates, though almost in passing. In four debates, no mention – at all - was made of Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. Not once. The first debate was devoted entirely to foreign policy and mostly to the wars in  Afghanistan and Iraq, but the morality of our conduct in these wars was somehow off the table. 

When Kerry spoke of casualties and how Americans represent “90 % of the casualties in Iraq,” he was excluding Iraqi casualties entirely. When Cheney called Edwards on excluding Iraqi casualties from Edwards’ similar figures, Cheney himself was only counting Iraqi military casualties. No participant in those debates discussed civilian casualties which, according to conservative estimates, total at least 40,000 in Iraq. The infrastructure in Iraq is in shambles; the disease rate has skyrocketed and there is still no reliable access to electricity and potable water, even in the cities. And yet, no member of the press, or of the audience, asked them to take civilians or their basic living conditions into account when evaluating the war.

Our candidates need to be more forthright that we care about those in need and those vulnerable to us, whether or not they are citizens, whether or not they are accused, and whether or not they are members of the middle class. And we need a press that is willing to ask harder questions and willing to ask us to articulate and defend our values. I admire Jon Stewart and Al Franken and not just as entertainers. They are very smart people. They are phenomenal at what they do. But while it has its place, parody and ridicule cannot be the preferred means by which we disperse our basic message.


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Posted by: David V.

I think that making an issue of Abu Ghraib would have been too complicated, because controversy would have gravitated toward the question where to pin the responsibility -- which would have been a distraction from the important questions.

Guantanamo would have been a better issue to raise, because the fault lies in a policy that is uncontroversially attributable to the administration. And I agree that the issue of Guantanmo would have provided an opportunity to express ideals -- patriotic ideals -- that have been betrayed.

Of course the issue of poverty should not have been allowed to disappear as it did. The problem is that no one has yet figured out how to frame the issue of economic justice in the anti-taxation, anti-government climate created by the Republicans. This is one of the questions that I would like us to discuss. How should we articulate alternatives to Bush's vision of an "ownership society"?

Posted by: David V. | Nov 29, 2004 2:56:37 PM

Posted by: Elizabeth Anderson

In a better America, Kerry could have successfully drawn upon his Vietnam veteran experience (both as combatant and as Veteran against the war) in the way that makes it most relevant as a qualification for leadership today--not, as Kerry cast it, as a demonstration that he would not hesitate to defend the U.S. by military means, but rather as a demonstration of the moral leadership needed and sorely lacking in the Bush Administration. He could have said: "I know what it is like to be an American soldier ordered by his commanding officers to commit war crimes. I know what it is like for the chain of command to disavow responsibility for those orders. I know the catastrophic consequences of such orders for the victims, the soldiers, the objective of establishing democracy in a war-torn country, and America's standing in the world. I know that responsibility rises to the top of the chain of command. As commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, I will exercise that responsibility rather than evade it. I will protect the honor of America and its soldiers by insisting that we live up to our own ideals of human rights, rather than flout them."

I disagree with David's thought that Kerry could not make this argument because it would get mired in endless debates about responsibility. Kerry had a simple, morally compelling message as an antiwar protester that could have been carried forth today: responsibility rises to the top of the chain of command. He could have pointed to a consistent record of Bush's evasions of personal accountability throughout his lifetime. He could have contrasted Reagan's response to the Iran-Contra fiasco (a forthright apology to the American people, resignations of high-ranking members of the Administration) with Bush's response to Abu Ghraib and other disastrous mistakes in Iraq (stubborn resistance to admit any mistakes, protecting the positions of those who made them).

I also disagree with Seana's claim that Kerry's failure to make this case amounted to a failure of moral courage. Kerry has courage, both military and moral, in abundance. No: he made a calculation--correct, in my opinion--that it was morally more important for him to win, so he could make a better America, than to stress that we are not right now the "better America" we think we are, and lose.

As a public, one of our greatest failings is our resistance to self-criticism, especially of a moral kind, insofar as we act collectively as a nation. For a brief moment in U.S. history, during the Carter administration, the U.S. embarked on extended official missions of moral self-criticism. Americans revolted against Carter's moralism, embracing Reagan's narcissistic, feel-good "patriotism" instead. (I put the word in scare quotes, to signal that unwavering belief in the righteousness of one's country, regardless of its actual conduct, is a betrayal of patriotism rather than an expression of it.)

Americans are so unwilling to consider the possibility of deep U.S. responsibility for war crimes that Kerry's own claims about U.S. misconduct in the Vietnam War are treated in the media as outrageous slanders, or at best highly controversial claims, rather than plain, hard historical fact. Given this fact, Kerry knew he would be doomed to lose a battle over Abu Ghraib during the election. He was right to leave that fight for another day, rather than lose the Presidency over it. But for those who were listening closely, we knew what he meant when he spoke of restoring America's standing abroad.

Posted by: Elizabeth Anderson | Nov 30, 2004 2:09:56 AM

Posted by: orangebob

WRT poverty and the poor:

Just talking about concern doesn't do it.

I would have liked to have seen more discussion about solutions, but with today's media it's hard to see any real discussion going on. If mentioned it's usually to point out some of the many cases of inequality and the hardship that that brings. Rarely is there any serious discussion of what to do about it. The left is stereotyped as saying the right is cruel or racist. The right is stereotyped as saying the left is coddling and against individual freedom.

Perhaps we could agree to focus discussion on results and not process. I remember growing up in a Saint Louis suburb and my brother working as a volunteer in the Pruit Igo housing complex which was a perfect example of unintended consequences. With the best intentions, the results of the social welfare programs were a disaster. A father with low qualifications, hence only able to get low paying jobs, could provide more money for his family by desertion and the subsequent welfare than by staying home and working at that low paying job.

I hope most would agree that the welfare reform put together by Clinton and the Republican congress has had a positive effect. More could be done. Similarly the no child left behind law put together by Bush and Kennedy is a beginning that also needs expansion, both in terms of money and program change. It's not just money and it's not just accountability that is needed. Both sides are needed.

Perhaps one way to advance together is to focus on programs that have worked and look for ways they could be expanded and similar programs developed. Instead of trying to change each other's minds we could just try to put together programs that work. Minds can change later, or not. If the programs work who cares whether somebody shares one's mindset?

Posted by: orangebob | Dec 7, 2004 6:51:06 PM

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce

Maybe we were paying attention to different campaigns. I heard class warfare coming up fairly frequently. It's true that it came from Edwards more than Kerry, but both of them painted Republicans as caring only about the rich and unwilling to do anything to help the poor. This was a common theme.

As I read through this post, I had one recurring thought. One reason Kerry may not have challenged Bush on these things is because he knows that Republicans and Bush agree with these concerns and seek to do something about them. It's the way that they do them that you don't agree with, but it's not as if they don't try to do something about them. Any serious left-right dialogue is going to have to acknowledge that rather than repeating the false picture that Republicans are the party of the rich and Democrats the party of the poor.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | Dec 8, 2004 6:18:26 PM

Posted by: benton

I have absolutely no way of knowing this is true. But I suspect, given Kerry's outspoken discussion of war crimes 30 years ago, that his many advisors and consultants and perhaps even the big man himself felt that it was impolitic to speak out too stronglt on Abu Grahib. Jane Fonda and all that. In a sense, the Swift Vote Veteran canard innoculated Bush a great deal on this issue. In particular though, the former prisoners talking about how Kerry's words hurt them while in prison would have really been a big deal if he had come out swinging on Abu Grahib.

Jeremy - Oddly enough, I'm much more sympathetic on the often derided "marriage promotion" policies. And there are problems in traditional Democratic policies that did not create incentives for work. I think that Clinton's crime and welfare reform policies were an acknowledgment that GOP ideas along these lines have merit. I might tweak at welfare reform - especially with an eye towards having work pay more - but I won't argue with the essential benefit of the concept. I also found much to appreciate in NCLBA, but think the accountability system, from a technical standpoint, is so screwed up as to render the program pointless. I don't think that was Bush's particular problem though. Lots of liberals bit way too hard on that, which I believe was as it was by intended by the Rovians once it became clear.

But suffice it to say that cutting funding for NCLBA as we will next year, tax preferred Medical Savings accounts, block granting medicaid, ignoring the minimum wage, and a national consumption tax or attack on employer provided insurance as a tradeoff for eliminating taxes on investment income together are a program that will effect the poor. I don't know that they will help however. And the administration has been more than a little disingenuous on Pell Grants.

Posted by: benton | Dec 10, 2004 11:47:21 AM

Posted by: Matt

"I heard class warfare coming up fairly frequently."

You heard a slander and a slogan. What you didn't hear was a substantial critique of corporate welfare, neoliberal-Fukuyama love tyrsts, or a passionate call for genuine campaign finance reform. Such will never come from the Democrats as long as the DNC continues to ignore the successful populists as well as the informed wellspring of discontent at the grassroots. Maybe this blog can help, in some small way, make the DNC's complete failure inevitable; it is past time for that.

Posted by: Matt | Dec 11, 2004 8:47:27 PM

Posted by: Mike Sierra

Elizabeth: I strongly take issue with your notion that Carter was especially "moral," while Reagan supposedly fostered "narcissistic patriotism." I recall the legendary "malaise" speech in which Carter agonized over the many problems of his administration, but to no effect. "I am suffering," he seemed to be saying, "and it is right that you should suffer too." This is narcissistic in the extreme. And may I say it's not especially moral to confine criticism to one's self when others are far more deserving. Reagan was plenty moral when it came to characterizing the Soviet Union. If one of the purposes of this blog is to highlight aspects of contemporary American liberalism that ought to be reconsidered, then surely embracing the Carter administration has got to be one of them.

Posted by: Mike Sierra | Dec 13, 2004 9:07:14 PM

Posted by: Aidan Maconachy

on being forthright

Seana ... really ... how about being forthright about Saddam's mafia state ... it's repressive state apparatus, rape rooms and genocidal programs? How about being forthright about the lack of democracy in the middle east, where people are ruled by mullahs and quasi-dictators? How about a concern for rampant anti-semitism? Ever read any of the arab papers in translation? The hatred and venom they consider everyday rhetoric would make your hair stand on end. How about concern for the human rights violations that go on in these states? How about concern for clandestine nuclear programs run by Islamic fundamentalist regimes? How about concern for Iraqis who support the American effort and are struggling valiantly to bring democracy to fruition in that country?

Why is it Seana, that you are only concerned about atrocities and fall-out that makes America look like the villain? Compared to the genuine torture that happens daily in Syrian prisons, the antics that went on in Abhu Ghraib were more like romper room activities - sexual pranks and low voltage jolts - almost stuff worthy of a bad Monty Python skit. Don't get me wrong - I don't condone any of it - I am merely saying that the stuff in Abhu Ghraib was hardly torture in any real sense (humiliating though it must have been for the prisoners involved) compared to the very real torture practiced by Saddam's thugs. One of their specialities was to gauge out the eyes of a child while the parents were forced to watch, hoping thereby to break them and force a confession. Do you have concern with Uday Hussein abducting young brides to drag off for a day's rape and torture? Or how about concern for the relatives of the torture victims who he threw to his lions and tigers to finish off?

I think your priorities are misplaced and I'm in touch occasionally on-line, with a few American Iraqis who would heartily agree with me.

Interesting enough, when George Bush visited Canada - the left wing hordes were out condemning the war and expresssing all your concerns. There was also an Iraqi man on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in tears holding a sign supporting Bush, and when he was interviewed he said he completely rejected everything the demonstrators stood for and had come to show his support for the President.

Posted by: Aidan Maconachy | Dec 17, 2004 3:18:51 AM

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