I’m curious to see how some of the folks whose views I respect are reacting to the Democratic National Convention, so I’m doing a little roundup of some that I’ve read from other bloggers. First, Brian Leiter:
Let us put aside the chauvinistic masturbation that travels under the heading “patriotism”; the cheesey “feel-good” pop psychology about America’s “can do” spirit; the implicit, and sometimes explicit, condescension to all other nations and all other peoples of the world; the romanticization of the last great immoral and criminal war by the United States–one also based on lies–in Vietnam; and the pandering to the lie that only the godly are righteous, and the erasure of the 40 million or more in America who are not “people of faith”. Let us put aside, in other words, the simple fact that the entire display was an offense to truth, reason, and decency. How could it be otherwise? After all, we are only human, all-too-human.
Let me second that. This is precisely why I hate political conventions, and political discourse in general in this country. It is utterly empty, preferring the slick-sounding cliche to anything resembling coherent and rational thought. American political discourse is nothing more than marketing gone awry. Instead of selling products they sell politicians, and they do it with the same tools used in all advertising – slogans, buzzwords and catchphrases designed to push subconscious emotional buttons. This is a nation that likes its ideas prepackaged, bite-sized, and preferably with a prize in the box as well. Most Americans, in fact, are under the impression that they are thinking when they are actually only shuffling around the cliches they’ve memorized, changing the order a bit.
Despite this paragraph, Leiter nonetheless implores his readers to vote for Kerry because anything would be better than Bush. I’m not sure I buy that. I can’t really argue with the first part of it; I cannot think of any compelling argument for voting for Bush. I can think of one or two reasonable arguments for voting for Kerry despite all of the above (since what I’m saying is equally true of both parties, it doesn’t really lead to a necessary conclusion on who one should vote for). But I can think of equally valid reasons to vote third party as I always have.
Next, Lindsay Beyerstein:
American political culture has become an intellectual race to the bottom. This isn’t populism. It’s the only destructive form of intellectualism I know of. Everyone’s second-guessing themselves hoping David Brooks won’t snark at them.
I’m tired of watching the Democrats fetishize Vietnam. Sure, it’s a useful stick to beat George Bush without saying anything “negative.” Kerry distinguished himself as a soldier, but he also distinguished himself as a antiwar activist. His Vietnam buddies earned their place on the stage, but so did his fellow antiwar activists.
I like the phrase “intellectual race to the bottom”. Boy, does that describe our political system perfectly. I also agree on the military fetish that has long been a staple of Republicans and is now being emulated by the Democrats. This is of course balanced off by the opposite and hypocritical reaction by the Republicans, who are frantically trying to denigrate Kerry’s military record.
I saw Bill Kristol last night saying that the video and speech managed to make a seamless transition between Kerry’s military service and his antiwar protests, but that the transition isn’t so easy to make in real life. I’ve not doubt he’s right about that. But he’s right about it precisely because of the military fetish that is so common among Americans. In all the sniping I’ve heard from conservatives about Kerry’s antiwar protests, I have yet to see a single one of them dispute anything he said. All of the screaming about treason and his alleged betrayal of our troops is utter bullshit for one simple reason – he was right. Vietnam was a stupid war fought for illegitimate reasons, and the political leaders were completely out of touch with the reality of the situation there. And there were horrible atrocities that went on there, many of them committed by our own troops, including indiscriminate burning and bombing of villages. Only the most deluded would deny that.
I know men who came back from Vietnam scarred for life not merely because of the horrors of what the other side did, but because of the horror of what they had to do in order to survive in a situation where you could rarely distinguish friend from foe. That’s the nature of guerilla war. And the fault for this lies not with the young men who did what they had to do, it lies with the old men who sent them into that situation in the first place. The old men who sent other people’s children to kill and to die and not their own.
Yes, Kerry’s military service is being ridiculously overblown, but there is a core difference here. I have far more respect for the man who put his life on the line in a war he opposed, then came back and tried like hell to make sure no one else had to do the same thing, than for the pampered son of the rich whose powerful father pulled strings to keep his ass out of harm’s way. That does deserve our respect, but it deserves our respect on both ends, not just because of the risk he took but because of the fact that he stood up when he got back and said, “This is wrong.” Because it was wrong. We killed more than 2 million Vietnamese and Cambodians, and 55,000 Americans. And we did it in a war that was unjustified in the first place, and a war that our own military people knew we couldn’t win.
I have to disagree, however, with Ms. Beyerstein when she says:
Now the PBS pundits are praising Kerry’s speech because “it could have been given by a Republican or a Democrat.” I don’t think that’s true. There’s a big difference between Republicans and Democrats in America. Kerry just gave a fine speech, a Democratic speech. He’s in touch with the times he lives in.
The PBS pundits were right. That speech could not only have been given by either a Republican or a Democrat, it could have been given by anyone from either party at any time in the last 100 years. And the phrase “in touch with the times we live in” is exactly the kind of tired and meaningless cliche that exemplifies that intellectual race to the bottom she spoke of. There may or may not be a big difference between the Democrats and Republicans (and in my view, it’s generally like choosing between being shot or hung), but there is certainly no difference in the kind of empty rhetoric you hear in their speeches. Rhetorically, we’re stuck choosing between the candidate who vows to “invest in America’s future” and the one who promises to “get America moving again”; between the one who “understands what it means to be a true American” and the one who “stands up for real American values”.
And on a side note, can we forever ban invocations of “The American People”? “I trust the American People”, “I believe in the American People”, “The American People are wise/strong/honest/hardworking/etc”. This is nothing more than emotional masturbation. The American People doesn’t exist outside the minds of demographers and demagogues, and The American People, as a group, is no different than any other group – mostly halfwits and sheep with a small percentage that bothers to think at all.