Sunday, December 11, 2005

On Prostrationism

So. The New York Times brings word (only a month after the LA Times did) that the pre-war evidence of a connection between Baathist Iraq and al Qaeda was procured through torture; the detainee knew what to tell his captors to make torture stop, and so he told them; the administration, untroubled by this methodology, was similarly untroubled when the evidence could not stand up to minimal scrutiny---and proceeded to sell the public a bill of goods.

It's fascinating that every new disclosure and discovery about this administration's foreign policy shows just how non-accidental is the juxtaposition of the administration's foreign policy crimes and blunders, and how the more severe the crimes and blunders were, the more necessarily coexstensive they are.

Take first the president's inability to utter the four word declarative sentence "We do not torture" without either speaking falsely or attaching a few dozen asterisks to each word. Take second the double collosal falsehood of no WMDs and no Iraq-al Qaeda connection at the center of the administration's case for war. The ultimate explanation of each is one and the same fact.

The administration's apologists deny the existence of the football-stadium sized stacks of evidence of a deliberate torture policy in contravention of domestic statutes and the USMC, as well as reams of international treaties that the US not only signed but played the major role in writing, not to mention the small thing of US military tradition dating back to the nation's founding, when Washington instructed his soldiers to treat POWs with the utmost humanity not because of any virtues that they possessed, but because of ideals that we Americans have always claimed to uphold. 9/11, as it turns out, changed at least this much, even if it didn't quite change everything. Rather than attempt to understand the implications of the absence of WMDs in Iraq and the absence of any operational relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, the apologists have constructed a fantasy world to dwell in, in which the twin threats of WMDs and collaboration between Hussein and bin Laden were only minor appendages of the administration's arguments for war or the ease with which the war resolution passed Congress. They proceed to accuse their opponents of revisionism. A better use of one's time and intellectual energies, it seems, to beat, then expose to deprivation, then waterboard such long-dead horses as the spinelessness and disarray of the self-castrated opposition party than to make any effort to come to grips with just how completely the administration betrayed the trust they had given it. The apologists in the warblogosphere and the MSM do all this, and at the same time describe themselves as conservatives and receive the ascription of conservatism from everyone else.

Conservative intellectuals, and the broader sphere of pro-war intellectuals, have travelled a variety of paths. Some have had Damascene moments---perhaps a better term for it would be Kronstadt moments---and have become unpersons within the movement. These intellectuals have not altered their conservative moral and political beliefs in even one regard; they have simply recognized how great an affront the administration's policies and justifications of policies present to those very beliefs.

For this apostasy, they have been expelled from the movement, rendered unpersons. To the extent their existence is acknowledged, they are unfailingly described as either confused about the facts, changed in their beliefs, or worse. The exemplar of this group is Andrew Sullivan, who has never shifted his positions on globalized trade, on minimal government intervention in the economy, or on social policy aimed at strengthening traditional social institutions. (I find it endlessly amusing that gay rights activists have universally adopted what is essentially Sullivan's fundamentally traditionalist argument for gay marriage, and that the chief antagonists of this argument call themselves traditionalists). But for stating the obvious truth about the administration's crimes and blunders, and consequently, for endorsing the election of the only alternative to those crimes and blunders, Sullivan now represents to the conservative movement marginally less an enemy figure than persons of “reactionary tendencies” represented to Communists. He only has disassociated himself from the administration because he is gay, they say, and the efficient cause of his repudiation of Bush and indeed of his own previous opinions, was Bush's endorsement of the Federal Marriage Amendment. How manifestly false, not to mention bigoted, an explanation. The reason he got off the train was the torture policy, and the proximate cause was the revelation of the Abu Ghraib horrors and rapid discovery that they were instances of widespread policy dictated by decisions at the utmost levels of the administration.

A second group of conservative intellectuals recognize, to some degree at least, the plain, objective facts. Their response to the facts is to twist themselves into casuistic pretzels to defend the administration's conduct, and of course, their prior defenses of the administration. Thus Charles Krauthammer, erstwhile diagnoser of Bush Derangement Syndrome, finding himself in a relation of political comradeship to legions of sufferers of Anti-Bush Derangement Syndrome---the defining symptom being an inability to understand criticism of the administration to be motivated by anything other than personal hatred of Mr. Bush; explaining Sullivan's criticisms as products of his homosexuality are one instance of the general syndrome---pens a cover piece in the Weekly Standard purporting to ground the case for legal torture in moral philosophy and not, say, acute need to give post facto cover to ongoing conduct that was and should be subject to criminal prosecution in both the US and in the Hague. Krauthammer throws all the resources of his intellect behind proving that torture is not morally impermissible in every single instance: just every single instance of detention in prior human history and every instance that is likely, to many orders of magnitude of probability, to occur in the future; as for how this fact weakens the advocates of a blanket legal ban on torture, or why they should be reluctant to acknowledge it, Krauthammer has no comment. Believing himself to be the discoverer of an important moral law, Krauthammer breezily elides the distinction between permissible and obligatory conduct, so that he can argue for an explicit legal sanctioning of torture, in the only way that law can sanction torture, which is in such a way as to metastasize beyond any de dicto restrictions on its use.

Another sort of conservative intellectual, represented by David Brooks, does acknowledge the truth, and does not indulge in acts of loud public self-exculpation thinly veiled as the selfless and self-righteous bequeathing of the unfortunate truths of life in a complex and hostile world to the clueless idealists---acts that are only necessary because clueless idealism about things like not murdering detainees of unknown guilt or innocence in processes like "Palestinian hanging," a form of ersatz crucifixion known to have been the final experience of a number of detainees---is dangerous for a nation at open-ended war. The Brooksians, in contrast to the Krauthammerians, are genuinely bothered by torture, what torture means to the moral legitimacy of the administration they defended, and what it means their defenses of the administration. They are, however, not troubled enough to devote their attention to pursuing such questions to their inevitable logical ends. Time is a limited resource after all, and there are Democratic backbenchers making incautious or self-contradictory statements, naive but well-meaning anti-war activists, and ill-meaning but irrelevant ANSWER activists. Maybe the Brooksians can get around to scrutinizing the administration once these other issues resolve themselves. (Aside from Brooks, this group’s most visible member is Christopher Hitchens. Ask him if he supports the torture policy, and he will tell you he does not; his opposition to it, however, is less pressing a subject for his Slate column than defending Karl Rove and Ahmed Chalabi.)

The final group of pro-war intellectuals has given itself over entirely to doublethink: the administration doesn't torture, but it's no problem at all that it does; there were Iraqi WMDs (they're all in Syria!), but the absence of Iraqi WMDs does not in anyway discredit the argument for war; there was no-Iraq al Qaeda connection, but Dick Cheney and all the other administration officials
flogging the connection as a talking point spoke truthfully; the Democrats have always been against the war but were afraid to say so in 2003; the Democrats are against a pullout from Iraq but are afraid to say so in 2005. The antinomies go on and on indefinitely, without any variation in their intellectual bankruptcy, reaching their apotheosis in one Stephen Hayes, every US citizen's own personal village idiot, whose career consists of penning books and articles offering forensic defenses of the latest discredited Bush administration claim, usually about a week after the administration gets around to admitting that the claim is utter bullshit. Witness Hayes' latest atrocity (hat tip: Jeremy), a prolonged whine about how the Department of Defense is stonewalling his requests for prewar documents. Could he actually be so thick as to think that any documents the DoD might possess that would support their case wouldn't have been laundered to gullible hacks like himself long ago?

Aside from the first group---its members are mostly disillusioned liberal interventionists, Andrew Sullivan being by far the most prominent truly conservative member---"conservative" is a preposterous thing to call these intellectuals. Whatever it is that connects the threads of variously paranoid, schizophrenic, and hallucinatory apologetics for the administration, it is nothing contained even remotely within the natural language concept of conservatism. We need to find something else. "Nixonite" is promising. "Totalitarian" is more general than reference to a particular figure, and it contains a general principle of unalterable loyalty to a political party under any circumstances whatsoever and boot-licking, self-abnegating subservience to government just in case that party happens to be in power. But "totalitarian" is ultimately misleading; it connotes a view about how government and society should be organized. The conjunction of principles of the Bush apologists has no view other than what the administration is advancing at any moment: for small government one moment, for enormous government the next, for both at once; the only way the administration could fail to enunciate their views is by doing so with less force and more openness to compromise.

There is no conservative movement. I suggest adopting the name "prostrationism" for the set of people, interests, and arguments alleged to constitute the conservative movement. I can think of no better name for the union of inexplicable hatred for the political other and profound dearth of self-respect it embodies.


At 11:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Take it easy on the uppers, Finn.

At 2:11 AM, Blogger Dan said...

another great post. Keep up the good work, Finn. Way to expose the "conservative intellectuals" for the intellectually and morally bankrupt scum that they are.


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