Dispatches from the Creation Wars

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Lindsay Beyerstein
    July 30, 2004

    Hi Ed, thanks for the link! I probably didn’t explain the “in touch” remark very well. I just meant that John Kerry is a shrewd politician. He gave a good acceptance speech, where “good” just means “served its purpose.” I know the pundits are saying a lot of vapid things about why the speech was good, but the fact remains that it impressed a lot of people. Kerry got up there and acted “likable” and “presidential.” I’m not saying that anyone ought to have been swayed by his rhetoric, I’m just glad he got up there and did it for the sake of the party.

  2. #2 KeithB
    July 30, 2004

    We should photocopy the relevant chapter on Viet Nam in Tuchman’s “March of Folly” and pass it out at the Republican Convention. If you could get anywhere near to pass it out, that is.

  3. #3 sean
    July 30, 2004

    ” 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. ”

    Only if the your universe consists solely in morally pure foreign policy talk and an equivalence between rhetoric and policy.

    Would a Republican ever announce a desire to raise taxes on the rich in their nomination speech? never. Would a Republican ever make a nomination speech without several times dropping to the lowest levels of fundamentalist excess (i.e. pledging to ban abortion, enforce school prayer, praise guns for all, extend the use of death penalty, banning stem-cell research, add on to the Patriot Act, etc)? i doubt that any Republican would even mention caring if other nations respected and admired us. Would a Republican talk about the effects of corporate-produced pollution on little children’s lungs? Would a Republican stress Head Start in any mention besides somehow privatizing it? Would a Republican promise not to touch Social Security? Never. And so it goes…

    Of course, he did not and could not promise an ideologically pure liberal vision – he probably does not believe in such a thing, and he would certainly lose if he did. But pretending that there are no differences in the crucial domestic issues from taxes to science to environmentalism is just dishonest, let alone the very important realm of judicial nominations. Yes, Kerry runs to the mushy middle on “patriotism” and foreign policy and steals centrism on criminal justice and tax cuts, but he is no Republican. And no Republican could ever give that speech.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    July 30, 2004

    I don’t think there is an equivalence between rhetoric and policy, I think the two are entirely unrelated. Beyond that, I bet you can find lots of nomination speeches that say bland and general things like “we must protect the health of our children by sending a strong message to polluters” or “I pledge to make America respected around the world again”. These are meaningless and vague pronouncements that no one could disagree with. The Republicans could say the same things and they wouldn’t actually do anything to make them a reality. Nor will Kerry, I bet. These are nothing more than cliches that both parties invoke. Of course they’re not absolutely identical in every single word, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that both parties promise to uphold “American values” and create “more jobs for American workers” and “make America once again the greatest nation in the world”, blah blah blah. Neither of them means it.

  5. #5 ~DS~
    July 30, 2004

    Cynicism aside, I do notice that the great visibility of the sound bytes and the hype seems to underlay more genuine interest in this election than any I can recall in my adult memory. Around the water cooler at work, with clients on the phone, with friends of all ages, there seems to be a lot of discussion going on. And yes the hyperbole is at times downright nauseating, many of those small discussion get more detailed, more substantive, and deeper.

    I’d add that although opinions I receive in these venues are all over the board, there is a somewhat median consensus forming among the people I consider informed and intelligent;
    The country will of course survive if Bush is reelected and it’s likely he would do a better job the second time around. But the WH taken as a whole is ineffective on some important issues and, more importantly, has been wrong on some crucial decisions. Other issues such as fiscal policy and science policy seem at best misguided, and at worst devoid of educated analysis. Particular areas of concern are accountability, methodology, and integrity. The consensus I see forming is more in line with Ed’s views that Kerry has shown some past positive qualities and may possess some abilities that the Bush admin has not been able to adequately demonstrate thus far, and as such may deserve real consideration.

  6. #6 Bill Ware
    July 31, 2004

    “I don’t think there is an equivalence between rhetoric and policy, I think the two are entirely unrelated”

    Boy, Ed,

    I wish that were true. Lot’s of candidates promise their most ideological supporters they will make radical changes once elected, but then act in a more realistic, reasonable way once they are in office.

    President Bush has used executive orders to implement some of the most far right policies imaginable. There’s no such thing as “govern from the middle” a far as he’s concerned.
    B

  7. #7 Lindsay Beyerstein
    July 31, 2004

    Kerry’s the centrist nominee of a center-right party. The Republicans have moved so far to the right as to be barely recognizable.

    It’s one thing to argue that Kerry’s speech could have been given by some Republican in some era. That’s pretty uncontroversial. The more interesting question is how much this year’s Republican nominee’s speech will resemble Kerry’s.

    It’s unfair to complain that Kerry’s acceptance speech was insubstantial. A substantial speech would have been political suicide. Kerry listened to the pundits who spent two weeks saying “Tell us about yoooo, John,,,or else,” “Shut up about the Senate, you bore,” “Beat your chest on TV, or we’ll write you off.” So, that’s what he did. He also managed to throw in some culturally liberal remarks about stem cell research, embracing science and reason, repealing the back door draft, a living wage, healthcare*, repealing tax cuts, intelligence reform, etc. (Remember, Bush didn’t even want the 9/11 Commission to exist.)

    *Kerry didn’t go into the details of his healthcare plan on TV.but they have already been published. Krugman’s written a lot about the plan. I think Brad DeLong and Kevin Drum linked to the full text of Kerry’s health policy.

  8. #8 Lynn
    July 31, 2004

    Lindsay Beverstein, I agree with Ed:

    “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”.

    So what did Kerry accomplish? He accomplished little or nothing.

    That whole convention was a joke, same as the next convention will be.

    The only interesting thing I heard going on at the Democratic convention was the background voice yelling “Where are my F—ing balloons”.

    Ed and I were quite amused by that!

  9. #9 Ansel
    July 31, 2004

    “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.”

    This is hypocritical. Just as the undeserved praise for “The American People” is emotional masturbation, so the notion that the virutally entire Ameirican populace is dumb and stupid, excluding you and your friends, is intellectual masturbation. Kerry’s and others hyper-patriotic speeches in which the whole country, liberals and right-wing fanatics alike, are called “wise,” and “strong,” are only broad, positive generalizations designed to create positive feelings that will thereafter be associated with the one who preaches them. People revel in the idea that they and all around them are “honest, good, etc.” Likewise, your pessimistic sweeping statement that the most of the population is composed of “halfwits and sheep” only serves to prop you up as one of those who can omnisciently observe and look down on all those who are less intelligent. And, it is the same sort of indiscriminate genralization used by the politicans, applied only in the other direction. These sorts of notions lend themselves to intellectual elitism, which is often paired with economic elitism. Rather than supposing that the masses suffer from an acute deficit of intelligence, I would argue that they simply choose to be satisfied with that rhetoric, with that emotional masturbation. The rhetoric is obviously worthless and totally unbelievable, and I think people realize this, but they are too disinterested in life outside of their own private sphere to go beyond the rhetoric and make the efforts needed to become familiar with the issues determine the concrete policies behind them. Complaining that people are just dumb doesn’t solve anything, but galvanizing them to get involved and care about government will.

  10. #10 Ed Brayton
    August 1, 2004

    Lindsay Beyerstein wrote:

    It’s unfair to complain that Kerry’s acceptance speech was insubstantial. A substantial speech would have been political suicide. Kerry listened to the pundits who spent two weeks saying “Tell us about yoooo, John,,,or else,” “Shut up about the Senate, you bore,” “Beat your chest on TV, or we’ll write you off.” So, that’s what he did.

    I don’t think it’s unfair to complain that it was insubstantial, especially in light of the fact that I will no doubt say the same thing about Bush’s speech in New York. The real point of my post was that campaign speeches, and political discourse in general in America, is generally insubsantial. Slogans replace positions, cliches replace rational thought. There will ultimately be some policy differences between Bush and Kerry, of course. But the rhetoric is virtually interchangable.

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    August 1, 2004

    Ansel wrote:

    This is hypocritical. Just as the undeserved praise for “The American People” is emotional masturbation, so the notion that the virutally entire Ameirican populace is dumb and stupid, excluding you and your friends, is intellectual masturbation. Kerry’s and others hyper-patriotic speeches in which the whole country, liberals and right-wing fanatics alike, are called “wise,” and “strong,” are only broad, positive generalizations designed to create positive feelings that will thereafter be associated with the one who preaches them. People revel in the idea that they and all around them are “honest, good, etc.”

    Obviously so. But how is it “hypocritical” if I apply my argument consistently? The only relevant question is whether the claim is true or not. The claim that the American people are somehow a repository (in most cases, the claim is that they are the ONLY repository) of courage, wisdom, strength, brilliance, etc, in greater proportion to any other group, is simply a false statement. And no one who says it really believes it to be true, they say it for the reasons you state, to make people feel better about themselves. It is a comforting delusion intended to emotionally manipulate those being spoken to.

    Likewise, your pessimistic sweeping statement that the most of the population is composed of “halfwits and sheep” only serves to prop you up as one of those who can omnisciently observe and look down on all those who are less intelligent. And, it is the same sort of indiscriminate genralization used by the politicans, applied only in the other direction. These sorts of notions lend themselves to intellectual elitism, which is often paired with economic elitism.

    You say that these statements lend themselves to intellectual and economic elitism as if it was just a given that those are bad things. Sorry, I don’t share that belief.

    Rather than supposing that the masses suffer from an acute deficit of intelligence, I would argue that they simply choose to be satisfied with that rhetoric, with that emotional masturbation. The rhetoric is obviously worthless and totally unbelievable, and I think people realize this, but they are too disinterested in life outside of their own private sphere to go beyond the rhetoric and make the efforts needed to become familiar with the issues determine the concrete policies behind them. Complaining that people are just dumb doesn’t solve anything, but galvanizing them to get involved and care about government will.

    Who said I was trying to solve anything? Again, the only relevant issue is whether what I said is true or not; I maintain that it is. And I think you make my argument for me when you say that people are so disinterested in life beyond their own private sphere to make the effort so they choose to be satisfied with false and manipulative statements. In other words, they are halfwits and sheep as I said. It’s not that they are inherently incapable of being more than that in the sense that they are congenitally non-intelligent. They have the same basic capacities, as a group, that anyone else has. They choose to remain disinterested and ignorant. By your own admission, they choose to swallow comforting delusions that make them feel good rather than finding the truth. Which means that the most that one can hope for from their political participation is that they will be manipulated by simplistic slogans that appeal to their emotions rather than their reason. Can you think of a better term for someone like that than “sheep”? I can’t.

  12. #12 Flatlander100
    August 1, 2004

    Been mulling over your rant about the Democratic Convention [and political conventions in general] for a few days now. [Yes, it was a rant. Its being often on target does not make it less of one.]
    American politics has been in some part theater since Jackson took the oath. It has involved pomp, show, entertainment and involvement on a grand scale with the goals of entertaining and exciting and informing the voters. Read old newspaper accounts of parading Locofocos in New York, or Tammany rallies. The birth of electronic media has just allowed the shows to get bigger, brassier and more impressive as theater and to play to more people at once. Nothing much can, or should, be done about this, and as a good Democratic conservative, I find the theater element of it all part and parcel of our democratic past and the democratic process and damned entertaining to boot.
    Do I wish every political debate could be a Lincoln-Douglas debate? Sure. But I’m not sure we’d gain much as a nation if every debate was that substantive. Don Quixote here still assigns passages from the L-D debates to undergraduates. A not insignificant number of them tell me that they can’t understand them. When pressed for examples, it turns out often they can’t understand the vocabulary Lincoln and Douglas used. They tell me the same of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. And these are university students.
    So, Ed, any campaign is going to have to advance on two levels at once: one offering ideas and engagement on the issues for those who take the time and trouble to educate themselves enough in general and about the issues in particular to find such engagement worthwhile; and the other, going on simultaneously, must involve the voters in the grand theater of an American presidential campaign. And how the show is staged and performed does matter come election day. So I think probably you are wrong to avoid watching political conventions and to tune out campaign rhetoric in general. It matters, whether it fits what you — and many of the rest of us — might define as “serious discussion of the issues” or not.

  13. #13 Ed Brayton
    August 2, 2004

    flatlander wrote:

    Been mulling over your rant about the Democratic Convention [and political conventions in general] for a few days now. [Yes, it was a rant. Its being often on target does not make it less of one.]

    Oh, I don’t mind it being called a rant. I’ll plead guilty to that.

    American politics has been in some part theater since Jackson took the oath. It has involved pomp, show, entertainment and involvement on a grand scale with the goals of entertaining and exciting and informing the voters. Read old newspaper accounts of parading Locofocos in New York, or Tammany rallies. The birth of electronic media has just allowed the shows to get bigger, brassier and more impressive as theater and to play to more people at once. Nothing much can, or should, be done about this, and as a good Democratic conservative, I find the theater element of it all part and parcel of our democratic past and the democratic process and damned entertaining to boot.

    I find it entertaining only for the reasons Mencken found it entertaining, because it’s just all so absurd. On the Unintentional Comedy Scale, political conventions are off the charts – the hopelessly white suburbanites attempting to dance to bad old disco songs sung by washed up singers, the local mayors or state senators giving 5 minute speeches at 1:20 in the afternoon and trying desperately to sound important, the ridiculous state roll call votes where Clem does the rundown of everything he can think of about “the great state of Alabama” while his fellow revelers yell and cheer behind him, the media wandering around interviewing breathless delegates from Idaho who are so nervous about being on TV that they can’t even recite their talking points without fumbling over them. It’s grand theater, but not for the intended reasons, I think.

    Do I wish every political debate could be a Lincoln-Douglas debate? Sure. But I’m not sure we’d gain much as a nation if every debate was that substantive. Don Quixote here still assigns passages from the L-D debates to undergraduates. A not insignificant number of them tell me that they can’t understand them. When pressed for examples, it turns out often they can’t understand the vocabulary Lincoln and Douglas used. They tell me the same of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. And these are university students.

    Yikes. I think this is exactly my point. Doesn’t that scare the shit out of you? These are university students in a history class and they can’t understand the Lincoln-Douglas debates! And those people are actually smarter and better educated than the person that a political convention or campaign speech is aimed at. That’s just frightening.

    So, Ed, any campaign is going to have to advance on two levels at once: one offering ideas and engagement on the issues for those who take the time and trouble to educate themselves enough in general and about the issues in particular to find such engagement worthwhile; and the other, going on simultaneously, must involve the voters in the grand theater of an American presidential campaign. And how the show is staged and performed does matter come election day. So I think probably you are wrong to avoid watching political conventions and to tune out campaign rhetoric in general. It matters, whether it fits what you — and many of the rest of us — might define as “serious discussion of the issues” or not.

    But when does it EVER get to the “serious discussion of the issues” stage? Campaign speeches are like commencement speeches, just a bunch of tired cliches strung together in slightly different order than the last one. The “debates” are nothing more than a duel of marketing slogans. Campaign commercials are almost entirely made up of half-truths and distortions on both sides. Where does this intellectual debate take place? I think Lindsay’s phrase nailed it correctly, our campaigns are nothing more than an intellectual rush to the bottom, slickly packaged infomercials designed to appeal to the most braindead among us, those who are not capable of handling anything more complicated than “them bad, us good”.