To a very large number of college students, the word “opinion” refers to an expression of approval or disapproval. It is the “yea”-“boo” theory of thinking and argument. Like. Dislike. Approve. Disapprove. Disapprove strongly – “O no you dit-ten!”
This dangerous misapprehension is oddly counterbalanced by the equally deleterious belief that the modifier “just” is somehow, by prime syntactical directive, automatically prefixed to the word opinion, with the variable intervention of “my” or “your” or “her” and the like. This is not a congenital disorder. It is in the culture. It earns, in fact, a lot of money: the inability to distinguish a “just” form of opinion from a well-reasoned opinion or an opinion well-supported by evidence. Or even, for that matter, a fact. I read a lot of disagreements with what the student did not understand to begin, even with what the author did not actually believe. Consequently, I spend a great deal of effort attempting to clarify that in contrast to opining, understanding is thinking too, and that to state what something means, in the absence of praise or condemnation, is also an opinion.
As dear departed Professor Hutcheon – blustery, pipe-reeking, jaw-jutting Willard Hutcheon – once bellowed at the young philosopher naïf that was I, when I made reference, hypothetically, to accepting an element of George Berkeley’s argument regarding immaterialism: “Understand! Not accept. The head is not a soup pot.”
Understanding, determining meaning requires reading the evidence. We all have predispositions in our reading. Some predispositions are more pronounced than others. So regarding Afghanistan – a very difficult problem in a world of difficult problems – we have many opinions. Often these opinions are not way stations along the ruminative journey: they are the destination, the conclusion of the argument. And all the evidence still to be encountered or considered is read with that destination in mind. The opiner is going where he is going; the only question is how this new information will help him get there.
Regarding Afghanistan, there are well-established destinations. For instance, one kind of traveler will note that it has thwarted Alexander the Great and Brezhnev the Small, the government is corrupt, there is no there there, the Taliban are local extremists, and Al-Qaeda can always move to Somalia, let’s say. Shall we try again to build that nation? In the alternate Afghanistan, it is the central front in the war against Al-Qaeda, Pakistan is a related, not separate danger, if we leave, Al-Qaeda will wage war from it again, and we must not lack the resolve to fight a long – even very long – war against a patient, mortal enemy.
All of these points are well made. I accept the force of all of them. And that gets us exactly nowhere so far. It is worth noting, though, that many of those already ticketed to the first Afghanistan give no real credit to the character of the other. Many of those traveling from the other end of the station are similarly disdainful. And then there are those – our Vice President, we hear, is one of them – who propose a more nimble, distant, less troop heavy, and technological war on Al-Qaeda (ignoring the Taliban as never having been the real enemy). We know that such an approach during the Clinton years was a pronounced failure, helping lead to 9/11, but it is also true that we have traveled continents from that state of technological warfare. The new and current commander of the American force in Afghanistan, General McChrystal, is famous for his high tech drone devastation of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. But such success, we know, was in the context of a heavy troop presence in that country.
People with opinions about a very difficult problem like Afghanistan, particularly those whose opinion has already taken them where they are determined to go, do not always have commensurate knowledge of the situation. Oh, they know plenty. They are well-versed in international affairs, and catch up quickly on hot spots new to them. But, really, if that were enough, why bother with a national security staff, the state and defense departments, the CIA, the NSA – the whole universe of spook and satellite. Let’s designate Pundit One President for the month. He well knows what to do without the benefit of.
We’re all – those of us who involve ourselves – going to need to, certainly try to, make a determination for ourselves. One hopes there will be a lot of listening and reading going on – a lot of reading of the evidence. And part of the evidence is who is already there, wherever there is, and how they are reading the evidence themselves to suit themselves. On the left, there are those who reflexively oppose any use of American military force, can never seem morally to justify it (even after 9/11 – see my swipe at the emblematic Susan Sarandon here) and who always, just by the way, also manage to judge every such prospect as doomed to failure, thereby framing their argument in practical terms and avoiding any acknowledgment that that train, for them, left before you even got there.
Counterparts on the right travel according to a more, not really muscular, but testicular itinerary. To see the prospect of conflict, even to be already engaged in one, and not be devoted to victory by blowin’ up that muthafucka’s ass with a mortar is to emasculate oneself politically and morally. Hell, even Sarah Palin has the balls to not-blink them to death. Liberal pussies.
It is inarguable that since Vietnam whole swaths of the left have been unable to countenance aggressive U.S. protection of its interests in the world – by which I mean the use of force. It has, for them, been a shameful fact even that the U.S. has self-interests in the world. This led to a perception of the Democratic Party that lost it the faith of the American people to protect them.
It is also true that many on the right reason about U.S. interests in the world like a cross between the arrogant imperialist and your neighborhood macho asshole. And whatever grudging credit the right was given by some on the left in matters of self-defense was lost in Iraq. That is the price, indeed, of getting it wrong, and of deception.
When it is clear what train those people are on, all of them. I let the doors close. I have a destination, too. The United States needs to be unswervingly committed to defeating Al-Qaeda, in all the ways it may need to be done, including militarily – and I mean aggressively so – but in other ways as well. If it can be done by increasing the military force there – and that could be done so much more easily if the NATO nations stopped living in a twenty-first century version of the 1930s – then I will support that direction. I have until now, but the recent Afghan elections have made me pause. It is not wrong to pause. It is not wrong to consider and reconsider. President Obama does that. It is something I like about him. If I can be persuaded that a more remote war against Al-Qaeda can succeed, I will support that option. I don’t believe we should nation-build in Afghanistan. There is a long list of nations we could try to build. That is not why we went there. It is not why we should stay. If building Afghanistan is possible, and it is necessary to defeat Al-Qaeda, then I am for it. That is very self-interested. Every morning I wake up, and the first thing I want, whether I think it or not, is to live. That is self-interested too. I’m okay with that. Whatever good I can do follows from it.
So I’m going to be reading the evidence. I’m going to be reading and I’m going to be listening. I’m going to be trying to understand the current situation and its prospects as well as I can before I make a decision – before I say yea or boo. I made a decision once before. After eight years, I’m reassessing. I don’t trust people who won’t reassess their thinking. I may have missed a couple of trains, trains that left a long time ago, but that’s all right. I’ll catch another.