Monday, May 7, 2012

First, do no not strut

In one of the less believable episodes of the "West Wing," a candidate for Secretary of Education is pretty much disqualified because she had been a publicity hound in her former post as a board of education director in some district.  In the name of "separation of church and state," she as director apparently had several teenagers arrested for forming a prayer group on school grounds.  Not only did she have them arrested, she made sure news cameras were on the scene to photograph her coming in to bust a prayer group.

Now, it's entirely believable that a school board director would forbid a prayer group at a public school because that's one plausible way of interpreting the injunction against the state recognizing or endorsing religion (assuming we leave aside that no school director, to my knowledge, actually forbids prayer itself).  It's much less believable that a school board director would have such students arrested.  It's even less believable to imagine that the director would be so proud of the accomplishment as to ensure the widest possible publicity.  Most school directors who I am aware of, if they didn't find some sort of compromise to permit the prayer group, would state that banning them was something required by the constitution and would probably add the words "it is regrettable that I have to take this step...."   As the chief of staff on the show, Leo McGeary tells the candidate, "these laws need to be enforced and it's good that they're enforced.  But we do not strut ever..."

Leo sums up my feelings pretty well about the disgusting internet commercial the Obama administration has put online about his decision to order the killing of Osama bin-Laden.  A version of it is here, if you want to see it.  The gist of it is that Obama is a man of courage who made the tough call to kill somebody.  As Bill Clinton says in the video, if the Navy SEALsin the mission had been killed or captured, it would have been really bad for Obama.  The commercial also takes something presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney supposedly said in 2007 or so that implied the US was spending too much effort trying to capture bin-Laden.  The commercial implies from this statement that Romney is weak and wouldn't have made the "courageous decision" to order the killing of someone.

Some criticism has been leveled at this commercial for Clinton's statement that if something had happened to the SEALs, things would have been bad for Obama without really pointing out that it would have been worse for the SEALs.  One might in fact make the same criticism of Obama's recent state of the union address, where he discusses  how "we"--he and his administration and the military--worked together to kill the terrorist.

That criticism is just.  I won't focus on it other than to say that the stakes for Obama were much lesser than those for the SEALs.  At worst, his ratings would have gone down in the polls, been seen as ineffective or even reckless (Clinton in fact hints at this, albeit unwittingly, when he suggests that Obama made the decision on imperfect intelligence about the compound in which Osama bin-Laden was hiding).  I suspect that even this outcome would not have been bad for Obama:  for all we know Obama and his predecessor ordered similar attacks in Afghanistan that failed and came up fruitless, and the resulting casualties attributed to some military operation.  Obviously, a similar operation in Pakistan borders was perhaps more (politically) gutsy.  But a failure, I hazard, would have been written off, if reported at all, as an "attempt to protect the Pakistani people from a suspected terrorist compound."

But I want to focus instead on the commercial's unabashed celebration--its rejoicing--of killing someone.  The same man whose image looking out into the future in a message of hope is now the man who has taken the brave action and with the military is making us safer in our war against Eurasia or Eastasia I forget which.  They are both essentially the same image, one benevolent and one triumphant, our hero-in-chief to whom we owe loyalty.  Or maybe we owe loyalty to the state, or maybe he is the state, I'm not sure it matters.  His opponent--assuming he actually made the statement attributed to him and assuming the statement isn't taken out of context--wasn't speaking about the proper allocation of limited resources, but is weak because he would not have ordered the killing.

Democrats, or at least the leadership of the party, respond to criticisms about the ad with what is essentially a tu quoque:  the Republicans would do it, too, and they have done it.  Apparently, if one person does something, it's bad.  If two or more do it, it's less bad.  If at least one of the two is from an opposing political party, it's good. 

It's not only tu quoque's, however.  Look at Senator Dick Durbin's statement on the ad [click here, his statement is at around the 10 minute mark]:  "Do you know how many elections Democrats have been on the defensive when it comes to national security?....whether we're tough enough to keep America safe?"  It seems to me the Democrats are still on the defensive:  if you have to respond to criticisms with "we've been on the defensive" for too long, then you're still on the defensive.

The era of the polite Democrats is over:  they can now give tit-for-tat what the Republicans give:  no more a victim of FOX news and Karl Rove:  they can start wars and order killings like the best of them.  Not that they didn't do so before, but never mind.

A few months ago--I don't have the link--Jason Kuznicki at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen criticized Obama's use of militaristic language in the state of the union.  He said that the language was "the very essence of fascism."  I thought that was laying it on a bit thick.  That's what I thought then.

Look, Obama had limited options.  If I were president, I might very well have ordered the killing or regretted not doing so.  That's what presidents do.  It was the best to be done in a series of bad things that had to be done to address a chain of events caused by the person who had to be killed.  I get it.

But I would hope that I could keep enough of my humanity to say that it's regrettable that it has come to this, to say that given the circumstances, there was nothing else to do but take this human life. 


Anonymous said...

Pierre, Very good point. I agree. It's one thing to make difficult decisions as a president and to do things that are "immoral" by society's standards, but it's something else completely to actually rejoice in killing or not to admit to the world that it's sad or regrettable. I totally agree with you. I wonder how he can tell this to his daughters really? Very sad that our society places so much emphasis on revenge. So many issues are like that. The death penalty, wars, sports, etc. There is so much division of us versus them. Two teams. Being on our team is patriotic, militaristic, and in essence "good" whereas the other is bad. I say boo. What do you say?

Jon said...

Yes, I agree it's a shame that our society still has a jingoist view of America as if we're a championship team at the Super Bowl.

And I have no doubt that Obama, just like you and I (and Anonymous above), would want to say "it's regrettable that it has come to this ...". But I think that as soon as you let your white house Communications team that you were planning to say this, they'd let you know that you will be a much respected one-term president. There are not a lot of degrees of freedom for leaders acting within a culture that views your early international speeches as an 'apology tour' for the U.S.

Pierre Corneille said...

Well, you're probably right that Obama saying, as I suggested he ought, "it's regrettable that it has come to this" would be political candy for his opponents.

I also would concede that short of saying this, Obama would still be playing to jingoism in a way that I would find distasteful. What I mean is, even if he underplayed his order to kill Osama, he would still be "playing" it by underplaying it. (I hope that's clear.)

Having conceded this, I still think the actual commercial is in poor taste and, at least in a small way, makes the jingoism worse. Obama may or may not face a tough reelection fight (assuming what happens in Greece or other contingencies), but I doubt if he would lose because he (or his supporters) refrained from issuing the commercial.

Jon said...

I agree.

The funny thing about the topic, though, is that despite all of this -- I think that Obama is, on a personal level, among the most internationally-sensitive, non-jingoist president's we've had (maybe Jimmy Carter too -- and you know more about history than me so I'll defer to you here :) )
... but the sad thing for me is that if this is what we get from the one of the least jingoist U.S. presidents, what does that say about our society? In other words, where did this 'U.S. exceptionalism' thing come from?' -- Obama was once asked "Don't you believe in U.S. exceptionalism?" (The interviewer clearly knew that he didn't). Obama's answer was great - he said "I do believe that the U.S. is exceptional; and I imagine the French believe that France is exceptional". Of course that's not the answer Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly were looking for.

What a country.

Pierre Corneille said...

I think you have the history down just fine. I do think presidents are institutionally bound, or experience a lot of institutional pressure, to be jingoistic, regardless of the temperament of the office holder. If I am right, then much of what I criticize Obama for is stuff he almost has to do or would have to be very strong in order not to do.

I hadn't heard the "exceptionalism" quote before. That's quite interesting, and a good answer to the question (which is almost a gotcha question).

Jon said...

Best (or perhaps worst) 'gotcha' Question I've Heard in Politics:

Presidential debate between George Bush Sr. and Michael Dukakis. Bush favored a law outlawing flag-burning. Dukakis argued that it is protected constitutionally as free speech. In televised debate, Bush asks Dukakis:
"Governor Dukakis, what exactly do you have against the American flag?"

At the time, it was awful, because Dukakis wasn't very good at giving clear understandable answers.

Pierre Corneille said...

When I first saw Bush and Dukakis, I thought you were going to talk about Bernard Shaw's death penalty question (the one where Dukakis was asked would he favor the death penalty in the hypothetical situation that his wife was raped and murdered).

I hadn't heard the flag burning quote before.