Partisanship and its Discontents, Part I
With reflections on Draft-dodgers, Afghanistan, Abortion, and the UK Election
I thought this would be a good week to share a chapter about partisanship, given that everyone’s lathered up to the point of incontinence about Trump’s impeachment. But in case you’re bored with that (I’m getting there), I’ve interleaved a few tangential but invariably interesting observations.
Please Buy Me a Peloton for Christmas!
Am I the only one who was baffled by the backlash to that ad? I thought that was a fine-looking exercise bike, and it would be super-convenient to have one like that in my apartment. I won’t be at all offended if someone gives me a Peloton for Christmas. Even though I’m Jewish.
If you’d like to give Claire a Peloton for Christmas, don’t hesitate! You can sponsor me by word count, by the kilometer, or by the liter of sweat.
If a Peloton is too pricey for you, I’ve been longing for one of these for ages:
Just eight Euros at Decathlon. I certainly wouldn’t think it was sexist of you to buy that for me, nor would I take it as a hint that my ass is too fat. Why, I’d see it as your way of telling me that my ass is a national treasure, and you feel it a civic duty to participate in its upkeep and maintenance!
Support our troops! Support Claire’s ass! As Dr. Johnson said, the chief glory of every people arises from its authors.
Vietnam and Draft-Dodgers: My Readers Write
Moving right along.
My friend Alan has learned more about the story of the doomed C-123, but he hasn’t yet received permission to share it. When he does, I’ll post it here.
He told me that the words, “Thank you for your service” were not, as far as he was concerned, a grating cliché. “I get quite a kick outta hearing that everywhere nowadays,” he wrote, “and sure as hell didn’t hear it back then.”
Well then. Thanks, Alan.
A Franco-American academic friend of mine in Paris sent me this e-mail:
Very interesting talk by Alan Potkin on Project 100,000, which I hadn't heard/read about. I don’t recall it being mentioned in the Burns/Novick series. [He means the 18-hour documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. “It’s a chef d’œuvre,” he says. I have not seen it.] Potkin undermines himself, however, with this:
I think we could have pulled another South Korea out of that mess if the lefty bien pensants hadn’t cut the ARVNs off at the knees
The stab-in-the-back. The US military fighting with one arm tied behind its back. This is BS and Potkin knows it. One of the many things one learns from Burns/Novick is that the Johnson administration—including McNamara—knew by 1965 that the war was unwinnable (and Nixon/Kissinger knew it full well when they came to power). American public opinion largely supported the war effort until 1968, though if the US army had to draft “morons” as early as 1966, it was because it already knew that young middle class men were not about to put their lives on the line to defend South Vietnam (I wonder what Potkin thinks of Republican chickenhawks of the Vietnam war generation—Trump, Cheney, Gingrich, the whole lot of them—who avoided the draft). As for the antiwar movement, it was largely confined to college campuses until 1969, and toward which the “silent majority” was hostile (e.g., 53% of Americans in one poll thought the students who got shot at Kent State deserved it).
And then there’s this bit (from you):
A great deal of the enthusiasm for Trump is borne of loathing of the left. I understand that.
Oh please. Give me a break. Do you really believe that Trump’s fanaticized supporters—a.k.a. the Republican Party base—are Burkean conservatives who have been pushed over the edge into neo-fascism by the specter of 20-year-old college student hippies and their communist professors (whom those conservatives have never actually encountered and who in no way affect them personally)? I know you don’t believe such poppycock because you’re too smart to.
A fact: right-wing reactionaries hate the left because, duh, they’re right-wing reactionaries ...
Another fact: while people on the left naturally detest the right, they don’t obsess about right-wingers in the way that right-wingers obsess about liberals and the left. There is no symmetry here. Ressentiment is a right-wing sentiment, not a left-wing one.
I’m presently halfway through The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016 Pulitzer Prize winner), which has a Vietnam war theme. It’s very good. I highly recommend.
I suspect Alan has encountered quite a few 20-year-old college student hippies and their communist professors, and may even have been affected by them personally. But I’ve forwarded the e-mail to him and will allow him to speak for himself, if he finds the time.
Update: Alan replied,
Back amongst the grunts, if a guy pulled guard duty at night and didn’t fall asleep, carried his gear, walked point when so ordered, watched out for his buddies, didn’t try to sham his way outta the boonies … well then, that was all you needed to know. The line grunts really didn’t give a flying fuck about draft dodgers, antiwar protesters, blah blah blah. More power to them. They too shall get their reward. ….
Before everyone went went ballistic over Orange Man Bad, and I started getting seriously unfriended and even death-threatened by precious friends of many decades, certainly my own social circle was way, way tilted towards globalized soixante huitard types.
I saw only the last episode of the Burns Nowick thing during its initial PBS run—actually at Zavilowitz’s mother’s place (she was a longtime psychiatric nurse at the ‘ Montrose NY dedicated nut house, who died last year, leaving him to fend for himself), but Zavilowitz himself was way too out of it that night to pay much attention. I was unimpressed. They probably thought they were being even-handed. Mazel Tov.
I wondered what he thought of those draft-dodgers in retrospect, though. So I asked him. “I have some sympathy for them,” I wrote to him:
The war was a catastrophe, so by definition, they were right not to participate in it. It’s an impossible thing to say politically, but it’s so. It’s paradoxical: It’s right to serve when the United States asks, I’d argue, because I believe that overall, US global hegemony, based upon US military power, has been for the good. But in this case, US power was tragically and catastrophically misapplied. Is it right to participate in a misapplied application of US power? Given how little anyone can judge whether power will be well or poorly applied at the onset of a conflict—it always looks obvious in retrospect; it’s never obvious at the time (see: recent discussion about Afghanistan prompted by the Washington Post)—should one’s default answer be, “I will serve, because it is probably the right thing to do, and besides, in a Constitutional democracy, this isn’t my decision to make?” I find that a powerful argument.
I also find powerful the argument to the contrary: No one should be compelled to get his ass blown off, or blow off another man’s ass, for a doomed cause. I dislike the dishonesty our politicians exhibit about why they didn’t serve, but our politicians are dishonest because we demand it of them: If we were willing to elect honest ones, we’d have honest politicians.
Bolton has been perfectly honest about this—“It was a doomed cause, and I didn’t want to get my ass blown off for a doomed cause”—yet everyone excoriates him for it.
No particular beef with draft dodgers, etc., even now. Unless they feature it large as unreflexive virtue signaling (avant la lettre). But I do believe that they’re themselves the worse off for missing the party.
I understand his point. As Dr. Johnson said, every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.
The Afghanistan Papers
Speaking of doomed wars, the Washington Post has presented these as the Pentagon Papers redux, and says explicitly that they’ve released them now “to inform the public while the Trump administration is negotiating with the Taliban and considering whether to withdraw the 13,000 U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan.” The Post presumably hopes to encourage Trump’s instinct to withdraw them all immediately.
No policy decision could possibly be made on the basis of these papers, though. I haven’t yet read every word, but so far, I’ve found not a single surprise. All of these observations about Afghanistan have been made, very publicly, for years, not least in the Washington Post. No one who’s spoken to a veteran of the conflict, spoken to an Afghan, kept up with the news, or read any serious article or a book published in the past decade could be shocked to learn that our officials worried about these issues. Had they not been worried, I’d be scandalized.
That so many Americans are surprised by these papers suggests two possibilities. Perhaps they haven’t read them. They’re shocked by Post’s introduction to them, even though it’s obviously designed to hype them up and promote Post’s view of the conflict. The other is that they’ve paid no attention whatsoever to this war, not one bit, not even from a corner of their eye, for eighteen years. The fact that this war has gone on for eighteen years hasn’t been enough to make them think, “That doesn’t sound right. I wonder what’s gone wrong?” They’ve never said to themselves, “Given the number of young Americans we’ve sent to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell—and given, too, that as a citizen of the United States I am sovereign and will determine their fate in the next free election, perhaps I should inform myself—just a bit—about the progress of this conflict and the experiences of the many men and some women we’ve sent to fight it?”
The second seems inconceivable to me, so I suspect it’s the first, and the reaction to these papers is more a matter of frustration than surprise. No, we haven’t been deceived about the war. As Dr. Johnson said, we have had an unsuccessful war; but that does not prove that we have been ill governed. We knew all of this already—or could have if we wished. We knew it has been far more expensive and far less successful than we’d hoped; we knew why this is so. The papers add new detail to this picture, but they are certainly no surprise.
What these revelations don’t prove is that it would be wise immediately to remove all the troops. There are two forms of sunk cost fallacy; the first involves continuing an endeavor because you’ve already sunk so much cost; the second involves quitting an endeavor because you’ve already sunk so much cost. Both are illogical. The only relevant questions are, “What happens now if the troops stay,” and, “What happens now if they leave.”
And I don’t know. I would have liked to hear what the interview subjects had to say.
As Doctor Johnson Said …
… It is wonderful with what coolness and indifference the greater part of mankind see war commenced. Those that hear of it at a distance, or read of it in books, but have never presented its evils to their minds, consider it as little more than a splendid game, a proclamation, an army, a battle, and a triumph. Some, indeed, must perish in the most successful field, but they die upon the bed of honour, “resign their lives amidst the joys of conquest, and, filled with England's glory, smile in death.”
The life of a modern soldier is ill represented by heroick fiction. War has means of destruction more formidable than the cannon and the sword. Of the thousands and ten thousands, that perished in our late contests with France and Spain, a very small part ever felt the stroke of an enemy; the rest languished in tents and ships, amidst damps and putrefaction; pale, torpid, spiritless, and helpless; gasping and groaning, unpitied among men, made obdurate by long continuance of hopeless misery; and were, at last, whelmed in pits, or heaved into the ocean, without notice and without remembrance. By incommodious encampments and unwholesome stations, where courage is useless, and enterprise impracticable, fleets are silently dispeopled, and armies sluggishly melted away.
Thus is a people gradually exhausted, for the most part, with little effect. The wars of civilized nations make very slow changes in the system of empire. The publick perceives scarcely any alteration, but an increase of debt; and the few individuals who are benefited are not supposed to have the clearest right to their advantages. If he that shared the danger enjoyed the profit, and, after bleeding in the battle, grew rich by the victory, he might show his gains without envy. But, at the conclusion of a ten years’ war, how are we recompensed for the death of multitudes, and the expense of millions, but by contemplating the sudden glories of paymasters and agents, contractors and commissaries, whose equipages shine like meteors, and whose palaces rise like exhalations!
These are the men who, without virtue, labour, or hazard, are growing rich, as their country is impoverished; they rejoice, when obstinacy or ambition adds another year to slaughter and devastation; and laugh, from their desks, at bravery and science, while they are adding figure to figure, and cipher to cipher, hoping for a new contract from a new armament, and computing the profits of a siege or tempest.
Those who suffer their minds to dwell on these considerations, will think it no great crime in the ministry, that they have not snatched, with eagerness, the first opportunity of rushing into the field, when they were able to obtain, by quiet negotiation, all the real good that victory could have brought us.
Of victory, indeed, every nation is confident before the sword is drawn; and this mutual confidence produces that wantonness of bloodshed, that has so often desolated the world. But it is evident, that of contradictory opinions, one must be wrong; and the history of mankind does not want examples, that may teach caution to the daring, and moderation to the proud. ...
No, I wrote back to my friend in Paris, I most certainly do not see his base as Burkean conservatives. There are neo-fascists among them, yes, though not all are neo-fascists. Some are just in the thrall of a dangerous cult of personality.
But yes, of course I see the way—and exactly why—the left alienates and infuriates so many Americans. How can you not see that? Your mind would have to be addled by partisanship to fail to see this. These days it seems even the best American minds are addled like eggs.
This includes my own, of course. I recently espied a tweet with which I agreed. (I can no longer remember what it said.) I was cheerfully poised to retweet it when, curious about the man who had said such a wise thing, I checked his Twitter feed and discovered he was a frothing Trump partisan. I decided immediately I no longer agreed with his tweet.
But that’s insane, right? Tweet x is either true or false; it does not cease to be true because the speaker who said x also believes, “The world respects us again thank you @realDonaldTrump!”
I suppose one could argue that anyone who believes the latter could not be right about anything, but this argument would force me to believe things I never believed before Trump’s rise and have no reason to believe now—things that are moreover false. Yet I’m so maddened by Trump that for a moment I was unwilling to believe someone with #MAGA in his profile could be right, wise, thoughtful, or witty about anything. I have to control for this bias before evaluating the truth value of any proposition uttered by someone wearing a red hat.
I agree with my friend that a specific form of ressentiment is a far-right sentiment (almost by definition), but to say the left doesn’t obsess about the right is a wild claim, and contradicted in his same sentence—who “detests” without obsession? “Detest” is a word of condescension, to be sure. The right resents; the left condescends. But both obsess.
The left uses a different series of phrases to express their fixation, but of course a similar phenomenon is at work: hardened partisan identity; epistemic closure; stereotyped views of the opposite camp; rote, fixated, ideological, dead-eyed and intellectually empty discourse; an exaggerated loathing of other Americans that makes compromise and communication impossible. The unmistakable sign of a mind that has ceased to work independently is the cliché. Streams of them eruct straight from the speakers’ larynx without pause for the cerebellum. “Trump derangement syndrome.” “Orange man bad.” “Right-wing reactionaries.” I am firmly in the camp that loathes Trump—impeach the motherfucker already—but to be unable to see why the American left drives Trump’s supporters batty represents a failure of empathy.
Perhaps you’re asking why you should empathize with someone you detest. Well, first you shouldn’t detest other Americans. We must all live together, and the more we love one another, the happier that prospect will be. But even if you seek war unto unconditional surrender upon Trump’s base and the salting of the earth upon which they trod, consider the truism: know your enemy. If you can’t imagine how they think—how they really think, not how you think they think—you’re in no position to win a war. Or an election, which is a bigger worry.
The Intellectual Emptiness of Partisan Passion
I spoke on Skype the other day to a lovely young man who lives in Maryland and is hard at work writing a term paper about Margaret Thatcher. He had written to ask if I could ask me a few questions about my Thatcher biography. (That’s a good book, by the way. I re-read it recently and was surprised how much I learned from it.) He was sincere, thoughtful, and curious—exactly the sort of student I like to have in my classes. It gladdens me to know the book is serving just the purpose I had envisioned.
Something prompted me to mention that even though Thatcher has achieved totemic status among American conservatives, quite often they know little about her or what she really achieved. For example, I said, Britain under Thatcher had a fully socialized health care system, which she never proposed to dismantle. To the contrary, she pledged, “The NHS is safe with us.” As I explained to him, she could not have been elected otherwise. There was no constituency whatsoever in the UK for privatizing health care. When Thatcher resigned, Britain was still closer to a socialist country than it would be even if Bernie Sanders was elected and most of his plans fulfilled.
When I pointed this out, he was startled. Why didn’t anyone in the GOP ever speak of this, he wondered? Why couldn’t the American right discuss such things without anathematizing the speaker as a communist? He confessed that he found the intellectual climate in the United States right now just stultifying, depressing, and oppressive. Wide ranges of policy views and ideas, he said, were now unthinkable—or at least unspeakable—among Democrats and Republicans alike, each in their own fashion. Minds were slammed shut. Political discourse had been reduced to partisan reflexes and angry slogans. He had been spending time in the Thatcher archives, he said, and found it astonishing how much more alive political debate had once been.
And it was. Thatcher had ideas, and principles, and so did her opponents; they debated these ideas in full, and in detail, and with vastly less rancor—and that is saying something, because Thatcher’s epoch was hardly known for its comity.
It isn’t symmetrical: The GOP now operates almost entirely in service of Trump’s personality cult; I suppose defending him requires so many intellectual and moral compromises that there’s not much energy left for anything else. But to say the Democratic Party is less stultified than the GOP isn’t saying much. Views are deadeningly hardened and rigid among Democrats, too, and not to anyone’s benefit.
If you doubt that, find me a visible Democrat who will say that yes, it’s probably best to allow Kentucky’s citizens to decide whether physicians in the state of Kentucky should describe a fetal ultrasound to patients seeking abortions. Does this article in Salon for example, by one Bob Cesca, seem evidence to you of a left with reflexes that are reasonable, open-minded, and intellectually honest?
[The decision] this week by the Supreme Court to uphold a Kentucky law mandating transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortion procedures isn’t just anti-science, it’s medieval. It’s state-sanctioned rape. …
It’s difficult to imagine a more egregious trespass against civil liberties. … This isn’t a game, and your vote isn’t solely about you. It isn’t an affirmation of your own ideological purity. Our votes symbiotically determine the rights and indeed the lives of millions of others. We exist in a harrowing time when votes based on self-righteous contrarianism often lead to horrendous consequences. More than at any other time in recent memory, the forces of autocracy are deployed and waiting for orders to advance. In places like Kentucky, and especially among the congressional Republican caucus, they’re already on the march. We have no choice but to think globally and vote wisely. Or else.
If you were a citizen of Kentucky who believed that fetal life is human—hardly an unscientific or a minority view—and therefore abortion a profound ethical dilemma, you would find these views “fanaticized” and this mind as narrow as the neck of a vinegar-cruet. Because it is.
Now, 57 percent of Kentucky’s citizens believe “all or most” abortions should be illegal. So it’s fair to surmise this is what most of Kentucky’s denizens do believe. The law in question is modest compared to their actual political preferences. It prevents no one from getting an abortion. It amounts to an insistence that women know why those who oppose abortion hold the beliefs they do; there is no better argument for the belief that the creature involved is human than what may be seen on a sonogram, and in fact, a statistically significant number of women do change their mind upon seeing those images. Bob Cesca—a big proponent of science—believes this claim is a “presumption.” It isn’t. It is a research finding. He thinks this presumption is “disgusting.”
This is just remarkably closed-minded. I am willing to bet that he would consider with an open mind a law that required people to understand the conditions under which farm animals are raised and slaughtered before buying meat. (I certainly would.) Where is the seriousness in rejecting wholesale the idea that people should fully understand the moral dimensions of the decisions they make?
His clearly isn’t an argument rooted in the sober conclusion that we must tolerate the tragedy of abortion because any state powerful enough to prevent such a thing is not one we should wish to live in. His is an argument that abortion is of no moral significance whatsoever—and this is now a belief dogmatically endorsed and celebrated by the majority of prominent Democrats. Why? It’s a stupid and morally thoughtless point of view. Those who hold it clearly believe they inhabit the very spirit of the Scientific Revolution, but the idea that the life of a human fetus should have no moral claim upon us whatsoever is not one with any basic in a biology, nor is it consistent with the law, nor with the traditions and legal systems of other Western countries, nor the moral sentiments of the vast majority of Americans.
Is it truly so difficult to understand why citizens of Kentucky might loathe a left that reflexively describes them as “medieval,” “anti-science,” “disgusting,” and “rapey?” (The word “medieval” is presumably meant as a slur, but medieval debates about abortion were far more subtle and considered than those on Salon.) Why is Bob Cesca worked into such a frenzy by Americans with a defensible and sincerely-held moral belief that differs from his own? Could it be the fact that left-wing lunatics hate the right because, duh, they’re left-wing lunatics?
Whatever your stance on Kentucky’s law, surely you would agree that discourse of this caliber enobles no one, in no way advances the debate, can lead to no good new ideas, and discourages workable compromise. In very many cases, it is the partisanship, not the issue per se, that prevents us from considering other perspectives, speaking of them respectfully, and getting on with the business of governing ourselves.
Not all issues: on some, there is just a right and a wrong. (Trump is simply unfit; Trumpism is dangerous and loathsome.) But on a great many issues that divide Americans, we can make no progress if we believe only two views of the world are possible—the Democratic Weltanschauung and the Republican one—and refuse to imagine any possibilities beyond them.
If you’re an American who believes his mind uniquely free of partisan bigotry, you might ask yourself why you and you alone are resistant to a disease to which everyone about you is succumbing. Might you be of superior intellect and character? Or is there be something a bit too pleasing—and thus implausible—about that hypothesis?
In any event, as Dr. Johnson said, kindness is in our power even when fondness is not.
Der Narzissmus der Kleinen Differenzen
What, really, can account for the vehemence of our partisan hatred? I am confident of this: Were you to take a median Trump voter and a median enthusiast of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and put them on the same Unreserved General Class car of the Guwahati Trivandrum Express 12516 Train, they would not only find one another immediately, but bond, share food, and instinctively trust each other—above and beyond the people around them. She will ask him to watch over her luggage when she gets up to find the toilet. He will spontaneously offer her his last roll of toilet paper, trustful that she won’t permanently abscond with it.
Believe me, that will happen.
Yes, because Americans are racist!
— says the enthusiast of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in a very different context. On the train, that wouldn’t actually cross her mind.
Liberals don’t believe we take trains in India. They think we’re all racist provincial oiks who don’t even have passports.
— says the enthusiast of Trump, in a very different context. On the train, that wouldn’t actually cross his mind.
Or, alternatively, he is a racist provincial oik who doesn’t have a passport. (Statistically apt to be true.) It doesn’t matter. Get him a passport, put him on that train, see what happens. He won’t find out she’s an AOC enthusiast until hours into the conversation—if ever.
What accounts, then, for our inability to extend this sympathy to each other on our own soil? I suspect the best answer we have is Freud’s. “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them.”
Civilization and its Discontents is a great masterpiece of the twentieth century. It will probably come to be viewed as a great masterpiece of intellectual history. Freud—only Freud—offers a plausible framework within which to understand this phenomenon and its root—narcissism. The closer and more loving the relationship, the greater our need to find, and exaggerate, differences. It is essential to the preservation of our sense of self and separateness. Thus the deepest of hatreds emerge between people who to outward appearance exhibit few significant distinctions.
But if so, why now? Why were we not riven with narcissistic hatred in, say, 1958? What is so special about our times?
There is no one single answer that question—nor should there be. It’s an interesting thing that in the sciences, elegance is a clue that a theory may be powerful, but it’s precisely the opposite in matters of men. If anyone offers an elegant theory of history, psychology, even economics, you know immediately that it’s wrong. The correct account of anything human will always be complex, nuanced, thorny, difficult to summarize, impossible to reduce to a sentence or slogan.
A part of the answer—only a part—might be found in the argument Clive Hazell offers in Alterity. (Yes, I read a book called Alterity. Wasn’t half-bad!) Could it be that the growth of a consumer culture marked by uniformity and sameness prompts us to search with special desperation for superficial markers of our uniqueness?
Does that put you in mind, at all, of our political experiences of the past several decades? Something does ring a bell there, doesn’t it?
This state of affairs—our Great Partisan Cold War—is absurd and utterly disproportionate to our real differences. Consider the problems we don’t face: No plagues of frogs or lice or locusts. No killing of our firstborn sons. No Black Death. We are not experiencing the Great Terror; the antibiotics are still holding up; we’re not dying by the tens of thousands at Ypres or the Somme. No one’s dropped a nuke on us yet. Our biggest public health problem is an obesity epidemic. In the big scale of things, our are still manageable problems. It might quickly change—it only takes one nuke—but so far, we confront no problems we are incapable of solving. Yet we are all in the grip of hysteria. Donald Trump is a cause of this, but more importantly he is a symptom of it. What are the fundamental causes? What might we do to temper these passions?
We’ll return to this in the next newsletter.
Boris in Wonderland
I’d written a long pre-election analysis and forecast, but at this point I may as well wait for the results. Why take the risk of being wrong, after all?
Worth seeing? yes; but not worth going to see.
Oh! And ….
I hear they’re impeaching the President? With all the rest of the news, I must have missed that. I guess I don’t have anything special to say about that. It looks like the rest of the pundits have that one covered.
And never forget: As Dr. Johnson said, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.