The Vice of the Extremes

It can be difficult to keep one’s political head these days. (Not as hard as in 1794 in France, however. Just because these are not the best of times, that does not mean they are the worst of times.) In the United States, on the Right, we have a major political party, the Republican, that has descended to levels of anti-intellectual ignorance, corporate plutocracy, chauvinism, xenophobic and racial hostility, and militaristic belligerence that have probably not been seen from a major political party in a putative democracy outside of the Balkans since the early 1930s. On the Left, not identifiably as the program of the Democratic Party, but dominating much of the clamorous public debate outside the party, we have a postcolonial, post-Communist identification with the consequences of the imperial epoch that has so lost its uncertain heading that it now excuses and even champions the most illiberal, anti-democratic, and anti-humanistic forces in the world.

Among the buffoons and demagogues who are the face of American conservatism today, foremost is not a political leader. Rush Limbaugh, now two decades on the scene and at an unprecedented level of influence, has permitted himself, and been permitted, to evolve into a street corner rabble rouser, bully, and racist with a microphone and an antenna. Beyond his wishing for the (first black) American president to fail – and conservatives still claiming, nonetheless, that they are themselves the very nature of patriotism – he played “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show and the Right did not flinch. Now it is no problem for him to say that the most multi-skilled media personality of the past two decades – more than he – Oprah Winfrey, is a success only because she is black. Or that “if Obama weren’t black he might be a tour guide in Honolulu.” Because Limbaugh doesn’t actually say “Pullman porter” or “shoeshine boy,” conservatives persuade themselves that there is no racial derogation involved. Forty-five years of social policy aimed at correcting the consequences of centuries of racial abuse were so overwhelming to some whites that now they comfortably believe that the state of the nation is such that the only reason a person succeeds is because she is black. But then you can show many conservatives an image of the country’s first black president drawn as an African witch doctor, with a bone through his nose, and they will not recognize it as racist.

Or you have Sharon Angle in Nevada, who wants to be so honest – that is, you know, different from the powers that be – in her pursuit of Harry Reid’s senate seat that she will take legal action to try to prevent her original campaign website, with her real policy views, from being reposted to the Web. A similar verbal cover up took place as she backtracked on what is obviously her genuine belief, that a private company might despoil a major portion of the American environment with the government having no legitimate ameliorative role to play in persuading that company to compensate financially injured citizens. Another Republican for the people.

Or there is Rand Paul opposing, until embarrassed not to, the 1965 Civil Rights Act. Or Ron Paul, who draws anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists in his eccentric libertarian wake, and leaves their postings and comments on The Daily Paul. Or Michelle Bachman as recently as yesterday calling the U.S. a “nation of slaves,” as long ago as 2001, before Obama, authoring documents (pdf) already declaring that

Federal law forms a new governance structure that opposes both free enterprise and representative government. Instead, government centrally plans and manages the economy.

The Krauthammerian, imperial wing of the Right, of the world beyond our borders complains of Obama’s

foundational declaration at the U.N. General Assembly last September that “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation” (guess who’s been the dominant nation for the last two decades?) and his dismissal of any “world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another.” (NATO? The West?)

Is any or all of this the best vision of our future – the hands to shape it?

On the Left, the sweep of anti-Israel sentiment – providing cover for, being buoyed by, and producing much anti-Semitic expression – permits The Nation, through its institute, to underwrite the overtly anti-Semitic Mondoweiss blog. Even strong critics of Israel and writers for The Nation now write in to object to its one-sided, demonizing projections of the only Mideast democracy.

In turn, this far left scapegoating of Israel provides a manageably sized voodoo doll for a sweeping attack on the West. Israel is now the fly-weight stand-in of the historically ignorant and ideologically twisted for a centuries-long colonial enterprise. If not the once arrogant Brits and cruel Belgians, or the still ugly Americans, the demon Israelis might actually be defeated. Some foes think they can actually smell it. Then whole cross sections of self-flagellating Westerners could insert their noses between the reformist buttocks of South American demagogues and plant their lips on the self-actualizing, humanist toes of Grand Ayatollahs.

I have focused much the past two weeks on Glenn Greenwald, not actually a self-described person of the Left, but who, like “anarcho-syndicalist” Noam Chomsky has become one of its darlings. He is representative, too, of a kind of Leftism, like the crackpot Right that has been mainstreamed over the past decade, always far more committed to its ideological destination than any honest journey to it.

A reader, writing privately in response to my recent post, directed me to this post of Greenwald’s from last year, after the Gaza conflict. In the final paragraph, Greenwald linked to a video claiming to show the horrific human toll resulting from an Israeli air attack on Palestinian civilians. It turned out to be misinformation: in reality a 2005 video of Hamas munitions that accidently exploded while being paraded through the civilian population. Telling, that. Multiple sites similarly fooled, here, here, here, and here, for instance, owned up quite clearly to their error in identifying the video.  And we know how Greenwald likes people to own up to their errors. So, once again, how did Greenwald do on that score? You will truly marvel.

Originally, in fact, while stating of the video,

I can’t and don’t vouch for its authenticity

Greenwald nonetheless posted a link to the video with the following introduction:

everyone should also be permitted to view the devastating effects on actual human beings from these Israeli bombing and artillery raids in Gaza.  This truly horrific video — purportedly of a recent Israeli bombing of a civilian Gazan market — has been widely cited.

These are the journalistic standards to which Jeffrey Goldberg, and so many others, fails to live up? My mommy would spank me. What does Greenwald do, when the authenticity for which he could not vouch turns out to be… inauthentic? He inserts

(UPDATE:  there’s good reason to believe it’s not from an Israeli attack)

but leaves the link to the video. Why?

[I]t’s certainly reflective of the carnage in Gaza.  It’s much easier to undervalue the suffering imposed on The Other when you don’t have to see it. [Emphasis added]

Process this, please, people. Why not footage from the Korean conflict? Why not Sri Lanka? That footage would be just as reflective of the carnage of war, and accuracy is obviously not a matter of concern.  War is war. Death is death. The torn and dead body of one “Other” whom we so compassionately do not wish to undervalue is clearly as good as any other “Other,” even if that other “Other” was killed by other “Others” and not by Israelis, whom, you’ll pardon me for feeling so, seem in this whole fraudulent construct to have been quite thoroughly otherized.

And in this same post Greenwald had the audacity to quote from George Orwell the same lines I cited yesterday:

Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.

Greenwald is apparently completely unaware that the essence of those lines has to do with honest representations of reality.

All of these people, Left and Right, of course, think they are right. All are full of charge and counter charge. Everyone is a hypocrite. Everyone is despicable. And everyone we already agree with is always right. A commenter on this blog sometime back observed what he noted as a “tribal” element amongst conservatives. One can see this on the Left, too, in an unwillingness to look clearly at weaknesses within its own ideological constructs. In saying this, I do not wish to be mistaken for setting up comfortable equivalences, an easy middle of the road. The tendencies I am pointing to on the Left are mostly at its farther end, though there is a sliding scale of influence on more mainstream liberalism. The tendencies I note on the Right, as I said at the start, now are the mainstream.

There is no revelatory answer to the question of how to escape the press of these extremes. Some people, indeed, are hypocrites. Some are despicable. Some are simply wrong. We identify them as we always have, by determining, as we can, the facts, and being directed to where they take us and not leading them, instead, to where we wish to go. We reason with those facts from sound premises to equally sound conclusions, not from conclusions that determine the propositions we stand on to start. We try to exercise balanced judgment that is committed to reasoned approaches, but that considers, appropriately, the needs and tendencies of human nature. It isn’t easy, it isn’t quick, it isn’t simple, complete, and all one way – we mistrust anyone who pretends it is – and we cannot do it alone.



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3 thoughts on “The Vice of the Extremes

  1. This is a sane commentary on our contemporary state of affairs.

    I am grateful to Anne W. for recommending your blog to me, to you for being such a phenomenal observer and for your ability to convey with such precision.

    So banal are the incessant assertions from the left and so creepy and out-of-touch are those of the right that my stomach aches from the knots it has been tied in to. And along comes A. Jay with an invigorating, face slapping, spot-on commentary. Thank you for bringing integrity in to social and political commentary. That sickly feeling in my stomach is momentarily relieved, the color in my cheeks – restored.

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