In memoriam

by Michael Bérubé on July 16, 2009

A moment of silence for Hilzoy, who’s retiring from blogging this week.

OK, that was a moment.  Now back to talking about blogging.  Here’s Hilzoy:

The main reason I started blogging, besides the fact that I thought it would be fun, was that starting sometime in 2002, I thought that my country had gone insane. It wasn’t just the insane policies, although that was part of it. It was the sheer level of invective: the way that people who held what seemed to me to be perfectly reasonable views, e.g. that invading Iraq might not be such a smart move, were routinely being described as al Qaeda sympathizers who hated America and all it stood for and wanted us all to die.

I thought: we’ve gone mad. And I have to do something—not because I thought that I personally could have any appreciable effect on this, but because it felt like what Katherine called an all hands on deck moment. I had heard about times like this in the past—the McCarthy era, for instance—though I had never expected to live through one. Nonetheless, I was. And I had to try to do something, however insignificant.

When I read this, I had the eerie feeling that I’d heard it before—from Tristero, from Atrios, from pretty much everyone who started blogging in 2002, back when the blogosphere consisted mainly of techno-utopian libertarians, back when “Liberal Oasis” truly was a liberal oasis, back before the concept of the “shorter” was invented as a way of taming the Den Bestean beast.  (I didn’t start blogging then—but I started reading blogs then, searching for a liberal oasis in the midst of the madness.)  It’s not too much to say that the liberal blogosphere began largely in response to the insane policies and the sheer level of invective in the runup to war in Iraq—not only from the right, of course, but from the Very Serious People who, just after promising us a rose garden and a cakewalk, described even the most measured critics of an Iraq invasion as raving lunatics unfit for serious public discussion.

Does Hilzoy exaggerate?  Do I?  I’m afraid not.  Hilzoy’s farewell address reminds me of something I came across in the course of writing the-book-that-will-be-out-in-November, something that might be worth revisiting now.  In that book, whose title I forget, I spend a few dozen pages on the prelude to war in Iraq, and I mention Al Gore’s September 23, 2002 speech to the Commonwealth Club of California.  In that speech, Gore said things like this:

To begin with—to put first things first—I believe we should focus our efforts first and foremost against those who attacked us on September 11th and who have thus far gotten away with it. The vast majority of those who sponsored, planned and implemented the cold-blooded murder of more than 3,000 Americans are still at large, still neither located nor apprehended, much less punished and neutralized. I do not believe that we should allow ourselves to be distracted from this urgent task simply because it is proving to be more difficult and lengthy than was predicted. Great nations persevere and then prevail. They do not jump from one unfinished task to another. We should remain focused on the war against terrorism.

I believe that we are perfectly capable of staying the course in our war against Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist network, while simultaneously taking those steps necessary to build an international coalition to join us in taking on Saddam Hussein in a timely fashion. If you’re going after Jesse James, you ought to organize the posse first. Especially if you’re in the middle of a gunfight with somebody who’s out after you.

I don’t think we should allow anything to diminish our focus on the necessity for avenging the 3,000 Americans who were murdered and dismantling the network of terrorists that we know were responsible for it. The fact that we don’t know where they are should not cause us to focus instead on some other enemy whose location may be easier to identify. We have other enemies, but we should focus first and foremost as our top priority on winning the war against terrorism.

Nevertheless, President Bush is telling us that America’s most urgent requirement of the moment—right now—is not to redouble our efforts against Al Qaeda, not to stabilize the nation of Afghanistan after driving its host government from power, even as Al Qaeda members slip back across the border to set up in Afghanistan again; rather, he is telling us that our most urgent task right now is to shift our focus and concentrate on immediately launching a new war against Saddam Hussein. And the president is proclaiming a new, uniquely American right to preemptively attack whomsoever he may deem represents a potential future threat.

Moreover, President Bush is demanding in this high political season that Congress speedily affirm that he has the necessary authority to proceed immediately against Iraq and, for that matter, under the language of his resolution, against any other nation in the region, regardless of subsequent developments or emerging circumstances. Now, the timing of this sudden burst of urgency to immediately take up this new cause as America’s new top priority, displacing our former top priority, the war against Osama Bin Laden, was explained innocently by the White House chief of staff in his now well-known statement that “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”

Nevertheless, all Americans should acknowledge that Iraq does indeed pose a serious threat to the stability of the Persian Gulf region, and we should be about the business of organizing an international coalition to eliminate his access to weapons of mass destruction. Iraq’s search for weapons of mass destruction has proven impossible to completely deter, and we should assume that it will continue for as long as Saddam is in power. Now, let’s be clear, there’s no international law that can prevent the United States from taking action to protect our vital interests when it is manifestly clear that there is a choice to be made between law and our survival. Indeed, international law itself recognizes that such choices stay within the purview of all nations. I believe, however, that such a choice is not presented in the case of Iraq. Indeed, should we decide to proceed, our action can be justified within the framework of international law rather than requiring us to go outside the framework of international law. In fact, even though a new United Nations resolution might be helpful in the effort to forge an international consensus, I think it’s abundantly clear that the existing U.N. resolutions passed 11 years ago are completely sufficient from a legal standpoint so long as it is clear that Saddam Hussein is in breach of the agreements made at the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War.

Go ahead and read the whole thing, as we used to say on blogs.  Pretty sane, centrist stuff, right?  Not according to the late Michael Kelly, who famously responded like so:

Politics are allowed in politics, but there are limits, and there is a pale, and Gore has now shown himself to be ignorant of those limits, and he has now placed himself beyond that pale.

Gore’s speech was one no decent politician could have delivered. It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts—bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible. But I understate.

Read that whole thing, too.  Kelly’s rant may have been spittle-flecked, but it was merely the spittle-flecked version of the conventional wisdom of the time.

And here’s something I decided to leave out of the book.  Kelly, you may recall, was the first American journalist to die in the Iraq war; he was killed on April 3, 2003 in a Humvee crash.  Today, there is a Michael Kelly Award in his honor—sponsored, as that home page tells you, by “Atlantic Media Company where Michael Kelly was Editor and Chief Editorial Advisor.”  Now, of course I understand that the man must be memorialized in some way, and of course it’s good to see that the award goes to actual investigative journalists doing actual investigative journalism.  But I have to admit that this bit makes me feel all squicky inside:  “The Michael Kelly Award honors a writer or editor whose work exemplifies a quality that animated Michael Kelly’s career: THE FEARLESS PURSUIT AND EXPRESSION OF TRUTH.”

Golly, I don’t know.  We are, after all, talking about the guy who replied to Gore’s sane speech with some pretty vile and contemptible hysteria—and who had spent, by that point, more than five years sliming Gore in this way.  Check out this timely column from November 15, 2000:

It’s a tossup as to what is most revolting about Al Gore’s determination to vote-rig his way into the White House. You could argue that it is the daylight-brazenness; decent people know that this sort of thing is done under cover—that’s how Boss Daley, father of Gore’s campaign chief, Bill Daley, always did it. Then there is the utterly reckless selfishness; the price of a Gore presidency will be a constitutional crisis, a divided nation and a taint on the presidency. But we’ve been there before, and as Gore’s boss said at that time, the important thing is just to win.

My sense is that there are already a couple of real awards for actual investigative journalists who are dedicated to the fearless pursuit and expression of truth; maybe the Kelly Award (since the man really should be memorialized in some way) should be reserved for something else, something that exemplifies some other quality that animated Kelly’s career.  Perhaps, to take a cue from Hilzoy, someone should propose a alternative Kelly Award honoring writers who, by means of their sheer level of invective, work to demonize liberals who hold perfectly reasonable views?

{ 93 comments }

1

kid bitzer 07.16.09 at 5:17 pm

and there were volumes of this kind of stuff, some of the worst of it on the broadcast media.

i have been a bit taken aback by certain people’s reaction to hilzoy’s claim that “the madness is over… the country as a whole does not seem to me to be crazy any more.” they react as though she had claimed that *all* madness was over, and that *no* part of the country seemed crazy to her any more. i.e., they really don’t read her words.

and i have to think that anyone who believes that the level of craziness now is comparable to the level of craziness back then, is just not doing a good job of remembering what it was like back then.

back when we had no blogs, back when we had no alternatives to the mainstream media, back when the new goddamned republic was as far left as voice as one ever heard. back when crap like that michael kelly screed was the unchallenged conventional wisdom.

and back when the loonies were actually running the white house, rather than merely barking out their impotent rage on the glenn beck show.

so i thank m.b. for posting some reminders of just how mad that period of madness was. hilzoy is right: that particular madness does not currently afflict us.

(she’s wrong to think we don’t need her help with the residual madness, but that’s a different issue.)

2

hardindr 07.16.09 at 5:19 pm

Michael Kelly was a lousy journalist, and an even lousier editor (remember Shattered Glass?) that almost destroyed what was left of The New Republic back in the 1990s, a task that was left to Peter Beinart. Kelly’s hatred for Al Gore knew no bounds, as witnessed in this sad event chronicled by Bob Somerby http://www.dailyhowler.com/h040399_1.shtml http://www.dailyhowler.com/h040799_1.shtml (more can be found here). As with Tim Russert’s untimely death, I think the profession of journalism is better of with him gone.

3

Michael Bérubé 07.16.09 at 5:26 pm

hilzoy is right: that particular madness does not currently afflict us.

I agree — that particular madness is vintage 2002-03. There’s still plenty of crazy to go around, no doubt: Rush and Sarah and J. T. Plumber and Billo and Hannity and RedState and Beck haven’t disappeared. But now we’re talking about madness among the Twenty Percenters and the Appalachian Hiking Society — not full-bore spittle-flecked crazytalk at the top of the masthead of Even the Liberal New Republic, the Atlantic, and the National Journal (one of Kelly’s other illustrious gigs).

4

Ben Alpers 07.16.09 at 5:28 pm

so i thank m.b. for posting some reminders of just how mad that period of madness was. hilzoy is right: that particular madness does not currently afflict us.

No it doesn’t. But its foundations remain. We have an at least slightly more sane administration now, so the continuing inadequacy of our media and political elites operates in a less dangerous way. But if the people who brought us the last eight years were to come back to power–as they well might–I really don’t expect any more pushback from the Village in the future than there was in the past.

Michael Kelly’s successors in the media (and the “serious” members of the policy class who are their Edgar Bergens) still stand poised to drum up support for our next unnecessary, illegal war.

5

kid bitzer 07.16.09 at 5:35 pm

oh–and michael:

could you make sure to give hilzoy some tips on how to quit blogging?

i’m hoping she does it exactly the way you did.

6

Matt 07.16.09 at 5:41 pm

back when we had no alternatives to the mainstream media
I’m pretty sure that The Nation, among others, has been publishing for around 100 years or so. I don’t mean to say that blogs can’t be great, but really, even Maximum Rock and Roll and fan-zines and the like are long-standing alternatives to the “mainstream media”.

It’s also important to remember that it wasn’t just crazy right-wingers who were crazy in 2002. Some of our good friends here and throughout the liberal blog world were supporters, from mild to quite eager, of the Iraq war and other terrible, terrible ideas.

7

Bloix 07.16.09 at 5:46 pm

My God, that Kelly editorial was revolting. I remember being stunned as I read it at the breakfast table all those years ago. How could we forget the comparison to Hitler:

Gore uttered his first big lie in the second paragraph of the speech when he informed the audience that his main concern was with “those who attacked us on Sept. 11, and who have thus far gotten away with it.”

Or the stupidity and arrogance and bat-shit insanity of this:

“…The men who “implemented” the “coldblooded murder of more than 3,000 Americans” are not at large. They are dead; they died in the act of murder, on Sept. 11. Gore can look this up. In truth, the “vast majority” of the men who “sponsored” and “planned” the crime are dead also, or in prison, or on the run. The inmates at Guantanamo Bay, and the hunted survivors of Tora Bora, and the terrorist cell members arrested nearly every week, and the thousands of incarcerated or fugitive Taliban, might disagree as to whether they have been located, apprehended, punished or neutralized.”

Yes, the hunted survivors of Tora Bora, includng a harmless fellow named bin Laden, and the fugitive Taliban, neutralized and never to bother anyone again.

I didn’t know Michael Kelly the private man, and for all know he was a great boss, father, and husband. But the public man was evil and I’m glad he’s dead.

8

Russell L. Carter 07.16.09 at 6:03 pm

“It’s also important to remember that it wasn’t just crazy right-wingers who were crazy in 2002. Some of our good friends here and throughout the liberal blog world were supporters, from mild to quite eager, of the Iraq war and other terrible, terrible ideas.”

That’s the part that maximized my confusion. I can understand a political ideology captivating its core members, but how did so many “liberals” fall for it? Even more than a year later, when the evidence of the gigantic fraud was in-your-face apparent, Bush was reelected, and there’s not a majority of Republicans. I really wish I understood this better (because then I could ignore it).

9

Doctor Memory 07.16.09 at 6:24 pm

Russell: four and some years on, I think we can exhale and admit that a large part of the problem in 2004 was that John Kerry was an authentically terrible candidate. A good man, a competent senator, a war hero, all of the above: but demonstrably in over his head when faced with the task of running for public office anywhere outside of New England, and either incapable of hiring the people who could have steered his course correctly or unwilling to listen to their advice having hired them. He showed up armed with a knife for a gunfight, and the results were, as they say, instructive.

10

lemuel pitkin 07.16.09 at 6:42 pm

back when the new goddamned republic was as far left as voice as one ever heard

As Matt @6 said, this just isn’t true — The Nation‘s circulation was as large or larger than The New Republic‘s throughout this period. Noam Chomsky was writing widely-read books. Michael Moore was hardly invisible. There have always been strong voices on the left. The difference is that in 2002-03 these were voices that people like Michael Berube did not want to hear.

11

Michael Bérubé 07.16.09 at 7:02 pm

Acutally, I kept reading (and writing for) The Nation throughout that period, Lemuel. But no, I didn’t think it was particularly bright of Chomsky and Moore to suggest that bin Laden couldn’t have planned 9/11 from a remote cave in Afghanistan, and I didn’t think Chomsky saying “looks like what’s happening is some sort of silent genocide” in Afghanistan was quite the same thing as Gore saying “invading Iraq will take our focus off al-Qaeda.” I like strong voices on the left, and I reserve the right to criticize ’em when I disagree with ’em.

12

Michael Bérubé 07.16.09 at 7:09 pm

Some of our good friends here and throughout the liberal blog world were supporters, from mild to quite eager, of the Iraq war and other terrible, terrible ideas.

I seem to recall Yglesias and Klein initially blaming the DFHs for their brief support of the war before they came to their senses. But were there really supporters of the Iraq war right here at Crooked Timber?

13

MSS 07.16.09 at 7:14 pm

Pretty sane, centrist stuff? Well, in the American frame, even in 2009, I guess it is centrist. But sane?

Gore accepts the basic frame laid down by Bush when he says, “Nevertheless, all Americans should acknowledge that Iraq does indeed pose a serious threat to the stability of the Persian Gulf region, and we should be about the business of organizing an international coalition to eliminate his access to weapons of mass destruction.”

And, of course, the subtext (barely sub) is that more aggression in Afghanistan is the only plausible course of action against Al Qaeda.

And this from the man whose rightful election was stolen so that Bush could impose those frames. But wait, impose? Democrats, and many quite sane citizens quite meekly accepted the frame. Re-reading the excerpt of Gore’s speech reminds me why his guttural “I will fight for you” in 2000 rang so hollow. He sure wasn’t fighting for the democracy that was so wounded when he conceded his own “defeat.”

14

Matt 07.16.09 at 7:14 pm

were there really supporters of the Iraq war right here at Crooked Timber?

She’s said “sorry” for it enough, already, but Belle was a pretty big supporter, and pretty vicious to those “objectively pro-Saddam” enough to oppose it. (I don’t think she was part of CT at the time yet, though.)

15

Matt 07.16.09 at 7:16 pm

I should add that her retrospective piece on the issue (which I think she did publish here, though I’ll not bother to go back and look just now) is very much worth reading.

16

rea 07.16.09 at 7:24 pm

Prof. Berube, I can think of no one more qualified than you to explain to Hilzoy why she ought to reconsider . . .

17

Bloix 07.16.09 at 7:27 pm

For me, the indication that I was not the one who’d gone insane was Harper’s. Even though Harper’s itself has a tendency to go off the deep end, at least it showed me that I wasn’t the only one who thought that everything I was being told was obviously false.

For example:

The revision thing:
A history of the Iraq war, told entirely in lies, by Sam Smith
http://www.harpers.org/archive/2003/10/0079780

18

Michael Bérubé 07.16.09 at 7:48 pm

Harper’s also published this timely classic by Joy Gordon in November 2002. But even though the sanctions were indeed weapons of mass destruction, I do think, MSS @ 12, that organizing an international coalition to eliminate Saddam’s access to WMD is pretty sane. A fine alternative to war, too. I mean, what’s the alternative position? Let Saddam have access to WMD if he really really wants them, so as not to accept the Bush administration’s “framing”?

kid bitzer @ 5 and rea @ 16, I would be happy to offer hilzoy some advice, but my post-retirement blog career involved joining a couple of group blogs, then reviving my own after 20 months’ hiatus on a vastly reduced schedule while continuing to post every so often on this here group blog. Since she’s already done the group-blogging thing, and she’s going to Rwanda, I think I’ll have to confine myself to saying hey, hilzoy, give it another 20 months and see how you feel. We’ll wait for you.

19

nick s 07.16.09 at 8:42 pm

I’m pretty sure that The Nation, among others, has been publishing for around 100 years or so.

Like Michael, I read The Nation during this period, and it was pretty rubbish. This was also the time when Hitchens was using the column he still wrote for them to slap the rest of the magazine around in his best bar-fight manner. As a foreigner, though, I’ve always found the media persecution complex of The Nation (and Democracy Now!, for that matter) something of a turn-off.

It’s important to remember the sheer ugliness of American politics in 2002, just as the Bush administration began its “product launch” for Iraq — one of the more sickening examples being the smear-job run against Max Cleland by the nincompoop Saxby Chambliss.

One of the first attempts at blog pushback, I remember, was Warblogger Watch. It was kneejerky, rude and not that well-written, but it picked its targets well, and it displayed greater intellectual honesty than many who spent that rotten winter worshipping at the altar of Ken Pollack.

20

dsquared 07.16.09 at 8:55 pm

I didn’t think it was particularly bright of Chomsky and Moore to suggest that bin Laden couldn’t have planned 9/11 from a remote cave in Afghanistan

I don’t think Moore ever said that and am pretty much sure that Chomsky never did. Chomsky in general hates conspiracy theories in a quite annoyingly mindless manner.

21

Russell Arben Fox 07.16.09 at 9:06 pm

It’s also important to remember that it wasn’t just crazy right-wingers who were crazy in 2002. Some of our good friends here and throughout the liberal blog world were supporters, from mild to quite eager, of the Iraq war and other terrible, terrible ideas.

To our discredit, 2002-2003 was a bad moment for a lot of us.

22

Doctor Memory 07.16.09 at 10:09 pm

I do think, MSS @ 12, that organizing an international coalition to eliminate Saddam’s access to WMD is pretty sane. I mean, what’s the alternative position? Let Saddam have access to WMD if he really really wants them, so as not to accept the Bush administration’s “framing”?

Good lord, Dr. Berube. That was the extent of our options?

I believe that the “alternative position” is that the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, Russia, China and India each individually possessed enough of a nuclear arsenal to turn every last square inch of Iraq into cinders several times over (nevermind in toto, and nevermind also the equally disproportionate conventional military strength) , and thus whatever arsenal of “WMD” (itself a term of propaganda: an intentional conflation of nuclear arms with chemical and biological agents that have never once been a decisive factor in a war) Saddam might have potentially acquired was of no more threat to us than his gold-plated bathtubs loaded into trebuchets.

“The Mouse that Roared” was fiction. The 9/11 attacks were carried out using nothing more than boxcutters, a little imagination and a lot of organizational discipline. I am surprised that anyone needs to be reminded of any of these facts.

23

kid bitzer 07.16.09 at 10:12 pm

oy. if this turns into a self-criticism session, it’s going to get really tedious.

if it turns into an ‘i was lefter than you back when session’, it will get tediouser.

has anyone yet countered the claim that the nation descended into a kind of mass psychosis back then?

(everyone but you, ducky, doubtless you were above it).

because that, i took it, was the point of the o.p., and of the examples from kelly.

that and saying thanks to hilzoy.

24

Doctor Memory 07.16.09 at 10:29 pm

Kid Bitzer: fair point, and conceded on all counts.

25

lamont cranston 07.16.09 at 10:43 pm

“Self criticism” may be tedious, but what’s more tedious is the fiction that “we all went crazy in 2002-3.” What happened was that people in power set out to manipulate public opinion for their own purposes. Most prominent Democrats and lots of liberal pundits went scrambling, but, as others have pointed out, others were able to question the rationales and point to the relevant history indicating we should be skeptical of the administration’s doomsday “we must kill them all or die” scenario. My recollection is that the Nation at the time was pretty good – Hitchens was terrible, of course, but didn’t he leave because he was alone on that? More importantly, though, people questioned it. Half a million people marched in NYC, remember? I recall conversations with very centrist or apolitical friends at the time – most were ambivalent at best about the war.

The question isn’t why didn’t anyone speak out, the question is, why wasn’t the political opposition more effective? A harder question to ask, but much, much more important.

26

Salient 07.16.09 at 11:04 pm

whatever arsenal of “WMD” …Saddam might have potentially acquired was of no more threat to us than his gold-plated bathtubs loaded into trebuchets.

No no no no no. Good lord, Dr. Memory. The only trebuchet-based threat we face is assassination by vaguely Rousseauian statue. You haven’t been reading enough Squid & Owl.

27

geo 07.16.09 at 11:40 pm

I didn’t think it was particularly bright of Chomsky and Moore to suggest that bin Laden couldn’t have planned 9/11 from a remote cave in Afghanistan

Actually, what Chomsky said was:

” Bin Laden may or may not be directly implicated in these acts, but it is likely that the network in which he was a prime figure is … ” (Sept 19, 2001)

and

“Many who know the conditions well are … dubious about bin Laden’s capacity to plan that incredibly sophisticated operation from a cave somewhere in Afghanistan. But that his network was involved is highly plausible, and that he is an inspiration for them, also. These are decentralized, non-hierarchic structures, probably with quite limited communications links among them. It’s entirely possible that bin Laden’s telling the truth when he says he didn’t know about the operation.” (Sept 22, 2001).

Both quotes are from Chomsky’s 9/11. Considering that both statements were made within a few days of the attack, they seem perfectly reasonable.

28

lemuel pitkin 07.16.09 at 11:46 pm

though the sanctions were indeed weapons of mass destruction, I do think, MSS @ 12, that organizing an international coalition to eliminate Saddam’s access to WMD is pretty sane. A fine alternative to war, too. I mean, what’s the alternative position? Let Saddam have access to WMD if he really really wants them.

Yes, that is one alternative.

Let’s think about a counterfactual history of the last, say, 15 years. Sanctions lifted in the mid-90s, no Iraq war, and Saddam in possession of “WMD”. Compare that to actuality. On the plus side, several million living Iraqis who are now dead, and millions more with lives not stunted by the collapse of the country.

On the minus side, Saddam still in power. If you think that’s sufficiently worse than the anarchy and civil war the country has just been through, you can revive the humanitarian case for the war. And, of yes, those “WMDs” Saddam now has access to. Which mean that …. well, what, exactly? HWho is worse off in a world where Iraq has “WMDs”, and how?

29

geo 07.16.09 at 11:52 pm

And here’s the context of the “silent genocide” remark. It’s from a talk given on October 18, 2001, shortly after the US bombing commenced:

“After the first week of bombing, The New York Times reported on a back page, inside a column on something else, that by the arithmetic of the United Nations, there will soon be 7.5 million Afghans in acute need of even a loaf of bread and there are only a few weeks left before the harsh winter will make deliveries to many areas totally impossible. But with bombs falling, the delivery rate is down to half of what is needed. Casual comment. Which tells us that Western civilisation is anticipating the slaughter of three-four million people or something like that. On the same day, the leader of Western civilisation dismissed with contempt, once again, offers of negotiation for delivery of the alleged target, Osama bin Laden, and a request for some evidence to substantiate the demand for total capitulation. On the same day, the Special Rapporteur of the U.N. in charge of food pleaded with the United States to stop the bombing to try to save millions of victims. As far as I’m aware, that was unreported.

“Looks like what’s happening is some sort of silent genocide. It also gives a good deal of insight into the elite culture, the culture that we are part of. It indicates that plans are being made and programmes implemented on the assumption that they may lead to the death of several million people in the next few months.”

Again, given the circumstances in which the comment was made, the fact that he did actually offer some basis for it from news reports, and that his main purpose was clearly to draw attention to the complete lack of recognition in mainstream commentary that the US bombing could lead to massive loss of innocent life, it doesn’t seem so unreasonable.

30

lemuel pitkin 07.16.09 at 11:52 pm

has anyone yet countered the claim that the nation descended into a kind of mass psychosis back then?

if it turns into an ‘i was lefter than you back when session’, it will get tediouser.

So your proposal is that we remember that “the nation” went crazy and forget that in fact lost of people didn’t? Sorry, k.b., no deal.

31

Michael Bérubé 07.17.09 at 12:04 am

I don’t think Moore ever said that and am pretty much sure that Chomsky never did. Chomsky in general hates conspiracy theories in a quite annoyingly mindless manner.

Dsquared, George is right — it’s in 9-11 at pp. 59-60, and in Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country? at page 16. George and I may disagree here about what constitutes reasonable skepticism about bin Laden, but I really don’t make these things up. As for the reasonable skepticism, Richard Clarke knew the conditions well, and knew 9/11 was bin Laden’s work — and said so, of course, to the Cheney Cabal who wanted him to tie it to Iraq instead.

“The Mouse that Roared” was fiction. The 9/11 attacks were carried out using nothing more than boxcutters, a little imagination and a lot of organizational discipline. I am surprised that anyone needs to be reminded of any of these facts.

Um, Dr. Memory, no one is saying that Iraq was about to take over the world. I was merely saying that building an international coalition to block Saddam’s access to WMD in 2002, instead of invading the country, sounds pretty sane to me. As for whether chemical weapons should be included in that term of propaganda, I’ll leave that delicate question to the Kurds.

has anyone yet countered the claim that the nation descended into a kind of mass psychosis back then?

because that, i took it, was the point of the o.p., and of the examples from kelly.

that and saying thanks to hilzoy.

Thanks, Kid Bitzer. I’ll only add this: at the time, I completely underestimated the extent of the psychosis. As late as summer 2002, I still didn’t believe that very many liberals would line up in support of the war. Half of the Democrats in the Senate, sure, but not the liberal intellectuals to my immediate right. I were wrong.

And I’ve always believed that Duncan Black was right about the almost-forgotten anthrax scare: the presumption that Iraq was involved was so strong among the punditry — “though,” as I put it in the forthcoming book, “why Saddam would want to target postal workers and tabloid editors and Democratic elected officials like Tom Daschle was not made clear at the time.”

Thanks again to hilzoy, and to everyone else who helped to start this here alternative media network in 2002-03.

32

Keith 07.17.09 at 12:06 am

It’s also important to remember that it wasn’t just crazy right-wingers who were crazy in 2002. Some of our good friends here and throughout the liberal blog world were supporters, from mild to quite eager, of the Iraq war and other terrible, terrible ideas.

The difference being that the liberal supporters/hawks wised up and eventually came around to realizing the error of their ways because they are liberal, and thus swayed by the sort of empirical facts that truefan republicans dismiss as having a liberal bias.

33

Michael Bérubé 07.17.09 at 12:12 am

And George, I’ll save the full discussion of that “silent genocide” for the fallout from that forthcoming book o’ mine. Suffice it to say for now that Chomsky has continued to press that claim long after the initial circumstances in which he first made it. As I suggested the last time we discussed this question on this fine blog, it’s one thing to warn of a possible humanitarian catastrophe. Perfectly reasonable, entirely laudable. It’s quite another thing to say, long after the catastrophe thankfully did not come to pass, that it should have been called a silent genocide anyway (Hegemony or Survival, 129) and to say of those who reassessed the moral calculus after the fall of the Taliban and the resumption of aid convoys, “at the same level of moral imbecility, one would rush into the streets every October to sing praises to the Kremlin, while ridiculing those who warned of the dangers of placing missiles in Cuba and persist in condemning the criminal lunacy of the act” (Hegemony or Survival, 78).

34

Ali 07.17.09 at 12:20 am

Ah, the reference to den Beste reminded me of something Daniel may be interested in.

I ran across this a while ago: den Beste, in a series of short comments on another conservative blog, gave his reasons for quitting blogging. The main one, he says, was that:

“I’ve been suffering for years from a genetically-caused degenerative disease. For the last year or so, the only way I was able to continue posting was by taking increasing doses of very powerful stimulants.”

I kid you not. Go read the whole thing.

This explains quite a bit about certain aspects of SDB’s output in the past, I’d have to say. It shines rather a new light on Daniel’s old speculations that “Engineers on mobile phone projects drink a lot of coffee, full stop. And a lot of the longer and more barking SdB posts really do have the air of the kind of wild speculations that you find yourself engaging on when you’re up against a tight deadline, full of information and with your brain chemistry slightly altered…”

35

lamont cranston 07.17.09 at 12:32 am

Here’s what wikipedia says about the polls during the month of the invasion:

Days before the March 20 invasion, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll found support for the war was related to UN approval. Nearly six in 10 said they were ready for such an invasion “in the next week or two.” But that support dropped off if the U.N. backing was not first obtained. If the U.N. Security Council were to reject a resolution paving the way for military action, 54% of Americans favored a U.S. invasion. And if the Bush administration didn’t not seek a final Security Council vote, support for a war dropped to 47%. [9]
An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken after the beginning of the war showed a 62% support for the war, lower than the 79% in favor at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War. [1]

That’s not a nation gone mad, it’s a nation standing up remarkably well to relentless propaganda and fear-mongering. The fact that many liberal intellectuals did worse than the country as a whole shouldn’t bling us to the bigger picture.

36

lamont cranston 07.17.09 at 12:32 am

“blind us,” that is.

37

Doctor Memory 07.17.09 at 1:23 am

I was merely saying that building an international coalition to block Saddam’s access to WMD in 2002, instead of invading the country, sounds pretty sane to me.

I’m going to gently note that your phrasing implied that there were no reasonable positions other than somehow preventing Saddam from acquiring “WMD.” We’re in violent agreement that anything would have been better than invading, but even using the phrase “WMD” is question-begging. This isn’t just a matter of being obstreperous to avoid accepting the Bushite “frame” — the position that Iraqi “WMD” posed no military threat to us is, at the very least, somewhat supported by the evidence.

As for whether chemical weapons should be included in that term of propaganda, I’ll leave that delicate question to the Kurds.

I suspect we agree more than disagree on the general aspects of this discussion, and there is no doubt that Saddam’s use of chemical agents against the Kurds was a war crime, but it seems slightly relevant to note that, circa 2002, the Kurds had won. Iraqi Kurdistan was de facto independent, a fact enforced at very little cost by the entirely conventional armaments of the US Air Force. Chemical weapons did not allow Saddam to prevail over so much as a rogue province of his own country; exactly why should any country with a functional army have felt threatened by them?

38

P O'Neill 07.17.09 at 1:38 am

George Bush got a major approval rating boost from the Iraq war.

http://www.cbsnews.com/elements/2006/03/23/in_depth_politics/frameset1433259.shtml

Lots of people thought war was cool until it obviously wasn’t. But he still won in 2004.

39

lemuel pitkin 07.17.09 at 1:44 am

As for whether chemical weapons should be included in that term of propaganda, I’ll leave that delicate question to the Kurds.

That’s an excellent candidate for the Michael Kelly award right there.

40

Ben Alpers 07.17.09 at 2:01 am

The difference being that the liberal supporters/hawks wised up and eventually came around to realizing the error of their ways because they are liberal, and thus swayed by the sort of empirical facts that truefan republicans dismiss as having a liberal bias.

Sort of.

Take Kevin Drum. On the eve of the invasion, Drum was a war supporter, though he noted that if it turned out that the administration were lying about WMD, Bush would deserve to be impeached.

Four years later, with Democrats back in control of Congress, Drum had admitted the war was a mistake and that Bush had lied, but now openly mocked advocates of impeachment.

Sensible liberal hawks are often better at admitting that mistaken wars were mistaken after the fact than they are at learning the broader lessons of mistaken wars. And the divisions among “the left” (by which I mean Democrats and people to their left, not the smaller, actual left) over impeachment often reproduced the divisions over the rush for war.

Incidentally, I find it fascinating that much of the disagreement in this thread concerns the continuing, largely unsuccessful war on Afghanistan (though this disagreement takes the form of an argument about Noam Chomsky). Unlike the war on Iraq, this war was at least arguably legal. Perhaps this is why the (still) sensible left has never taken seriously arguments against it. In the case of Afghanistan, the dominant narrative has become that it all would have gone great had Bush not diverted resources to Iraq. This has always seemed like a pretty questionable contention to me.

In the fall of 2001, I’m ashamed to say, I was not against the invasion of Afghanistan, in part because I had expected Bush to do something really irrational (like invade Iraq) and was relieved that he didn’t do so at the time. But I’ve come to feel that, especially given who was in charge in the fall of 2001, the better position on that war would have been outright opposition.

At any rate, whatever silly things Chomsky and others may have said about Afghanistan, they shouldn’t stand in the way of a more frank revisiting of the question of whether that war made–or makes–any sense.

41

geo 07.17.09 at 2:02 am

Sorry, Michael, but I still think you’ve misrepresented Chomsky in both instances.

1) Re 9/11: Chomsky never expressed the slightest skepticism that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attacks; on the contrary. And he affirmed that bin Laden was “a prime figure” in al-Qaeda and “an inspiration” to it. He refers to al-Qaeda throughout 9/11 as “the bin Laden network” and never suggests any disagreement between the two. And his statements about bin Laden’s personal involvement (only ten days after the event, remember) are properly tentative: “may or may not have been involved” and “it’s entirely possible.” Moreover, he refers throughout the book and elsewhere to bin Laden’s “crimes,” in a way that leaves no doubt that he has no intention at all of absolving bin Laden of moral and legal responsibility for 9/11. You clearly mean to suggest that there’s something foolish or irresponsible about Chomsky’s statements, and I don’t believe there is.

2) Re Afghanistan: Here’s the full quote from page 128-9 of Hegemony and Survival: “‘Studied lack of interest’ in the likely consequences of war for the population of the country to be invaded is conventional. The same was true when, five days after 9/11. Washington demanded that Pakistan eliminate ‘truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan’s civilian population,’ and caused the withdrawal of aid workers along with severe reduction in food supplies, thereby leaving ‘millions of Afghans … at grave risk of starvation” — risk of what should have properly have been termed “silent genocide.” Estimates of the numbers at ‘grave risk of starvation’ rose from 5 million before 9-11 to 7.5 million a month later. The threat and then reality of the bombing elicited sharp protests from aid organizations and warnings of what might ensue, which received only scattered and very partial attention, and little reaction.” (Quotes from NY Times and International Security
He’s perfectly right that, given plausible warnings of mass starvation as a result of the planned bombings, all decent people should have seen this as a prospective “silent genocide” and vigorously protested it, and that very few decent people did. He is not saying, as you suggest, that it “should have been called a ‘silent genocide'” even after the feared mass starvation did not take place.
I think you also misinterpret the other quote you mention from Hegemony and Survival (p. 78). He is most definitely not saying that those who “reassessed the moral calculus” for continuing the war in Afghanistan after the resumption of the aid convoys and the non-occurrence of mass starvation were moral imbeciles. He is saying that those who ridiculed the decent people who warned of mass starvation and opposed the bombings for that reason were moral imbeciles, just as anyone who, after the world was not blown up in October 1962, absolved Khruschev of dangerous recklessness for having placed missiles in Cuba would have been a moral imbecile. Again, perfectly correct. They would indeed have been moral imbeciles; and mainstream commentators who ridiculed leftists who warned of a probable “silent genocide” were moral imbeciles.

42

Walt 07.17.09 at 3:19 am

geo’s excerpts make one thing clear: Noam Chomsky is Michael Kelly.

In the big scheme of things it’s a minor issue, but the quality of argumentation in traditional sectors of the left like the Nation in 2002 was terrible, something that Chomsky’s writings of that era exemplify reasonably well. I’m surprised that Chomsky is apparently doubling down on the same arguments.

43

Michael Bérubé 07.17.09 at 3:38 am

Doctor Memory @ 37: the position that Iraqi “WMD” posed no military threat to us is, at the very least, somewhat supported by the evidence.

Yes indeed! And that’s why the sane course of action, imho, was to let the inspectors do their job, and build that international coalition Gore was talking about.

Iraqi Kurdistan was de facto independent, a fact enforced at very little cost by the entirely conventional armaments of the US Air Force. Chemical weapons did not allow Saddam to prevail over so much as a rogue province of his own country; exactly why should any country with a functional army have felt threatened by them?

Violent agreement here too: inspections and no-fly zones were perfectly OK with me. But here as in that forthcoming book, I take issue with “leftists” who claimed that inspections and no-fly zones were unacceptable violations of Iraqi sovereignty.

Ben Alpers @ 38: In the fall of 2001, I’m ashamed to say, I was not against the invasion of Afghanistan, in part because I had expected Bush to do something really irrational (like invade Iraq) and was relieved that he didn’t do so at the time. But I’ve come to feel that, especially given who was in charge in the fall of 2001, the better position on that war would have been outright opposition.

I think this is now the dominant retrospective narrative on the left, Ben. But I don’t think you have to be ashamed of wanting to destroy al-Qaeda’s training camps, I really don’t. Nor do I think you should be ashamed of supporting the overthrow of the Taliban.

But the Afghanistan war is now an altogether different matter, and if you’d like to hear a sane centrist assessment of it, there’s always this.

44

Ben Alpers 07.17.09 at 3:48 am

But I don’t think you have to be ashamed of wanting to destroy al-Qaeda’s training camps, I really don’t. Nor do I think you should be ashamed of supporting the overthrow of the Taliban.

I wouldn’t be ashamed of supporting either of those things.

What I’m ashamed of is supporting a U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, which, among other things, proved to be a not particularly effective method of getting rid of either al Qaeda or the Taliban.

45

Michael Bérubé 07.17.09 at 4:01 am

And George @ 41, I do admire the valiant cleanup work you attempt on Chomsky’s behalf, here and elsewhere. You realize, surely, that I have now taken it as my solemn task to determine, just for the record, whether you are willing to disagree with anything Noam Chomsky has said since 1935. (Seriously, I have to admit that your opening essay in What Are Intellectuals Good For? reminds me why I consider Chomsky worthy of a Lifetime Achievement Award.) But once again with feeling, let’s take Chomsky on moral imbecility, word for word.

Aid agencies, scholars, and others who properly warmed of the risks in Afghanistan and Iraq were ridiculed when the worst, fortunately, did not come to pass.

If this is true, surely it can be substantiated. Were those people and agencies really ridiculed? When and where and by whom? In our exchanges to date, I have referred you to sober reassessments of the aid agencies’ warnings, but you have not referred me to the ridicule to which Chomsky refers here. I need to see these moral imbeciles before I can pass on their level of imbecility.

Here’s the context of the passage from Hegemony or Survival:

It is the merest truism that choices are assessed in terms of the range of likely consequences. We understand the truism very well when considering the actions of official enemies but find it hard to apply to ourselves. There are many illustrations, including recent US military exercises. Aid agencies, scholars, and others who properly warned of the risks in Afghanistan and Iraq were ridiculed when the worst, fortunately, did not come to pass. At the same level of moral imbecility, one would rush into the streets every October to sing praises to the Kremlin, while ridiculing those who warned of the dangers of placing missiles in Cuba and persist in condemning the criminal lunacy of the act.

As I argue in yon book, here Chomsky disingenuously characterizes those who disagreed with his assessment of “silent genocide” (a phrase wholly of Chomsky’s devising, not used by any scholar or aid agency with regard to Afghanistan) as people who engaged in ridicule of proper warnings. He then likens them to Soviet apologists singing praises to the Kremlin for precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis. And he calls them moral imbeciles. I am not misrepresenting Chomsky’s post hoc position on the temporary interruption of aid convoys. I am citing him accurately and disagreeing with him.

And I’m sorry, but this just won’t do. It is the merest truism that choices are assessed in terms of the range of likely consequences, but it is also the merest truism that those choices can be reassessed in terms of actual outcomes. And on those grounds, I believe that the people who said, in late 2001, “thank goodness, famine was averted, the worst did not come to pass, and the Taliban was overthrown” were not, in fact, moral imbeciles.

46

Donald Johnson 07.17.09 at 4:08 am

“n the big scheme of things it’s a minor issue, but the quality of argumentation in traditional sectors of the left like the Nation in 2002 was terrible, something that Chomsky’s writings of that era exemplify reasonably well. I’m surprised that Chomsky is apparently doubling down on the same arguments.”

What was stupid about what Chomsky said? As it turned out, maybe 20,000 died of war-related famine from the 2001-2002 war (a number that comes from an article in the Guardian in May 2002 that I’m not going to look up). But there was a fair chance the death toll could have been much greater and in the US, at least, the issue was mainly ignored, except for feel-good stories about how the US was feeding hungry people with aerial food drops.

I think the lack of interest in the issue was just what one would expect. The US had been attacked and so most Americans wanted very badly to believe in a simple morality play of pure good vs. pure evil. So if anyone did bring up the issue of famine, naturally Americans would eagerly accept the notion that if any innocent person starves, it’s entirely the fault of the Taliban. To be fair to most Americans, I doubt many of them even knew there was an issue, but to be fair to the MSM, they probably knew what many of their readers wanted to hear.

47

Michael Bérubé 07.17.09 at 4:09 am

a U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, which, among other things, proved to be a not particularly effective method of getting rid of either al Qaeda or the Taliban

You wanted to “get rid of” these things? That seems unrealistic. But yeah, as long as we’re talking about reassessing things in terms of actual outcomes, regretting one’s support for the invasion of Afghanistan is reasonable enough. I have my moments too. But really, do read Stephen Biddle’s essay. He’s perfectly willing to countenance plausible arguments for US withdrawal (as am I), and here’s a teaser:

The United States invaded Afghanistan in the first place to destroy the al-Qaeda safe haven there—actions clearly justified by the 9/11 attacks. But al-Qaeda is no longer based in Afghanistan, nor has it been since early 2002. By all accounts, bin Laden and his core operation are now based across the border in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The Taliban movement in Afghanistan is clearly linked with al-Qaeda and sympathetic to it, but there is little evidence of al-Qaeda infrastructure within Afghanistan today that could directly threaten the U.S. homeland. If the current Afghan government collapsed and were replaced with a neo-Taliban regime, or if the Taliban were able to secure political control over some major contiguous fraction of Afghan territory, then perhaps al-Qaeda could re-establish a real haven there.

But the risk that al-Qaeda might succeed in doing this isn’t much different than the same happening in a wide range of weak states throughout the world, from Yemen to Somalia to Djibouti to Eritrea to Sudan to the Philippines to Uzbekistan, or even parts of Latin America or southern Africa. And of course Iraq and Pakistan could soon host regimes willing to put the state’s resources behind al-Qaeda if their current leaderships collapse under pressure.

Many of these countries, especially Iraq and Pakistan, could offer al-Qaeda better havens than Afghanistan ever did.

Read the whole thing, as we used to say on blogs.

48

Walt 07.17.09 at 4:11 am

Michael, are you really arguing they weren’t ridiculed, or am I misunderstanding? Surely they were ridiculed by somebody, even somebody less reptilian than Michael Kelly.

49

Donald Johnson 07.17.09 at 4:19 am

“If this is true, surely it can be substantiated. Were those people and agencies really ridiculed? When and where and by whom? “

That’s a very clever rhetorical trick, Michael, but it only works if there was some widespread public debate in the US in late 2001 about the famine warnings that were being put out by the aid groups. There wasn’t. And that’s Chomsky’s point, and he has been ridiculed repeatedly for making it, usually by people who don’t seem to know that there was a real danger of war-imposed famine in Afghanistan back then. The aid agencies weren’t ridiculed in the US, AFAIK, because in the US most people didn’t know the aid agencies were warning of a war-induced famine.

There was more of a debate in Great Britain, I think. And iirc, Clare Short (sp?) was critical of the aid groups for their famine warnings.

50

Donald Johnson 07.17.09 at 4:22 am

Here’s a Nick Cohen piece in the Guardian about the possibility of famine. I don’t recall anything so clearcut on the issue being published in the MSM in the US–for that you had to go to Noam.

Link

51

Walt 07.17.09 at 4:25 am

Donald, that argument is Kelly-esque. It’s possible that there would have been mass famine in Afghanistan, just like it was possible that that our first warning that Iraq had nuclear weapons would be a mushroom cloud over Manhattan.

52

Donald Johnson 07.17.09 at 4:31 am

Walt, your analogy is stupid. The aid agencies were warning that the bombing in Afghanistan was preventing the delivery of food shipments by truck, which was the only way to deliver the food in the necessary quantities. If the Taliban had held their ground through the winter months, then there would have been a large scale famine. Even as it was some people died of starvation (in the thousands, and you’ve irritated me enough that I will go find a link).

Comparing this to the danger posed by nuclear weapons that didn’t exist that could have been delivered by delivery systems that didn’t exist is, well, stupid.

53

Donald Johnson 07.17.09 at 4:35 am

Here is the Guardian story about the thousands that did die–

link

I would say that real deaths put the Afghan famine into a slightly different category from the imaginary deaths from an Iraqi nuclear weapon that occurred only in the heads of sensible war-supporting centrists.

54

Ben Alpers 07.17.09 at 4:50 am

Michael,

The Biddle piece, whatever its merits, concerns what to do now, not what should have been done in 2001.

As for getting rid of al Qaeda and the Taliban: it was you who suggested that I shouldn’t be ashamed of wanting those things. I was simply pointing out that that isn’t what I’m ashamed of. I’m ashamed of having supported the U.S. war on Afghanistan in the fall of the 2001. There were good reasons at the time to oppose it. And its course since then provides further reasons to question it.

You’re right of course that it was unreasonable to expect the war to get rid of al Qaeda and the Taliban. That’s part of the reason why it was right to oppose it from the start.

55

geo 07.17.09 at 5:18 am

here Chomsky disingenuously characterizes those who disagreed with his assessment of “silent genocide” (a phrase wholly of Chomsky’s devising, not used by any scholar or aid agency with regard to Afghanistan) as people who engaged in ridicule of proper warnings.

No again, Michael, this is a plain misreading of the passage you’re quoting. Chomsky is not, as you claim, calling those people who disagreed (at the time or afterward) with his assessment of the likely consequences of bombing Afghanistan “moral imbeciles.” He is, as I’ve pointed out several times, both on this thread and previously, calling people who ridiculed those who warned of the likely consequences of the bombing “moral imbeciles.” He’s not calling people who said: “No, the bombing poses no risk of mass starvation; let’s do it” moral imbeciles. He’s calling people who, after the fact, ridiculed those who had opposed the bombing because it might lead to mass starvation moral imbeciles. In answer to your question: I don’t know who he had in mind. He doesn’t name any names, at least here. But I hope we can agree that if anyone did, after the non-occurrence of mass starvation, ridicule those people who opposed the bombing because it might lead to mass starvation, then he or she was a moral imbecile.

I believe that the people who said, in late 2001, “thank goodness, famine was averted, the worst did not come to pass, and the Taliban was overthrown” were not, in fact, moral imbeciles.

For the nth time, these are not the people he called “moral imbeciles.” The people he called moral imbeciles are those who said: “Those who opposed the bombing because it might lead to famine were simply hysterical and are now unmasked as knee-jerk anti-American/pacifist leftists.”

No, the moral quality of a choice depends on the information available when the choice is made, not on subsequent information. To use an example I’ve used before, firing a gun you think is loaded at someone does not become harmless mischief when the gun unexpectedly turns out not to be. Or, to use Chomsky’s much better example, Khruschev’s reckless placing of missiles in Cuba is not rendered less reckless by the fact that the world fortunately did not blow up because of it. There was a good chance that the bombing of Afghanistan in October 2001 might have killed a very large number of innocent people. The fact that it fortunately didn’t doesn’t make the decision to bomb any less heinous.

To recap: according to Chomsky, the people who made the decision to go ahead and bomb were not moral imbeciles but, presumably, war criminals. Those who supported the decision then, or who signed on after the resumption of food aid and the non-occurrence of mass starvation, he does not characterize here. Those who ridiculed the people who opposed the decision to bomb because of the danger of mass starvation were moral imbeciles.

56

Michael Bérubé 07.17.09 at 6:11 am

For the nth time, these are not the people he called “moral imbeciles.” The people he called moral imbeciles are those who said: “Those who opposed the bombing because it might lead to famine were simply hysterical and are now unmasked as knee-jerk anti-American/pacifist leftists.”

For the xth time, George, would you be so kind as to direct me to those people?

57

jj 07.17.09 at 6:40 am

Most of the American and Israeli neocons who justify their crimes against the people of the Middle East and South Asia by reference to “moral clarity” are the same people who refer to anyone who disagrees with them as moral imbeciles. Considering that Al Qaeda and Hamas were originally the creation of the CIA and Mossod, respectively, to defeat Soviet and PLO ambitions renders either concept as morally moot.

58

dsquared 07.17.09 at 10:57 am

it is a bit absurd, and probably symptomatic of the general S&M tendencies of the left, that we started off talking about how nearly everyone went mental and only a few people managed to maintain perspective and now 57 comments later the main focus of our discussion is how the people who were, basically, right about the big picture, deserved to be criticised.

(btw, on the same page, via Amazon “look inside”, Moore says “None of this is to say that Osama isn’t a baddie or even that he didn’t have something to do with the attacks”. Moore is here advancing the “Saudi involvement” hypothesis, which doesn’t seem at all ridiculous to me and was even discussed (although then censored) in the 9/11 committee report).

59

alex 07.17.09 at 10:57 am

@57: indeed. Better, therefore, to divide everyone into ‘incompetent moral imbeciles’ and ‘impotent pontificators’, and leave it at that. Or if you have a plan, do tell.

60

magistra 07.17.09 at 12:57 pm

It is the merest truism that choices are assessed in terms of the range of likely consequences, but it is also the merest truism that those choices can be reassessed in terms of actual outcomes. And on those grounds, I believe that the people who said, in late 2001, “thank goodness, famine was averted, the worst did not come to pass, and the Taliban was overthrown” were not, in fact, moral imbeciles.

But you can’t just reassess choices in terms of outcomes without including the factor of chance. If someone warns you when you set out to drive a car when dead-drunk that you’re likely to kill someone, if you don’t end up killing someone, it doesn’t prove that your decision was a good one. It proves that you were lucky.

On the other hand, if someone tells you never to travel to London because it is full of Islamist terrorists who will murder you, and you go but are completely safe, you haven’t been lucky, you’ve just made a correct assessment of the minimal risk.

In the case of the Afghanistan non-famine, you can argue either that the US (and the Afghans) were lucky that a likely event didn’t happen, or you can argue that the US correctly assessed that a severe famine was unlikely as a consequence of their actions. Chomsky thinks there were lucky. I don’t know any of the details, but I’d say that the likelihodd that the Bush administration correctly foresaw the outcomes of their actions does not seem to me to be high. If the drunk gets out of the car and says ‘Well, I didn’t kill anyone, so you were wrong to say I shouldn’t drive, loser’, wouldn’t you call that being a moral imbecile?

61

Walt 07.17.09 at 1:28 pm

Donald, how is it specious? It’s the exact same argument. Chomsky’s claim of “silent genocide” would comfortably fit in any of Kelly’s bloviations. I’m sure Jonah Goldberg is working on her next book on how liberals are working to commit silent genocide right now.

Dsquared is right though that it’s probably a sign of masochism to get into the issue. There were good arguments against Bush-era foreign policy, and these arguments were shown by history to be completely correct, and that’s what’s important. Poor arguments we will always have with us.

62

Phil 07.17.09 at 1:32 pm

I think the Bush administration was more like the drunk driver who is warned he’s going to kill somebody, drives home anyway and ‘only’ wrecks the car. We don’t have to choose between the warning being overstated and Bush being criminally irresponsible – they can both be true.

63

engels 07.17.09 at 1:35 pm

I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what complaint is being made about Chomsky here. That nobody ridiculed ex post people who had made warnings about famines, etc? I’m sure that’s not true. That nobody prominent in the US did? I don’t know enough about USian punditry to say whether that’s right–as Donald points out people in the UK certainly did–but it’s not an objection to what Chomsky wrote. That when Chomsky remarked that people were ridiculed he was under a scholarly duty to specify exactly who was doing the ridiculing? That would be a bit silly, wouldn’t it?

On the ‘merest truism’ I think we evaluate someone’s past decision on two levels: on the one hand we can whether it was the right decision given the way things subsequently transpired, in actual fact. On the other hand we can ask whether it was a good decision given what was known or ought to have been known to the agent at the time. So if I accept the chance of winning a thousand dollars by playing Russian roulette, and it turns out the chamber is empty and I win, there is a sense in which I ‘made the right decision’–if I had acted differently I would be worse off. But there is another, perhaps more important sense, in which my decision was completely stupid.

64

Barry 07.17.09 at 2:01 pm

dsquared 07.17.09 at 10:57 am

“it is a bit absurd, and probably symptomatic of the general S&M tendencies of the left, that we started off talking about how nearly everyone went mental and only a few people managed to maintain perspective and now 57 comments later the main focus of our discussion is how the people who were, basically, right about the big picture, deserved to be criticised.”

I second this, with one exception: it’s S only; people doing this always beat up on others, and never self-flagellate.

Michael, you’re getting deep into that nasty ‘respectable liberal’ zone where one tries to prove one’s respectability to scum who will never respect one back, by bashing people to the left. It wasn’t funny in the 1990’s, it wasn’t funny post-9/11, and now *at best* it’s a mark of somebody who just won’t learn.

You’re posting comment after comment finding *anything* to criticize about leftists, while ignoring the log in your own eye.

65

Salient 07.17.09 at 2:08 pm

For the xth time, —, would you be so kind as to direct me to those people?

Okay. In print, or in space-time?

Here, come visit me late 2003 in Madison, WI where I’m putting up anti-war protest posters in the Van Vleck building (a form of venting). Meet the PDEs prof who tells me with exasperated patience how the organization I’m posting posters for has lost its credibility, because the previous set of posters re: Afghanistan (back in 2001) “warned of all this crazy stuff” (that didn’t happen) so folks now know we were “just fear-mongering” (and therefore probably still are).

(By the way, if anyone remembers the Think Before You Bomb signs here and there in UW-Madison @ 2001, those were the ones being referenced here. They were pretty damned stupid, as I didn’t know how to frame my thoughts very well.)

OK, now in whenever-2002 walk with me down State St. where the guy in army fatigues accosts me and reminds me he’s a Vietnam vet just as he did when he yelled at me while I was protesting in 2001, which BTW was a damn scary thing, and after an initial bout of calling back and forth across the street we settle down and talk, standing right there, I think because we both started feeling self-conscious about arguing with a stranger. He said I accused U.S. soldiers of threatening innocent people with starvation, “and that’s like terrorism,” i.e. I had accused the Army of terrorizing Afghanistan. [Which wasn’t my vocabulary, but I guess it does align with the naive stuff I had said: “War threatens innocent people. Threatened people learn to hate.” Evidence points did include whatever source I had found at the time, I thiiiink maybe via the I. Red Cross, that suggested the possibility of starvation. Sub in terrorizes for threatens, and yeah, same thing.]

I mean, these two folks didn’t print anything. I dunno if anyone who felt that way published their feelings. And they were, I think now, being fairly reasonable in their hindsight assessment of me, and it irritates the hell out of me that Chomsky calls such folks “moral imbeciles” because it’s uselessly dismissive.

But, uh, it seems like you’re arguing these people don’t exist.

They exist, and they had a pretty good point, and they exist.

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geo 07.17.09 at 2:14 pm

MB@56:
For the nth time, these are not the people he called “moral imbeciles.” The people he called moral imbeciles are those who said: “Those who opposed the bombing because it might lead to famine were simply hysterical and are now unmasked as knee-jerk anti-American/pacifist leftists.”

“For the xth time, George, would you be so kind as to direct me to those people?”

GS@55:

“In answer to your question: I don’t know who he had in mind. He doesn’t name any names, at least here. But I hope we can agree that if anyone did, after the non-occurrence of mass starvation, ridicule those people who opposed the bombing because it might lead to mass starvation, then he or she was a moral imbecile.”

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Henri Vieuxtemps 07.17.09 at 2:27 pm

About commemorating Michael Kelly: doesn’t the guy deserve some recognition for being a washington-establishment wingnut who’s actually been inside a humvee?

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Bloix 07.17.09 at 2:36 pm

What a shame to go down the rabbit-hole in response to a post about Hilzoy’s retirement. However, I will jump in with the rest:

The people who warned about the danger of mass starvation in response to the bombing of Afghanistan (including Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) were not wrong. They were correct that the bombing would create conditions of famine. The reason mass starvation did not ensue was that an unprecedented and massive relief effort was undertaken and that, due to the extraordinary competence and dedication of the relief workers, and the desire of the US not to have a famine, it succeeded:

“Thanks to a tremendous effort by international donors, non-governmental organizations and Afghan volunteers, Afghanistan has “averted widespread famine,” said Andrew Natsios, Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)… “It appears from the data we’ve collected and the reporting we’re getting from the field that we have
averted widespread famine in Afghanistan … This was the most extraordinary, complicated and dangerous aid effort, in terms of its size and volume and speed, that W[orld] F[ood] P[rogram] has run in its 40 years of history.””

http://cryptome.org/af-no-famine.htm

When someone’s warnings of disaster are heeded and prompt remedial measures are taken, I don’t see how you can say that they were wrong.

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Salient 07.17.09 at 3:28 pm

Barry: I second this, with one exception: it’s S only; people doing this always beat up on others, and never self-flagellate.

I was typing a rather self-flagellating post even as you wrote this, & ended up posting it 7 minutes later. :-P Semi-interestingly, I ended up removing most of the self-flagellation in an edit, not because I felt it was wrong but because I figured nobody wants to read that sort of thing.

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P O'Neill 07.17.09 at 3:35 pm

Maybe there should be a special component of an alternative Kelly award for outstanding achievement in the field of allowing New Republic feuds to infect one’s journalism.

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Michael Bérubé 07.17.09 at 3:41 pm

About Iraq predictions: here’s hilzoy’s latest.

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Michael Bérubé 07.17.09 at 3:44 pm

Damn. Cokie Roberts will never respect me now.

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Donald Johnson 07.17.09 at 5:21 pm

Walt, if you can’t tell the difference between warnings of imaginary weapons and an actual famine that did kill people, and could easily have killed more, then I don’t think you’re in a strong position to be using the word “specious” about anyone’s arguments.

As for Chomsky, I suspect that in the US he was talking about the people who ridiculed him for passing on the warnings of a possible mass famine (which in the event turned out to be a smaller famine). For examples of the kind of mindset he’s talking about, look at Walt here.

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Donald Johnson 07.17.09 at 5:28 pm

“The reason mass starvation did not ensue was that an unprecedented and massive relief effort was undertaken and that, due to the extraordinary competence and dedication of the relief workers, and the desire of the US not to have a famine, it succeeded:”

That leaves out the factor Chomsky was discussing–the relief effort couldn’t proceed while the bombing was occurring. His point was that the US wasn’t going to stop bombing in order to prevent a famine and nobody in the US mainstream was talking about it in those terms, though the issue was discussed in those terms in the UK. Fortunately the Taliban collapsed (or at least their attempts at fighting a conventional war ended) and the relief effort could go forward.

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Donald Johnson 07.17.09 at 5:44 pm

Based on the link below, Clare Short apparently attacked the aid agencies. I don’t think I’ll have time to track down her actual statement, so I don’t know what the attack consisted of. And I’ll repeat that the British press seems to have done a much better job than the cowardly Americans when it came to covering the issue of how the bombing might cause a major famine. Americans didn’t want to hear that our military action posed a threat to millions of people and that’s what Noam was talking about. I have no idea (well, actually, I do) why this is hard to understand.

link

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Yarrow 07.18.09 at 12:31 am

Bloix @68: What a shame to go down the rabbit-hole in response to a post about Hilzoy’s retirement.

You mean this isn’t all a sham to convince Hilzoy that we really need her?

Damn. We really need her.

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Jonathan 07.19.09 at 12:07 am

Though I can’t pretend to have argued as effectively as George Scialabba, I have discussed some of these issues with MB in the past. And I just wanted to comment on this: “You realize, surely, that I have now taken it as my solemn task to determine, just for the record, whether you are willing to disagree with anything Noam Chomsky has said since 1935.”

I believe that Chomsky once wrote that most scholarship was effectively just clerical* work. (It may have been Fodor.) Though I don’t know if I can honestly disagree with him, I can say, to paraphrase Wyatt Earp’s remarks to Al Swearengen, that I didn’t care for its reprehending fucking tone.

I know that the origin of this word makes the remark even more problematic.

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geo 07.19.09 at 4:04 am

Jonathan: Chomsky has probably made some version of that remark in several places, but the one I know of is on page 96 of Understanding Power:

“My suspicion is that plenty of people in the crafts, auto mechanics and so on, probably do as much or more intellectual work as plenty of people in universities. There are big areas in academia where what’s called ‘scholarly’ work is just clerical work, and I don’t think clerical work’s more challenging mentally than fixing an automobile engine — in fact, I think the opposite: I can do clerical work, I can never figure out how to fix an automobile engine.”

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Henri Vieuxtemps 07.19.09 at 8:07 am

Decades ago I used to be able to fix an engine, and back then it was interesting indeed. But nowadays days, I am afraid, it’s pretty much clerical work too: you connect a computer to it, the computer tells you which part to replace. Intellectual work now is probably network administration or something…

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Martin Wisse 07.19.09 at 10:35 am

(Never argue with Michael over Chomsky; it’s degradign for both you and the pig, so to speak.)

Hilzoy was wrong to think the US is now sane again, even if the worst of the crazies have returned to the mental asylums from whence they came. We’re back to the nineties again folk, not a particular happy time for US politics.

At the same time, US foreign policy has not drastically changed since January, nor will it. The greatest mistake you can make looking back at 2001-2004 or so, which both Hilzoy and Michael make, is to think that it was some sort of aberration, a disruption. The rage may have been, but even that has its precedents: Pearl Harbour and the hysteria bout a Japanese fifth column, the Spanish-American War. You had this public rage stoked by a newish medum, but the foreign policy pushed by the Bush administration were a continuation of what Clinton had been doing as well. Desert Fox was 1998 and had the same lies about WMD that Bush would use and was widely supported by both liberals and conservatives. Without Bush and the Septmeber 11 attacks there probably wouldn’t have been the invasion of Iraq, but there would’ve been the War on Afghanistan and there would’ve been some pressure put on the other US bogeymen in the Middle East as well.

With Obama, we’re back to a foreign policy that’s not barking mad on the surface, but that’s still based on keeping the US as the world’s sole superpower, still based on keeping the Middle East subsurvient. Obama wants to leave Iraq, (though there will be a residual force left ), but only to strengthen Afghanistan. He wants to close Guantanamo, but wants other countries to solve the problem of what to do with the innocents tortured there and he hasn’t given up extraordinary rendition, the secret prisons or even a great desire to persecute those people involved in torture.

The evil and nastiness inherent in the US and its foreign policy did not disappear with Obama’s election , but I fear that Hilzoy’s attitude is probably widespread with liberal bloggers now…

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Tim Wilkinson 07.19.09 at 8:44 pm

dsquared @20 – yes, Chomsky has that quasi-Marxist ‘everything is structural, end of story’ attitude. He’s willing to acknowledge the existence of subvening human action when it comes to corporate power running smoothly (in very broad brush – control is exerted by managers). He’s not concerned though, it seems, to do much of the sorely-needed work of analysing the sociological and social-psychological phenomena involved in explaining how not-unusually-evil people combine to perform something functionally equivalent to dastardly conspiracies.

And when it comes to state and other covert criminal activity, he wants none of it. He talks about alternative 9-11 consp. thys (to many aspects of which, btw, I can’t see any justifiable approach other than suspension of judgement) here, trotting out the usual ex cathedrisms about how easy it is for whistleblowers to pull down the covert-action house of cards (the ‘virulent plague’ model of truth), etc.

He then revealingly retrenches to ‘who cares?’. Yes, such matters are solely a distraction from preaching to the coverted about (yawn) Orwellian use of language, so, yes – who cares?

The consensus against ‘conspiracy theories’ (a propaganda term as loaded as ‘WMD’ but unreservedly used by Chomsky) pervades political print from Popper to Chomsky – and btw appears to include CT’s very own Henry, with this bit of censorship accompanied by gross misrepresentation. (Sorry, but it’s true – and rather surprising I thought.)

As Robin Ramsay points out, academia is not just unconcerned with deep politics, parapolitics, covert action hypothesising, whatever you care to call it, but enforce a pretty strong taboo against it – if it threatens to go anywhere near any of yer actual specifics.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 07.19.09 at 10:17 pm

Tim, are you sure there really are any complicated phenomena involved here? The boss calls his ambitious minion and says: ‘here’s your budget and I don’t want to know how you do it, but just make it happen.’ And things start happening. What sort of social-psychological explanation are you looking for?

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The Fool 07.20.09 at 5:12 am

I thought it was hilarious when I read that Michael Kelly got his weaselly little ass killed in Iraq. He richly deserved it. No, I’m serious. The little scumbag was a major cheerleader for an illegal war of aggression, based on a hoax, that got a million Iraqis killed. I’m glad he’s dead.

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Tim Wilkinson 07.20.09 at 1:47 pm

Henri @82 – Yes, that’s one rudimentary outline of a simple such microfoundational phenomenon. I’m not saying that what’s in need of exposition is necessarily hugely complicated nor unobvious to those who think about these things, but that it’s perhaps not widely appreciated – and rather easily dismissed as – guess what? Conspiracy theorising. I mean, is your analysis based on rigorous empirical research? If not, it just Chomksyite ranting – everyone knows that meritocratically successful, law-abiding people with neat haircuts don’t do that sort of thing (whatever it may be) – or most people, when it comes down to it, act as if that’s what they think.

Stuff like self-deception, groupthink, instinctive understandings of some very subtle signals (and some not so subtle, as in your example) along with accompanying rationalisations, self-regulating selection processes (what Nozick called ‘Filter’ mechanisms), unspoken understanding of common (class) interests, concentric circles of power and knowledge, all sorts of stuff is involved in what you or I or Chomsky or Marx might take it as obvious is really going on. The invisible fist? (or finger…)

Take the media for example – and a a media organisation which is fairly clearly (or better, somewhat less clearly) a propaganda outfit tightly controlled from the top. There is a whole range of attitudes, some only feigned, some partly iternalised, others entirely sincere, held by those involved which do not align with the fairly evident facts of what is going on at a naked power relations level. Many of the journos involved probably do not think that they are following orders to produce ideological propaganda. There are great subtleties – just as with the academic taboo on discussing contemporary history as far as large-scale official criminality is involved.

On a sligh tangent, I also don’t think there is a sharp line between ‘conspiracy theories’ – as those involving criminal activity, and the kind of analysis that Chomksy gestures at. Both involve some quite intricate human interactions of the kind I’m gesturing towards. And neither are as clear cut as the parody

I take it that understanding this kind of stuff and propagating that understanding – is pretty important. ((I have that much in common with ‘conspiracy theorists’, even silly grandiose ones – and those interested in unrelated matters like aliens, the occult etc., with which covert action researchers are routinely associated – for obvious reasons but with less obvious delivery mechanisms. That’s contrary to one strand of the multifarious cod-psych theories about them – that they seek to guard an esoteric truth in order to feel special – why all the websites then, Sigmund?))

That involves convincing people who tend to trust authority- and other high-status figures. And the former include those who assent to propositions like ‘big business only cares about profit, ‘most politicians aren’t really engaged in providing democracy’, ‘the ruling class stick together’ etc, but who don’t apply such general attitudes in particular cases.

Part of that is because of the exaggerated nature of both conspiracy theories and Chomskyite corruption-as-usual theories. Neither the puerile Manichaean Hollywood baddies of ‘traditional’ conspiracy theories, nor the faceless powermongers of Chomsky’s Corporate Intersts match the experienced normality of the exemplars people actually encounter. ‘Manufacturing Consent’, for example, IIRC (and I may not), basically assumes a false dichotoy between producer and consumer of propaganda,

Perhaps that kind of info is best got across in fiction – I suppose Orwell just about managed it without being overbearingly didactic – but think there are aspects that are not really fully understood, as well as possbly -these days – better delivery mechanisms, such as new coinages describing such phenomena – like ‘passive-aggressive, which is an immensely useful expression which seems to crustallise a previously inchoate understanding of an independently recognisable phen. and is now current among almost all parts of society.

BTW I encountered a straightforward if trivial (for those without pushchairs) example of the ‘command and control’ case just a minute ago, when an EDF (that’s one of the state-sanctioned energy oligopolists) van parked on a dangerous double yellow line, ignoring the available (pay) parking spaces. I asked the bloke if that was company policy. He started wity what was clearly a wel-rehearsed speil about the 20 minutes permitted for loading. I explained I wasn;t havig ago at him but just interested and he confirmed that he was told to park on double yellows (even though there isn’t any loading going on) and expected to avoid paying for parking.

(Of course that’s partly to do with the fact that the council enforce payment and fines wrt designated spaces but the cops aren’t interested in those parked on double yellows or for that matter in the middle of minor roads, and publicly employed traffic wardens – those not associated with particular revenue streams – are now a distant memory.)

Sorry, this is a bit rambling, I had a few while watching the cricket ( not free to air you see and I can’t bear to pay for cola when lager is basically the same price), but more relevantly I’m not entirely clear on the findings of the required research.

PS – if you look at C’s ‘five filters’ in Manufacturing Consent basically non eof them address what you might call the ‘cui bono’ gap – he describes the interests involved and what they do, but not really exactly how they do it. Thta’s fine if you already know (or imagine you know, or are happy that some micro exaplnation muct be available), but not a useful way of changing minds.

#83 deserved perhaps (in ‘poetic justice’ terms), but not hilarious. (Sorry to be a spoilsport.)

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Henri Vieuxtemps 07.20.09 at 2:24 pm

Actually, I seem to (vaguely) remember Manufacturing Consent describing the mechanics of how the right people get into the right positions in a hierarchy; the usual “survival of the fittest” sort of thing, IIRC.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 07.20.09 at 4:44 pm

Here’s what they write:

A propaganda model also helps us to understand how media personnel adapt, and are adapted, to systemic demands. Given the imperatives of corporate organization and the workings of the various filters, conformity to the needs and interests of privileged sectors is essential to success. In the media, as in other major institutions, those who do not display the requisite values and perspectives will be regarded as “irresponsible,” “ideological”, or otherwise abberant, and will tend to fall by the wayside. While there may be a small number of exceptions, the pattern is pervasive, and expected. Those who adapt, perhaps quite honestly, will then be free to express themselves with little managerial control, and they will be able to assert, accurately, that they perceive no pressures to conform. The media are indeed free – for those who adopt the principles required for their “societal purpose.” There may be some who are simply corrupt, and who serve as “errand boys” for state and other authority, but this is not the norm.

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John Emerson 07.20.09 at 6:50 pm

Well, I quit blogging (you’re welcome!) because I realized that Hilzoy (a leading indicator) would decide that things are OK again, so that she could quit blogging.

Nothing will be rolled back, any more than it was by Carter or by Clinton. There are about as many crazies as ever, and they haven’t lost their spirit in the slightest. Obama was tossed the biggest hot potato since the Civil War, and if he doesn’t succeed, the crazies will be back.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 07.20.09 at 8:46 pm

Hey man, I’m glad you’re alive. But I’m still worried about christian h whose last comment on this blog (almost 2 months ago) was this

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Z 07.21.09 at 7:54 am

For the xth time, George, would you be so kind as to direct me to those people?

Frankly, Michael, this is getting a bit tedious. It might be true true that Chomsky doesn’t name names in the passage of Hegemony and Survival you quote, but he gives a handful of examples in other places that shows up in a five minute google search. Anyway, you could start with this link:

http://www.chomsky.info/articles/200303–.htm

And there you have Bill Keller having incredibly offensive words. Besides, what Chomsky repeats tediously is usually sourced in one of his earlier work. In that case, I distinctly remember the existence of (rather funny) precise quotes in one of my audio book. If you are sincere about a fair assessment of this question, Michael, then I will make the effort of listening to them until I find the relevant passage, but I will do so only if I have the assurance that you in turn will acknowledge that his characterization was not baseless once I find the direct sourced quote (as I know I will). I write if because I must confess that your apparent unwillingness to concede that Geo is right in your conflicting interpretations of the passage under dispute, something which is evident even to someone with such a limited command of English as myself, does not suggest you approach this issue with the maximum possible good faith.

Now let’s get serious and forget about that retired linguistics professor. The covering of the Afghan war in the US media was terrible beyond imagination. If you have any doubt about it, you could start from this page and work your way through a few of the links. All the necessary details about ridiculing protesters are meticulously archived.

http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=18&region_id=10&pager_start=20

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Michael Bérubé 07.21.09 at 3:28 pm

Frankly, Michael, this is getting a bit tedious.

Indeed it is. It is an iron law of the Internet, I know, that when Martin Wisse shows up, the thread goes swiftly downhill.

So let me get back to George, and let me try put this plainly. Yes, the US media coverage of the Afghanistan war was terrible. The media’s behavior in the runup to war in Iraq was also terrible. Completely ordinary critiques, like Al Gore’s, were ridiculed beyond reason. (That, indeed, was central to my point in this very post! You could look it up!) And Chomsky is right about stuff approximately 88 percent of the time, which is pretty good.

But Chomsky is mischaracterizing the critics of his “silent genocide” claim. He is claiming that people who predicted massive famine in Afghanistan were ridiculed — and studiously ignoring the people who simply contested the prediction on the merits, as here. He is thereby suggesting that everyone who took issue with the “silent genocide” line (again, wholly an invention of Chomsky’s, not used by any aid organization in the world — for those of you who care about the use and abuse of the word “genocide”) was a moral imbecile. I humbly beg to differ. That is all.

For the record, Chomsky also said that the 9/11 attacks demonstrated yet again the foolishness of “missile defense”; that they would very likely lead to a curtailment of civil liberties and a dramatic expansion of the apparatus of state surveillance within the US; and that the most likely response from the Bush-Cheney Administration would be– as he put it– “the one that probably answers Bin Laden’s prayers” by “escalat[ing] the cycle of violence, in the familiar way, but in this case on a far greater scale.” I don’t think a reasonable person could find anything to disagree with there.

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Z 07.22.09 at 5:48 am

Ah, now I think we are reaching the crux of the disagreement. You say Laura Rozen simply contested the prediction on the merit; I would say that, though she is impeccably civil, the piece you linked is exactly part of the problem in question. The article you linked is not, by any mean, a fair assessment of the situation of Afghanistan at the time of writing, and yet I suppose it is at the very end of the spectrum of what was acceptable in the US at the time. “Crying wolf?” As Donald Johnson said, about 20,000 did die of starvation. “The lead U.N. food agency, the World Food Program (WFP), has been getting 2,000 tons of food a day into Afghanistan — up from 200 tons a day before Sept. 11”. Sure. The reason being that before Sept. 11, the main concern of aid agencies was not famine seeing that the flow of food in the country was not disturbed by a war (or threat thereof).

To me the following facts remain inescapable: US elite opinion apparently took for granted that the war in Afghanistan was just and humanitarian. Yet, taking in account how the US army was structured at the time (and not a fantasy military campaign), it was certain that there would be massive civilian casualties from bombing, and taking in account the way Afghanistan was structured at the time, it was certain that there would be a famine in the following winter. This was certain on Sept. 11 (indeed, in the game of “what were you doing when you learnt of the attack”, my answer is “writing a memo on that very subject for the French Air Force”, not literally true of course, but that’s what I started doing at this very moment). If pressed to give an evaluation of the number of casualties, I would have said (at the time) 3000 from bombing, 5000 from famine within 6 months. Aid agencies gave a much direr evaluation of the second part. It turned out that I was apparently underestimating widely myself.

I think reasonable people can differ on whether, based on these facts, one should have supported the war in Afghanistan on Sept. 11. I did not, but I can understand people who did at the time.

However, I do think it was criminal to support the war in Afghanistan without knowing these facts or without paying any attention to them and I do emphatically think that writing “Was the aid groups’ opposition to bombing ideological?”, not to mention “the opposition was mostly limited to the people who are reflexively against the American use of power,” either timid supporters or “isolationists, the doctrinaire left and the soft-headed types Christopher Hitchens described as people who, ‘discovering a viper in the bed of their child, would place the first call to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’” is, well, I will strive to remain civil but, let’s say hopefully not the best instance of moral clarity and intelligence displayed by the authors of these quotes.

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Michael Bérubé 07.22.09 at 12:53 pm

Thanks, Z. Just three small things in response. One, “crying wolf” was relief worker John Fawcett’s phrase, and, as Rozen scrupulously notes, “Fawcett says aid groups shouldn’t be criticized for sounding the alarm about Afghanistan’s horrific humanitarian plight. ‘It’s aid groups’ job to cry wolf. We know that. And the WFP is doing a good job. They have been very flexible’ in a situation of constant flux on the ground in Afghanistan.” Two, although discussion of possible famine was muted at best in the US, Rozen’s essay was not in fact the leftward bound of the thinkable in mainstream American media. Jonathan Schell’s column in the Nation was quite good, partly for its criticism of the rest of the media.

Three, I too think that reasonable people can disagree over the war in Afghanistan. I still believe it was justified, and I took my cues on this from people like Richard Falk, no imperialist warmonger he, who took seriously the possibility of further attacks; but many of the consequentialist claims of people who opposed the war have turned out to be quite accurate. I don’t, however, think it was accurate to say, in early October, “looks like what’s happening is some kind of silent genocide,” and I don’t believe it made sense to keep digging in on that claim for years afterward. As for Hitchens, well, there we’re talking about someone who was chortling that Afghanistan was the first country to be bombed out of the Stone Age, and who rapidly devolved to the point at which he was calling the Dixie Chicks “fucking fat slags.” George’s essay on him in What Are Intellectuals Good For? is a thing of beauty.

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Z 07.22.09 at 2:17 pm

Thank you for your courteous response and for your thanks (undeserved in my opinion). Of course we clearly disagree on one point: I am myself much more opposed to the war in Afghanistan now that I was on prudential grounds in Sept. 2001, having felt twice in between the bitter remorse of widely underestimating the human sufferings caused by war. But so gracious is your reply to my not so gracious comments that it is a pleasure to acknowledge in return that “looks like what’s happening is some kind of silent genocide” was a very poor choice of words, a cheapening of the word genocide and precisely the kind of language Chomsky would have rightly denounced in a reverse situation.

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