When George Packer gets bored, I get scared: It means he’s in the mood for war

by Corey Robin on April 26, 2015

Greg Grandin called me on Friday.

Greg: What are you doing?

Me: Working on my Salon column.

Greg: What’s it on?

Me: George Packer.

Greg: Low-hanging fruit.

Me: Did you see that article he wrote in The New Yorker, where he says he’s bored of American politics?

Greg: Uh oh. Bombs away.

Me: That’s the first line of my column! “When George Packer gets bored, I get worried. It means he’s in the mood for war.”

So here is said column, just out this morning. Packer did say he was getting bored of American politics. In fact, he wrote a whole article on it. So I examine how his political ennui so often gives him an itch for heroism, sacrifice, and war.

Packer belongs to a special tribe of ideologically ambidextrous scribblers — call them political romantics — who are always on the lookout for a certain kind of experience in politics. They don’t want power, they don’t seek justice, they’re not interested in interests. They want a feeling. A feeling of exaltation and elation, unmoored from any specific idea or principle save that of sacrifice, of giving oneself over to the nation and its cause.

It’s not that political romantics seek the extinction of the self in the purgative fire of the nation-state. It’s that they see in that hallucination an elevation of the self, a heightening of individual feeling, an intensification of personal experience. That’s what makes them so dangerous. They think they’re shopping for the public good, but they’re really in the market for an individual experience. An experience that often comes with a hefty price tag.

Perhaps that’s why, after the Charlie Hebdo murders, Packer was so quick to man the ideological ramparts.


You can finish it here.

 

{ 68 comments }

1

David J. Littleboy 04.26.15 at 1:47 pm

My significant other likes Japanese entertainment TV. It drives me nuts with its silliness. How can you watch this, I asked one day. “It means we’re in peacetime: the sillier the TV, the fewer the people that are dying.” Someone needs to tell Packer that.

2

Anarcissie 04.26.15 at 2:15 pm

Maybe Mr. Packer wants to kill people. I mean without getting his hands dirty.

3

Glen Tomkins 04.26.15 at 3:14 pm

I only know the US at all well, so I don’t know how universally the idea of redemptive violence saturates popular culture, or how much other countries experience the same political gridlock as the US. But I’m pretty sure the US is unique in the extent of the divided sovereignty written into its constitution.

The good news for the world is that it might not be some foreign adventure that Packer gets to satisfy his thirst for redemptive violence and political change. We have Ted Cruz now out loud and proud for the 2d Amendment guaranteeing a Right of Revolt, and calling for the return of state militias. If Ted gets his way (and really, with the militarization of state and local police forces, it’s possible for a state to pull together a respectable scratch militia just from what’s already available) and the red states start arming to protect state nullification from mere court orders, Packer will get heightened gridlock, with the redemptive violence of a civil war the actual practical only way out. Packer would then presumably find a role urging the formation of blue state militias.

4

mattski 04.26.15 at 3:36 pm

Corey quoted Alexander Cockburn:

“Gridlock,” he wrote during the first year of the Clinton administration, keeps “the bastards at bay.”

I wouldn’t make this juxtaposition. From my perspective Cockburn was a hateful man with very little uplifting to say. And why hold up dysfunction as something to aspire to?!

5

Henry 04.26.15 at 3:39 pm

For someone who arses on about Max Weber and political responsibility ad nauseam, he has no great taste for the slow boring of hard boards. Sterile excitation how are ya.

6

Patrick S. O'Donnell 04.26.15 at 3:57 pm

Packer’s enthusiasms are, if not the same, quite close to what S.A. Lloyd terms Hobbes’ “transcendent interests,” those beliefs and values identified as the primary cause of social disorder and political violence. They are “transcendent” owing to their ability to trump or ignore reason, even simple and rational (‘prudential’) self-interest. In the world of Hobbes, “most men would rather lose their lives…than suffer slander.” Anxiety over real or perceived insults and humiliation rules the hearts and minds of men. (As Stephen Holmes explains, ‘haunted by envy, feelings of inferiority, and status deprivation, they are also mortified at the thought of losing face.’) The “passions” (e.g., especially pride, or honor, or reputation, or ‘glory-seeking,’ but also hate, lust, and envy, the last being ‘socially rampant’) exemplify such transcendent interests, and are powerful enough to overcome the (natural) desire for self-preservation and the fear of death (as Lloyd writes, ‘unmistakably evident in the willingness to duel, which exercised Hobbes’). And beliefs, or opinions, are emblematic of such self-interests insofar as they are “passionately held,” as in the case of those beliefs immune to the threat of sanctions or force, like the belief one is fulfilling one’s duty to God…or country (meaning in this case that one’s knowledge—along with others who share that knowledge—is defined by its being possessed with the self-righteous certainty of passionate conviction, distinct from the fallible or skeptical knowledge of others, or simply what others do not or cannot know). Hobbes did not disavow belief in religion (Christianity), but attempted to “re-describe” its true theology so as to demonstrate, for instance, that our salvation actually depends upon us obeying civil authorities.

It is these transcendent interests that make us willing to jeopardize our freedom, livelihood, even life itself, to abandon the boring, the peaceful humdrum of everyday existence (the interest in ‘commodious living’). Hobbes would be particularly concerned about the rhetoric of “heroism, sacrifice, and war.” The nefarious effects of passions or certain transcendent interests can spread like wildfire owing to the fact that we are, according to Hobbes, all-too-prone to credulity, and thus easy manipulable, and rhetoric is the spark that lights the fire (‘all agree that Hobbes viewed rhetoric as very dangerous in the wrong hands’). Hobbes well-understood this species of political romanticism, at least insofar as it means a conception of politics in search of a “feeling of exaltation and elation,” of “hankering for sacrifice, heroism, bloodlines and war.”

7

Nick 04.26.15 at 4:27 pm

Off topic, but did Jim Henley pass away? I know that he had tongue or throat cancer, and now his blog link has broken. He was a good writer, particularly on the subject of imperial war.

8

Bruce Baugh 04.26.15 at 4:36 pm

Jim’s very much alive and working on the mending. Not sure what’s up with the blog, but it hasn’t killed him.

9

UserGoogol 04.26.15 at 4:45 pm

This theme you keep going back to makes me think that milquetoast liberals are drastically underrated. The desire for conflict and heroism leads people into war and reactionaryism. The milquetoast liberal cuts such sentiments off at their root, and opens up the space to hand-wringingly advance society forward.

10

William Timberman 04.26.15 at 5:00 pm

Give George Packer a big, heavy gun and a parachute. Dump him out of the back of a C-17 over a failed state somewhere. No need to waste a blog post on a jingo with a bullet hole in him.

11

Keith Ivey 04.26.15 at 6:15 pm

Yes, Jim Henley is still active on Twitter: https://twitter.com/UOJim/with_replies

I think there’s just a technical problem with his blog that he hasn’t been able to get fixed. It only happened a week ago or so.

12

William Berry 04.26.15 at 6:30 pm

Patrick @6:

Great comment.

Camus also deals at length with the perverse effects of transcendent ideas in the The Rebel. Indeed, this is what the book is really about. He classifies Sartre’s (w/o mentioning him by name!) brand of communism as an idealism of this kind, and ends by recommending a complete renunciation of every kind of transcendence.

That would be a leftist program I would support whole-heartedly.

Citizens of The Republic: One more step if you want to be democratic socialists! Down with Transcendence!

P.s: Packer is an excellent writer of expository prose; what a waste of talent!

13

mdc 04.26.15 at 6:35 pm

Your reading helps show how apolitical, so to speak, Packer’s romanticism is. He is “enlarged,” as are some of his readers, merely by thinking about Charlie Hebdo in a certain way. Being published is all the satisfaction he needs. It’s more a literary project: the goal is not to effect any particular action, but to have been, in print, on the “right” side. But this suggests that there’s not much to fear here, except as a cautionary example of intellectual vice. I tend to doubt the war makers need him, though they probably appreciate the sentiment.

14

William Berry 04.26.15 at 6:39 pm

Also, too, Camus’ thoughts on “revolutionary asceticism”: The ascetic revolutionist going to extremes of self-abnegation is bound to care little for the instrumental suffering of others.

I read somewhere once that a similar ethic informed the cruelty of officer/ soldier of the Japanese Imperial Army. The Bushido code called for such a degree of self-sacrifice and a willingness to suffer it becomes impossible to really care about the suffering of others.(Especially when they are of the “other”)

15

Abbe Faria 04.26.15 at 6:55 pm

“Perhaps that’s why, after the Charlie Hebdo murders, Packer was so quick to man the ideological ramparts.”

Other people were just as quick.

http://crookedtimber.org/2015/01/07/charlie-hebdo/

The only difference I can see is that Packer correctly identifies the Islamist assasination campaign directed at blasphemers as a continuing threat – and indeed it’s continued in Verviers and Copenhagen. The ‘Islamophobic’ backlash Bertam was just as quick to step over 12 corpses to prophesy remains imaginary.

Anyway, you’ve introduced me to a very perceptive writer – so thank you at least for that.

16

geo 04.26.15 at 7:05 pm

mattski @4: From my perspective Cockburn was a hateful man with very little uplifting to say.

May I offer you a new perspective?

http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/saeva-indignatio-the-case-against-americas-culture-of-class-warfare

http://www.thebaffler.com/blog/the-assassins-fate/

17

Bruce Wilder 04.26.15 at 7:50 pm

Packer’s so-called romanticism is “apolitical” because his centrism — his first commitment is the centrist’s commitment to have no commitments — requires passion only in other people.

I think the centrist political reporter is always bored. It’s his job to be bored. To actually care about anything a scintilla beyond detached reporting is a firing offense. So, he calls piously for political reporters to drop the theatre review and to stop repeating a politician’s lies uncritically. Like that will ever happen. Probably right after Goldwater Girl Hilary Clinton gives that populist barnburner of a speech on inequality that he wishes for.

But, credit where credit is due: the 2016 Presidential campaign is shaping up to be deadly dull. The “deadly” part worries me a bit.

18

mattski 04.26.15 at 8:13 pm

geo @ 16

Thanks for the links, geo. I will respond.

19

Rich Puchalsky 04.26.15 at 8:26 pm

Cockburn was a global warming denialist, which means that he only got the most important political issue of our time wrong. Still, that’s not important in a political writer.

I have no sympathy for Packer — people who are thrilled by sacrifice should just hire a pro dom already, people who are thrilled by war should find a psychotherapist — but, in general, the temptation to see American politics primarily as a source of individual experiences is ever-present. That’s a natural consequence of outcomes being so hard to shift.

20

Roger Gathmann 04.26.15 at 8:43 pm

Cockburn did get screwball about global warming – but although it might be the most important issue of our time, it is hardly the most important political issue of our time. It is buried deep down there, beneath next year’s budget, campaign finance, ACA, etc. – just to name American issues. It has been a good excuse for high level conferences of EU technocrats and the shoutout from Davos, but the politics of global warming haven’t even begun yet. I’d have to say that, on a piecemeal basis, the issues Cockburn advocated for, from the rain forests to attacking corporatocracy, would – if his side had won – done much more to reduced carbon emissions than the superficial programs now on the table. I imagine Cockburn would have been as scathing about Shell’s current activity in the artic circle as Green peace is, if he were alive.
Cockburn had a lot of hits and misses, but for the most part his attacks were as justified as his enthusiasms. He also was one of those columnists who actually mentioned unions in america and what they were doing pretty frequently.
The Berman attack spurred my memory of previous jousts between Berman and Cockburn: http://limitedinc.blogspot.com/2014/08/cockburn-versus-berman-party-like-its.html

21

William Berry 04.26.15 at 9:06 pm

Well, I certainly didn’t agree with Alex C on everything, but I always enjoyed reading him.

Not only did he disbelieve in GW, I once read a “Beat the Devil” column in which he suggested that the Gold Hypothesis ((which suggests that petroleum is continuously being produced by bacteria deep under-ground (a kind of “steady-state” hypothesis of oil production) and will not be depleted in the foreseeable future.)) might be true.*

I am old enough to remember that he used to have a column in the WSJ Op-ed section. Token commie, I guess.

*I think that hard-core Marxians find it convenient to espouse this sort of thing (think of our own bob mcm’s sneering at feminist and LGBTQ issues) because dealing with these issues would be serious distractions from the revolutionary program.

22

Gremlin 04.26.15 at 9:29 pm

William: “I am old enough to remember that he used to have a column in the WSJ Op-ed section. Token commie, I guess.”

Token son-in-law. Alex was married to the publisher’s daughter, I believe.

23

stevenjohnson 04.26.15 at 9:54 pm

In what reasonable sense of the word is George Packer (or The New Yorker for that mater) a part of the elite?

“The ‘Islamophobic’ backlash Bertam was just as quick to step over 12 corpses to prophesy remains imaginary.”

I don’t know how even in principle you could quantitatively weight the role of Hebdo in the Islamaphobic backlash. But not only is the war against Syria still funded, there is a whole new level of war in Yemen. It’s ostensibly aimed at Iran. This is nonsense. But the western regimes that support yet another war against bad Muslims no longer need to produce coherent arguments, much less genuine facts. Islamophobic backlash is so powerful that it barely takes more than a government denunciation to win support for massacre du jour. I think the implicit moral principle is that one of “us” is worth thousands of them. There are writers who have always been clear on who “them” is, even as they pretend to include all their readers in “us.” Is there really any doubt Packer was one of that kind?

(Charlie Hebdo of course was not just Islamophobic. The French government is now blessed with elite approval of their resumption of their imperial duties in Africa, a path never disapproved by Hebdo with the venom they disdained the Christian Way.)

24

Abbe Faria 04.26.15 at 10:09 pm

Yeah, that 12 corpses bit was way too strong. Though I disagree with CB I don’t object to people taking an view on things quickly, but it is rich to criticise someone for being quick to man the ideological ramparts on a blog that did the same thing on the same day.

25

Donald johnson 04.26.15 at 11:37 pm

I loved reading Cockburn, but never felt it necessary to agree with him all the time–he was brilliant on some things and an idiot on others (like global warming).

I have mixed feelings about this post. Most of Packer’s points were reasonable,though number 6 was stupid. I didn’t see any overt desire to have another war, except maybe for the mention of radical Islam. But Corey made a good point about Packer’s Hebdo piece, which certainly did sound like all that crap we were hearing nonstop after 9/11. So apparently Packer is one of those people who, like Hitchens, takes some boyish pleasure in imagining himself manning the gates against the onslaught of the Islamist barbarians. But you couldn’t prove that from the latest New Yorker piece.

26

bob mcmanus 04.26.15 at 11:51 pm

21: I am libeled yet again! I prefer not to sneer at issues, nor at oppressed minorities (and Jennifer Lawrence is not at least my cause in getting a few million less than Fassbinder or McAvoy, there will always be opportunists climbing over the subaltern, IOW, white urban Western elite UMC women are not an oppressed minority, and I do sneer at their attempts to exploit empathy for Foxconn slave labor) but rather at the white male camp followers of the social warriors.

2) 23 is right. George Packer ain’t sending out drones or the Navy to Yemen. Unless he is secretly one of powerless Obama’s puppet masters I hear about over at LGM.

27

bob mcmanus 04.27.15 at 12:43 am

But maybe I shouldn’t sneer.

Even if this pundit vs pundit, Packer vs Robin, competition is utterly disconnected from policy; even if what we serfs talk about has absolutely nothing to do with what the elites decide; that war, economics, surveillance, I/P MENA, energy and climate, trade…even and especially elections…are no longer matters that the “people” can effect or influence in any way whatsoever, we being finally and permanently disconnected from power…

…then who is in and who is out of our particular little social circles based on expressed opinions, ideologies, fashions and tastes are no longer a “distraction” as Wolin or Hedges might claim but the entirety of the “politics” we can have or even want.

28

Marshall 04.27.15 at 1:57 am

the temptation to see American politics primarily as a source of individual experiences is ever-present. That’s a natural consequence of outcomes being so hard to shift.

Not clear on the temptation part. Who? In order to what? Americans tend to see everything as a source of individual experiences. That’s the cause, not the effect of outcomes hard to shift: almost impossible to generate a feeling of solidarity about anything social.

29

Alan White 04.27.15 at 2:14 am

Marshall: word.

Here’s an example to work off of, given that it’s accurate (I’ve no time to confirm its claim, but it’s probably right):

http://realitieswatch.com/finally-list-of-80-people-with-as-much-money-as-12-of-humanity/

Why people aren’t out in the streets rioting like after Ferguson when such facts are widely available is beyond me. I can only explain that by some sort of control of the personal narratives of the potential rioters. And I see the Kochs are spending a lot of money to make them seem like beneficent gods. Gives the moniker “Rove-ing mobs” a new twist.

30

Rich Puchalsky 04.27.15 at 2:51 am

Marshall: “Not clear on the temptation part. Who? In order to what?”

Is this really not clear, or was that rhetorical? Let’s assume as an example that you were a typical person who joined in one of the Occupy protests. You wanted various economic outcomes, or perhaps to increase left social solidarity: what you got was the experience of sleeping in a tent, participating in general assemblies, and being ejected by police. Was there a long-term effect in terms of politicians turning away from austerity and saying something about economic inequality? Perhaps: hard to say. In this kind of situation it becomes tempting for the individual activist to start thinking of political events as a source of personal experiences — the dislocation of daily life, the temporary change in social arrangements, the defiance of authority — and these can become more or less what people seek out, since after all there are no plausible routes towards actually changing important politics.

I shouldn’t really put Packer in that category: he may or may not be really “elite” whatever that means, but he’s media or pundit elite. There’s an old saying about the three life stages of an artist: first you just want to be heard, then you just want to be paid, then you just want to prove that you aren’t old. Packer gets to do the first two, which is really all a pundit can ask for (and with wanting not to be bored high up on his list of values he may be going for the third as well).

31

SN 04.27.15 at 5:17 am

No one here is mentioning Packer’s atrocious, misleading, war-glorifying and pretty successful book ‘The Assassin’s Gate.’ This little quirk of his may be somewhat related to the sorts of books he likes to write.

32

js. 04.27.15 at 5:33 am

geo @16:

Thanks for those links. Great reads, much appreciated. One small point, tho. This:

Then there was his unyielding anti-Malthusianism.

is definitely in the credit column.

33

bad Jim 04.27.15 at 6:13 am

After 9/11 there was a nearly universal upwelling of enthusiastic patriotism. The son of a Welsh colleague was visiting, and I drove him through the main street of an idyllic neighborhood in the very rich and Republican city that borders mine, festooned with flags as if for a parade, though it was the middle of an average week. He thought it odd.

I found it unpleasant, but it’s not surprising that some are nostalgic.

34

Sasha Clarkson 04.27.15 at 10:04 am

Personally, I would be very glad to live in less “interesting” times.

35

Barry 04.27.15 at 12:54 pm

Bruce Wilder 04.26.15 at 7:50 pm
“Packer’s so-called romanticism is “apolitical” because his centrism — his first commitment is the centrist’s commitment to have no commitments — requires passion only in other people.”

He’s not centrist, and his position is highly political. He’s watched the right lead us into a fraudulent war, and f*ck up two wars. He’s watched the right trash the country, and then quite disloyally wage a nihilistic campaign of the politics of destruction, taking it to unprecedented heights – or rather, heights not seen since just before the Civil War.

And the wh*reon’s basic thesis is still ‘Both Sides Do It’.

One of the roles of the press in our society is basically refereeing politics, letting us know who’s doing what to whom, etc. The press has forfeited that role, because being honest refs would work against the interests of the elites. Packer here is being a dishonest ref, looking at carnage on the field, and refusing to call fouls.

36

mattski 04.27.15 at 1:33 pm

He’s not centrist, and his position is highly political. … And the wh*reon’s basic thesis is still ‘Both Sides Do It’.

Many times–more than is good for us–we are so pissed off that we don’t notice we aren’t making any sense.

37

FedeV 04.27.15 at 2:20 pm

I think that is a fundamentally unfair characterization of his column, especially since his solutions are *against* horserace style reporting.

38

mattski 04.27.15 at 2:44 pm

In this kind of situation it becomes tempting for the individual activist to start thinking of political events as a source of personal experiences — the dislocation of daily life, the temporary change in social arrangements, the defiance of authority — and these can become more or less what people seek out, since after all there are no plausible routes towards actually changing important politics.

I wouldn’t say this. Take a look at the Stages of Grief model. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. We need to add another stage prior to denial. This is the Discovery stage. Discover the facts, that is, the suppressed history of the 1960’s. If a plurality of Americans had a clear understanding of how the progressive zeitgeist of the 60’s was destroyed (i.e., CIA sponsored murders of JFK, MLK & RFK, where CIA is functioning as de facto arm of establishment/corporate interests) then our democratic institutions would have a good chance of functioning as they were intended to.

Right now we are foundering in the Discovery & Denial phases. We need to get to the point of Accepting that this is what actually happened. (We aren’t accepting that democracy is doomed! We’re accepting that between 1963 and 1968 our best leaders were forcibly removed by narrow, elite, anti-democratic interests and that these crimes were successfully covered up for decades.)

Recommended reading:

The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy by William Turner & Jonn Christian
The 13th Juror, transcript of MLK conspiracy trial
The Last Investigation by Gaeton Fonzi
JFK and the Unspeakable by James Douglass
Destiny Betrayed 2nd ed. by James DiEugenio
see also, http://www.ctka.net

*apologies to LFC!

39

stevenjohnson 04.27.15 at 3:06 pm

No doubt there will be difference of opinion. But a prima facie case for official conspiracy behind notorious crimes like the JFK, RFK and MLK murders should start with perpetrators who were associated with some sort of law enforcement/security apparatus.

James Earl Ray in the hands of police, therefore easy target for recruitment…check.

Lee Harvey Oswald had an address next to people who did and some of the people who came into contact did, but nothing confirmed of him personally…question mark, I guess.

Sirhan Sirhan, nothing known…check off.

In general the notion that the only thing wrong with bourgeois democracy is criminal conspiracy that has not yet been exposed is crankish. It seems to me the kind of thinking that leads to increasing resort to escalating violence in vain effort to force the last battle with the forces of evil.

40

Anarcissie 04.27.15 at 3:30 pm

stevenjohnson 04.27.15 at 3:06 pm @ 39 —
No doubt there are conspiracies, but in an actually existing democracy (if there can be such a thing) great leaders should not be so crucial. If the context is really democratic, there should always be another ready to step into the place of one who is removed. But we do not have a democracy in the United States, largely because our culture is not democratic, regardless of the political forms. The class system intrinsic to capitalism, and the worship of power, wealth and fame among the lower orders, help make conspiracy possible and attractive.

41

marcel proust 04.27.15 at 4:17 pm

Anarcissie wrote:

No doubt there are conspiracies, but in an actually existing democracy (if there can be such a thing) great leaders should not be so crucial.

I used to think this way, but near the end of my 6th decade, I no longer do. My views started to change in the aftermath of Harold Washington’s death. I had lived in Chicago for several years in the 70s, but left for 9 years returning only 3 months before he died, so I missed the construction of the movement that put and kept him in office, and the council wars experience. When he died, I thought it sad but had confidence that the movement would produce another leader and continue. We know how that turned out.

We have this image of humans as mature, rational beings who can (& do) analyze information and make informed, rational decisions: essentially homo economicus transferred to the political sphere. That’s not who or what we are: more like a jumped up East African Plains Ape, to cadge a phrase. Trust is important and so is ego. It turns out that individuals, especially charismatic ones (though the nature of charisma is not fixed, and can depend on institutional characteristics), matter. At times, leaders perform a similar function to conventions like driving on the right side of the road: they provide a focal point that others can organize themselves around, that allow for co-ordination. When they are absent, this co-ordination can be much more difficult to achieve.

42

stevenjohnson 04.27.15 at 4:21 pm

Anarcissie @40

I am not comfortable with some of the formulations. In particular, I don’t understand how the moral defects of the lower orders are the cause of conspiracies.

I don’t believe “culture” is deemed a collection of psychological propensities of the population en masse either. The political system in the US is most certainly bourgeois democratic. But then I also believe bourgeois democracy is compatible with apartheid/Jim Crow or a police state and arguably even with slavery, just like most of the Founding Fathers thought.

As for great men? Of course individuals do things differently and replacement of some by others changes history. Denying this is very much like saying there really isn’t any history, just cycles, I think. But there is a sense in which this is true. Greatness comes from what the great represent I believe, not from themselves. If a person leading a great cause falls, the great following will throw up another leader. I think the repetitive falls of the supposedly great is merely the discovery that in the end they didn’t really represent much of anyone but themselves.

43

Bruce Wilder 04.27.15 at 4:27 pm

SN @ 31

Packer, in The Assassin’s Gate, documents the incompetence and negligence of the Bush Administration’s occupation and reconstruction planning — it’s the main topic of the book. It is true that he owns his own “liberal” pro-war view — that he bought much of the Bush Administration’s ostensible case for intervention, toppling Saddam Hussein and attempting to remake Iraq. He presents that view as highly ambivalent, rather than war-glorifying, imho, but your taste may vary on that. I don’t think either the book or the columns linked in the OP provide textual support for Corey Robin’s thesis, the columns even less than the book.

I’m willing to allow that Robin’s thesis is intended to be meta to Packer’s career trajectory with regard to Iraq, an impressionistic reading from trajectory rather an exegesis of a particular text on the basis of the text alone. Speaking for myself, I am puzzled by Packer’s continued willingness to speak in favor of war and the use of military force in the Middle East, given his detailed acquaintance with the careless mendacity of the Bush Administration and the military and intelligence forces Bush helped to palsy. It seems to me that Packer’s judgement, in the book and more casually in public forums since, is not adequately informed by his own reporting. One could say much the same thing about John F Burns, the English New York Times reporter, who appeared on PBS for a time where his enthusiasm for war was evident, and the Washington Post reporters, Tom Ricks (Fiasco) and Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Imperial Life in the Emerald City), the latter of whom took on a scrupulously “neutral” voice, which was oddly discordant with the facts he was reporting. It occurs to me that we are looking at a form of unnatural selection, where it is either difficult or not possible to gain access for the kind the extensive reporting they do, without twisting one’s own moral compass into bizarre shapes. And, though it will offend some to say it, I wonder if a reporter, let alone a reporter’s career, would even survive some kinds of unvarnished truth-telling. But, it may be enough that parts of the establishment not-wielding-lethal-force simply reinforce the training in bias induced in theatre, in the process of editing, publication and the all-important-in-our-media-culture promotion. Would John F Burns have a career as a PBS talking head, if he did not have his pro-war views? Would these other reporters have their books published and promoted as best sellers?

Barry @ 35

Yep.

Probably we should call it Corrupt Centrism, because the soft corruption of a complacent establishment characterizes the attitude. Packer might not be part of a genuine governing elite, but he’s definitely part of a comfortable status elite. He routinely acknowledges the rot, at least in abstract terms, and will piously and nostalgically call for better behavior (from journalists or politicians), but not for the kind of profound structural reform, amounting to (governing) elite overthrow that would be necessary to generate and sustain better behavior. His “boredom” is a spineless resignation to the sense that no one is likely to entertain him by effective action or change.

44

Bruce Wilder 04.27.15 at 4:51 pm

marcel proust @ 41

Very nicely said.

Democracies can have a remarkably difficult time settling down to a stable or sensible agenda. The vast scope and array of human ambivalence and imagination can become a centrifugal, even explosive force. And the Great Man is exactly as you say, a point of focus for coordination for conflicting groups and interests, which might otherwise squander their force in disputes. Your thesis organizes nicely what I know of such disparate figures (and their times) as Cromwell, Lincoln, Washington, Churchill, FDR, Napoleon, Mandela. Their effect on their political societies often seem to free other leaders to be productive, but in ways that largely preclude a ready succession in the role of Great Man. At best, if they are successful, they allow a polity enough stability to do without them.

45

geo 04.27.15 at 4:52 pm

BW @43: And, though it will offend some to say it, I wonder if a reporter, let alone a reporter’s career, would even survive some kinds of unvarnished truth-telling.

Not so much offended as shocked, utterly shocked …

46

Barry 04.27.15 at 8:18 pm

04.27.15 at 1:33 pm
Me: “He’s not centrist, and his position is highly political. … And the wh*reon’s basic thesis is still ‘Both Sides Do It’.”

mattski: “Many times–more than is good for us–we are so pissed off that we don’t notice we aren’t making any sense.”

The others seemed to understand me just fine. Let me explain – if you read his article, he complains about a number of things, but for most of these things, one party is quite clearly at fault. He fails his professional duty when he doesn’t call that out.

47

Corey Robin 04.27.15 at 8:48 pm

Bruce: I’ve been reading Packer for an awfully long time, going back to the early 90s. I selected several pieces (I didn’t have space for one of my special favorites, from just after the first Gulf War, on his feelings about the flag) for the obvious reason that a simple focus on one text would have opened me up to the charge that I was ignoring the overall oeuvre. My comments on his work are not at all peculiar to his trajectory with regard to Iraq, as one can easily identify the same impulses at work in the early 90s that we see in the build-up to the war on terror and then Iraq and of course after that as well.

The ambivalence in his work that you speak of: I could have written an entire column on that topic alone. For it’s intimately related to the ongoing support for the wars that you rightly note his own work would seem to preclude him from supporting. In the end, I read his ambivalence as the literary homage that the liberal imagination must pay to the virtues of nuance, shades of grey, and skepticism, the downward glance of more in sorrow than in anger, all the while that it supports — often in the most vulgar and kitschy ways (I didn’t misquote him; he really said those things; and if you want more, I’ve got a whole trove of that stuff) — modes of warfare that necessarily do violence to those virtues. It’s an old story, actually, going back to the 19th century. But that, as I said, would have been a column unto itself.

48

geo 04.27.15 at 8:52 pm

Corey: that, as I said, would have been a column unto itself

May we yet hope for that column?

49

LFC 04.27.15 at 9:40 pm

I became aware of George Packer’s name when I subscribed to Dissent and he began to appear occasionally in its pages, in (I’m giving a rough guess because my memory is not sharp on the chronology) the mid-1980s. At that point in Packer’s career, his interests, if my memory serves, seemed to be more geared toward literary than political subjects, or at least a mixture of the two. In that phase he wrote a novel and a memoir, both (I think) based on time he spent in Africa as a young man; I didn’t read either book. In fact, just about the only thing of Packer’s I actually remember was his contribution to a collection of remembrances of Irving Howe that Dissent published sometime after the latter’s death in the early ’90s. It was a nice, somewhat self-deprecatory little piece, relating Packer’s couple of meetings/conversations with Howe in the mold of awed-young-writer-encounters-literary-icon-and-fumbles-around-for-suitable-topics kind of thing.

At some point I noticed that Packer had made the jump to big-time mainstream journalism (i.e., The New Yorker), but except for one or two snippets, I have not read his New Yorker stuff (or his books). Bruce Wilder is obvs. right that writing for the MSM carries certain built-in constraints on tone and substance. But again, I don’t want to comment specifically on Packer as I haven’t read him in a long time. Incidentally I saw somewhere that John Burns has just retired from NYT. I don’t remember Burns’s appearances on PBS, at least when his reporter’s hat was on, as being quite as pro-war as B. Wilder says, but maybe my memory is at fault here.

50

TM 04.27.15 at 10:10 pm

CR’s last paragraph is strangely misguided:

“Cockburn may have overstated the prophylactic effects of gridlock. Even so, if the alternative to “stuckness” is Packer-like prophecy, I’ll take the boredom of gridlock any day.”

This is nonsense. Gridlock in domestic politics has never prevented bombs from falling overseas, and rumor has it that frustrated presidents unable to score domestically are especially trigger-happy in their foreign policy (maybe not unlike bored pundits).

Maybe what we need are more riots?

51

TM 04.27.15 at 10:21 pm

The Packer piece is an uninspired rant of reactionary centrism. What could be more boring than a political journalist complaining about being bored.

52

Bruce Wilder 04.27.15 at 10:21 pm

Gridlock does appear to be a kabuki show put on for the rubes, who naively imagine that government ought to be pursuing the public interest in public goods. It doesn’t much interfere with the owners of the country making use of the apparatus of government to pursue their financial and commercial interests at public expense and dishonor.

53

yabonn 04.28.15 at 11:36 am

marcel proust @ 41
There are more sentences than mentions of time in your comment, something strictly forbidden with such a pseudo. So, as first item in our series “the Real Marcel comments on CT”, I submit :

“I used to think this way but, nearing the end of my 6th decade, I no longer do. My views started to change in the aftermath of Harold Washington’s death, as I returned there after 9 years, missing the construction of the movement that had put and kept him in office and thinking that the movement would produce another leader and continue, before realizing its ultimate failure. “

Still a bit short, and the ending is Not That, but not so bad for a first.

… Working on a Proustibot, to save time.

54

Ronan(rf) 04.28.15 at 3:04 pm

So in an article that mentions a liberal hawk, an old Soviet and an Islamist terrorist, this paragraph:

“a special tribe of ideologically ambidextrous ….— call them political romantics — who are always on the lookout for a certain kind of experience in politics. They don’t want power, they don’t seek justice, they’re not interested in interests. They want a feeling. A feeling of exaltation and elation, unmoored from any specific idea or principle save that of sacrifice, of giving oneself over to the nation and its cause.”

only applies to Packer ?

55

Ronan(rf) 04.28.15 at 3:25 pm

To be less snarky and curt.
The analysis of Packer , “political romantics …. always on the lookout for a certain kind of experience in politics…They want a feeling. A feeling of exaltation and elation, unmoored from any specific idea or principle save that of sacrifice, of giving oneself over to the nation and its cause”, does exactly what the article complains about in Packer’s analysis of the Hebdo murders, ie it refuses “to consider any of the political, economic or social factors” that might mold Packer’s perspective.
Which I (personally) agree with. At the individual level (imo) people are more likely to engage in/or support violence for ‘politically romantic’ reasons; attacks on your in group, responding to perceived injustice etc At the individual level violence is generally seen as a moral necessity and virtuous.
At the group/macro level it is generally instrumental, it serves a political purpose.
So I’m not sure why the article concentrates on Packer and doesn’t extend the pyscho-analysis to the other political romantics mentioned ? (unless Im missing the point, which is possible)

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marcel proust 04.29.15 at 12:15 pm

yabonn:

Touché

Note: my pseud started years ago as a joke with some HS friends, and by now, I have left a trail of comments on several blogs, so I continue to use it. However, I am not always entirely consistent, often forgetting to include the last name in my signature. That is, for those keeping score, “marcel” = “marcel proust” in my usage.

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mattski 04.29.15 at 2:36 pm

stevenjohnson,

But a prima facie case for official conspiracy behind notorious crimes like the JFK, RFK and MLK murders should start with perpetrators who were associated with some sort of law enforcement/security apparatus.

Gathering good information in the face of resistance from high-level institutional players, mid-level mass media players and popular opinion which is influenced by the first two, isn’t always easy. Often it is quite difficult. If you want to get some measure of confidence in your understanding of those three cases you really have to invest some time and effort. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is.

If you’re willing to do some research I think you’ll conclude something along the following lines:

In the JFK case, Oswald was a low level agent of military intelligence or CIA. He was not aware of the true nature of the plot, rather, he was groomed to be the patsy. In fact he said just that in police custody.

In MLK’s case, there seems to be a much more diffuse responsibility for the plot involving also FBI, organized crime and member of the Memphis police department. But here also, James Earl Ray almost certainly fired no shots and was probably not even in the area when the shooting took place. He too was groomed as a patsy.

In RFK’s case, Sirhan was almost certainly groomed as a “Manchurian Candidate” type assassin. There is strong evidence that he was under hypnosis during the event. There is strong evidence that although he discharged his weapon he didn’t hit RFK. RFK was fatally hit at point blank range from behind, where no witnesses placed Sirhan.

But as I said, you can’t get a handle on this stuff if you aren’t willing to do a little digging.

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mattski 04.29.15 at 2:41 pm

Barry @ 46,

I probably would agree with you about Packer failing his professional duty. But I think where I quoted you, you were mostly just ranting.

‘He’s not a centrist, he says both sides do it.’

See what I mean?

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mattski 04.29.15 at 5:39 pm

Clarification. I wrote,

Sirhan was almost certainly groomed as a “Manchurian Candidate” type assassin.

Sirhan’s role was primarily that of a patsy, a fall guy. He had a weapon and he fired it but that was a deliberate diversion to draw attention away from the true assassin who was positioned to RFK’s rear. Sirhan was in front of RFK.

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mattski 04.29.15 at 5:59 pm

61

yabonn_fr 04.29.15 at 6:01 pm

marcel proust @ 56

.. by which you mean that “for a long time, you used to have that pseudo”…

I stop now – my only excuse is that I often wondered the results of Marcel Proust (ze Marcel Proust, I mean) could write today, with all the electromunications and the interwebs.

62

Ronan(rf) 04.29.15 at 9:31 pm

63

stevenjohnson 04.29.15 at 9:45 pm

mattski@57

“In the JFK case, Oswald was a low level agent of military intelligence or CIA. He was not aware of the true nature of the plot, rather, he was groomed to be the patsy. In fact he said just that in police custody.”

I do not know convincing evidence Oswald was a plant rather than a true defector. And, like those terrorists who are “known” to the police yet completely unimpeded by their vigilance, the time Oswald spent in the USSR could have been a time when he was turned, even if he was. If you’re going to go that route, you need to rule out alternate hypotheses of Castro and Khrushchev and semi-independent figures beneath them. Question mark.

“In MLK’s case, there seems to be a much more diffuse responsibility for the plot involving also FBI, organized crime and member of the Memphis police department. But here also, James Earl Ray almost certainly fired no shots and was probably not even in the area when the shooting took place. He too was groomed as a patsy.”

I see no great need for a patsy to even be groomed. And the kinds of pressures that can be put upon a person in the grip of the police can be just as well exercised to recruit him for trigger man. You don’t even need someone “known” to be a patsy. And really, assigning the patsy role to someone already on the radar always raises questions of competence. And, since the number one excuse for doing something wrong is pretending to be stupid, even of guilt. Amongst the powerful, I suspect more temptation to boast than to hide responsibility.

“In RFK’s case, Sirhan was almost certainly groomed as a “Manchurian Candidate” type assassin. There is strong evidence that he was under hypnosis during the event. There is strong evidence that although he discharged his weapon he didn’t hit RFK. RFK was fatally hit at point blank range from behind, where no witnesses placed Sirhan.”

Loved the movie. Don’t take it seriously at all. Nor does my knowledge of hypnosis lead me to believe. Most of all, I don’t rate eyewitness testimony very highly in general. But I value late, unsworn testimony even less. This strikes me as the Oakland of assassination conspiracies.

I do rate circumstantial evidence and forensic evidence pretty highly. It is the mixed nature of the circumstantial evidence on JFK that raises flags for allegations of another conspiracy.

Historically, the powerful assassinate other powerful people by subverting their guards, in order to take power. Or their minions assassinate dissidents they can’t jail or execute by the usual methods, using police or security forces and their agents (which includes member of the population fallen into their snares and turned.) But they don’t assassinate other heads of state, they take military action. These circumstances do not apply for Oswald/JFK. (It is difficult to identify unusual circumstances that might be revelatory when we forget even to wonder what usual circumstances really are, as opposed to vague impressions.)

The forensic evidence is as frustrating as ever, improbable but not conclusively impossible.

And yes, I do think that when the notoriety of a case reaches extreme levels, eyewitness testimony and anecdotes can turn into a carnival.

No doubt it is frustrating but this is why I find the prospect of digging for the facts as appealing as diving into a septic tank.

But as I said, you can’t get a handle on this stuff if you aren’t willing to do a little digging.

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mattski 04.30.15 at 3:23 am

stevenjohnson,

With respect, how much reading have you done on these cases? I don’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of the evidence that people like Jim DiEugenio & Lisa Pease do (but highly recommend to you their volume, The Assassinations. But let me try to ignite your interest in doing a little digging.

There is solid evidence linking Oswald with Clay Shaw, David Ferrie and Guy Bannister. Shaw was a CIA operative/associate. Bannister, rabid anti-communist, apparently did contract work for FBI/CIA, among other things running guns to anti-Castro Cubans, training these same, and infiltrating/collecting information on leftist student organizations. Ferrie, also a rabid anti-communist, flew planes in the service of CIA efforts to oust Castro and also helped train anti-Castro militia groups in Louisiana/Texas. What was Oswald the Commie doing hanging out with these guys?

Thanks to Oliver Stone’s film, JFK, the Assassinations Records Review Board was formed and about 2 million documents de-classified, although there is still much that remains classified. Today we have documentary evidence of the CIA’s counter attack on Jim Garrison’s prosecution of Clay Shaw. Even with the massive effort to sabotage the trial Garrison was still able to convince the jury that JFK’s murder was the result of a conspiracy. And here is a little known fact: did you know that at the trial one of the pathologists conducting the autopsy admitted that the doctors were not in charge of the autopsy process. The military leadership was in control, and an admiral or general at one point told the doctors NOT to dissect the path of the bullet wound(s) in order to establish directionality etc. That’s in the trial record and yet it didn’t make headlines at the time or since!

Of James Earl Ray you say, “I see no need for a patsy to be groomed.” Well, you haven’t seen the evidence that there was a conspiracy! If someone wanted to commit the crime and get away with it then a patsy is very helpful, no?

And if you watched the videos I linked re RFK what do you think of the browbeating of the witness by the investigating officer? And the officer had established ties to CIA.

If you allow your opinions to be formed by conventional wisdom on these cases then you won’t be in a position as the important questions. And that isn’t a coincidence.

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mattski 04.30.15 at 3:27 am

Pardon my typos.

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mattski 04.30.15 at 3:42 am

One more factoid:

Did you know that Dan Hardway and Ed Lopez, investigators for the House Select Committee on Assassinations (1976-77) prepared perjury indictments for two CIA officials, David Phillips and Anne Goodpasture? Hardway and Lopez prepared a report on Oswalds alleged trip to Mexico City in September of ’63. Their report was classified and Robert Blakey, head of the HSCA at the time, was unwilling to take on the CIA by bringing those indictments. Blakeys predecessor, Richard Sprague, was railroaded out of the job by the media (an indication of the intelligence community’s influence) when it became clear that he intended to conduct a serious, and public, investigation of the facts.

Gaeton Fonzi’s, The Last Investigation, tells this story and many more and is a classic of the literature.

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mattski 04.30.15 at 4:53 am

Interview with Jim DiEugenio on RFK.

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Lawrence Stuart 05.01.15 at 3:21 am

Not to leap to Packer’s defence, but surely it is a bit odd odd to praise, however meekly, the gridlock in US politics? In Canada, for example, we have been dealing with what we rather politely call the ‘National Unity Crisis’ for 40 years, give or take. In that time, we’ve managed to deal, not heroically (thankfully), but adequately, though agonizingly sometimes (surely there is some room for agon in politics), with a linguistic and cultural divide that could have ripped the country apart. In the process we mangaged to make quite profound changes to our national identity.

Good changes. Liberal changes that advanced both equality and plurality.

In the US, you are stuck in the same mould of racial inequality, for example, that set your cities alight in the fucking 60’s! So maybe Packer is a centrist warmongering ass. I don’t know. But the sense of frustration, even boredom, with US politcs is certainly something that I understand.

As a speculative aside, it occurs to me that quagmires are US speciality. Miasmatic swamps seem to haunt the culture. Hence also the tendency to spasmodic violence, as an (imagined) regenerative act that drains the swamp and clears the fog? The urge to break out of the dank coastal plain, the romanticization of the Westward march in search of clear desert air? An almost comic inability to associate the act of violent ‘clarificaition’ with the production of deeper, murkier, moral bogs?

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