“Life is Good”: Trying to Debate an American Centrist

Take a look at my last blog post  – a carefully reasoned call for U.S. military personnel to refuse to participate in the monumentally illegal, immoral, and stupid American invasion of Iraq. That post (originally a ZNet article from May 23, 2008) elicited a series of critical comments from an American citizen claiming to be "in the middle." The citizen  (or ex-citizen, perhaps) is named Teresa. I responded to each of Teresa’s notes, for some strange reason. 

The exchange started off with my correspondent making an ill-fated analogy between me and "Tokyo Rose."See my various reponses (in italics) and my futile efforts (inherently frustrated in a post-rational political culture) at reasoned debate.

I reproduce the exchange here because I think my correpondent’s take on things is in some ways a marvelous epitome of what’s wrong with the U.S. and its large number of self-described "moderates" and "centrists" at this critical juncture.  As Jim Hightower said a while back: "There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos."

The yellow stripes are about cowardice.

The armadillos are the fading of U.S. democracy.

From: Teresa M.
To: Paul Street

Although I agree with part of what you say, I wonder if you’ve ever heard of Tokyo Rose? Could change your name to Baghdad Ivy.

From Street:

Well, if you want to say such things, how about Baghdad Pete – a role played by Adam Sandler on Saturday Night Live in 1991 if I recall correctly?

We just can’t imagine that Uncle Sam is a butcher — too much cognitive dissonance to fully grasp and act against, and so we reduce the pain by attaching ourselves yet deeper to myths of American benevolence and the notion that one is some sort of traitor if he or she dares to expose reality. It is the post-Reverend Wright era and I am now said (only half-jokingly) to be a "Tokyo Rose" character by someone whose time would be better spent battling the toxic "homeland" impact of the criminal Empire Project.

You must know that (1) the Iraq occupation is so criminal it’s almost beyond words and (2) it was in fact about oil. You know it is my guess but you …just can’t handle it — too much cognitive dissonance and hence this half-snotty comment (which says "I agree with part of what you say"…unfortunate for the message is 100 percent dead on — one of the best things I’ve ever written) from you.

The reference to "Tokyo Rose" suggests that you have falsely conflated the absurdly unnecessary and criminal one-sided U.S. colonial war on (illegal invasion of) weak and defenseless Iraq with the necessary struggle against the fascist Axis during the Second World War (1939-1945) — a grave historical error.

Paul Street

From Teresa M:

It was meant to be snide. Actually, as usual, I was being too polite. The reason for my snide-ness (if there’s such a word) is the fact that both my nephew and my son-in-law (of only 7 months) died over there. Neither of them were stupid, neither was the kind of vicious killer some paint them. They were good, honest, dedicated, disciplined young men who loved their families and their country without wearing blinders. Neither would have cut and run on their comrades. You can’t imagine the hole their deaths have left, the kind of pain our extended family shares.

I believe in truth. I don’t believe in this war; never have, never will. I don’t believe America is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But I also don’t believe that you have any solution. And I also don’t believe in painting with the kind of broad brush the "true believers" on both sides of this issue use.

And I love the labels both Right and Left use – Criminal Empire Project! A sound bite!

From Street:

Nothing snide in my note – just all the cards out on the table. We really need to fight back against the vicious bastards who have killed 4000 U.S. GIs and 1.2 million Iraqis: the U.S. War Masters.

I have neighbors who were killed and crippled in Iraq. It only makes my call for disobedience, dissent, and refusing orders more urgent. Perhaps you should think about taking up resistance against the U.S. government to avenge the criminal murder of (1) your nephew (2) your son-in-law (3) hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

The war is totally criminal and brazenly (openly) imperialist for detailed reasons that I carefully explained in my essay  – reasons that you do not bother to address. It raises the question of why we don’t have a democratic revolution in this country. Are you really going to let wealthy imperialist pigs like Bush and Cheney and their Democratic Party partners butcher loved ones and foreigners for no decent reason and on thoroughly false pretexts and with vile impunity? We need to overthrow them and their ilk …before it’s too late. BTW Obama won’t fix it; he will continue it and has said so in in so many words for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

"Cut and run" is a bullshit phrase meant to slander opposition to criminal and imperial war. It goes back to the Vietnam era (if not before) and it is pure unmitigated cowardly bullshit. It is cowardly to follow illegal orders.

The U.S. doesn’t own the world. How many more of our young people have to lose their lives and limbs before we get that?

We don’t own the world. Get it?

Iraq did not do 9/11. Get it?

Iraq is not our colony. Get that?

We’ve killed 1.2 million (or if you want, 500,000) Iraqis. Get it?

We invaded for oil. Get it?

They have the right to resist by any and all means necessary. Get that?

The war is illegal and immoral. Get it?

We do in fact train our troops to "kill, kill, kill" Arabs (I’ve spoken to countless troops and heard all about it again and again). Get it?

I have the history to understand the pain you describe… But it changes none of what I said above. This war is immoral and illegal for reasons I explained and which you simply refuse to address out of some false belief that I am disrespecting your losses in Bush and Pelosi’s war on Iraq.

If you won’t FIGHT the vicious imperialist rulers who killed your nephew and son-in-law…fine, but I am dedicated to bringing them down.

On "sound bites": corporate propaganda and routine political lying has numbed you to the point where you can’t recognize an accurate description when you hear/read one. This is what they do: make the populace so skeptical and cynical that truth ceases to matter. You actually believe "criminal empire project" — a designation of elementary accuracy to describe U.S. foreign policy (understood as such by 90 percent plus of morally and politically cognizant humanity) — is some sort of wild-eyed notion. And of course you have been taught to equate the in-power hard right and the relatively marginal actual left as two forms of scary "extremism" and as equally powerful – ironic in a country whose political spectrum is so far right it is bordering on a new form of fascism.

You are wrong about me not having the solution. I do have the solution. It is how the country was born. We need another American Revolution and we need it as soon as possible. It will take courage: the courage to rebel and resist the rule of the Many by the Few. We need our country back and we have to stop following orders in every area of U.S. life. It’s time to quit screwing around, time to stop crying, and time to start fighting to bring democracy back to this country.

Paul Street

From Teresa M.

Oh, I agree with you about the far right – some of them are scary, scary people!

Not numb here. Otherwise watching my daughter drape herself over the casket of her too young husband wouldn’t have hurt like hell. And all I wanted was to have Bush there to see in the flesh the results of his policies.

But I can’t take the doom and gloom perspective. In January I would have joined in the wailing, but not anymore. Life is still good, we are still basically good people.

And I still don’t do sound bites.

From Street:

Didn’t say you were numb to personal pain in your own experience. I meant numb to moral and empirical reality – readily observable facts like the existence of behavior (and rule) of what you call (falsely importing corporate thought control mechanisms into my left writing) a "sound bite": the criminal U.S. empire project.

So you honestly think that George W. Fortunate Son "Mission Accomplished" Chicken Hawk Bush II could care less about the bloody results of his criminal policies? That would be a remarkably naive thing to believe. And by the way: do you also want Bush to deal (even less chance here) with the considerably greater pain (Holocaust, in fact) he has inflicted on Iraq and Afghanistan (with no small help from the Democrats, who recently voted $162 billion in the House to continue the invasions)?

No – sorry, Teresa, but We the American People are not very "good" right now. We’re soft and incredibly ignorant and selfish and disengaged and de-mobilized and privatized and apolitical. We  leave policy and wealth and the design and structure of society and culture to our supposed "superiors" to an astonishing and horrifying extent. We stand by idly while the wealthy Few send the sons and daughters of the mostly working class Many to fight and die and maim and cripple in illegal colonial wars. We are childishly amazed to learn that 1 percent of the population owns 40 percent of the wealth, that the U.S. is actually the world’s leading prison state (2 million) behind bars and counting), that democracy has largely ceased to function in the "land of the free," and that corporate "elites" are ravaging livable ecology and making existence ever less sustainable from one year to the next.

"Oops": bad things happen when the people no longer pay attention and mindlessly trust their so-called "leaders"…when we take orders and don’t rebel. When we foolishly say, "Yes, the masters know what is best for us."

We do what they tell us. We kill and incarcerate and humiliate and torture who they tell us to…..we give our blood and lives for their profits.

We don’t fight back against our own ruling power elite – hence the rise of what the brilliant political scientist Sheldon Wolin calls "the specter of inverted totalitarianism." See his book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008).  It’s one of the most brilliant and scary books I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it. He’s right. Democracy is on its last legs and we are way past wake up time.

You say "life is good." Tell that to one of the families of the one of the 1.2 million Iraqis criminally slaughtered in a U.S.-imposed Holocaust (March 19 2003 to ?…no end in sight), ok?

Tell it to the countless number of Afghani families that have been destroyed by U.S. bombs and bullets and shells.

Tell it to the 10- year old children working 16 hour days in India making items you purchase at your local Target or Gap.

Tell it to working class American families who are dealing with young men and women severely damaged by Bush and Pelosi’s criminal wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tell it to the parents of the rising number of American soldiers who have killed themselves because of the immoral things they were ordered to do in Iraq. Ot just because of the disconnect between unfathomable pain overseas and the clueless "life is good" blather and nothingness and obviousness of "good Americans" in the "homeland."

"Life is good" – oh, okay. Your enjoyment of the "good life" in America is stained by the blood of Iraqi children and, I hate to say it, of dead and crippled U.S. soldiers.

Your messages are characteristic of America’s drift into anti-intellectual totalitarianism. You initially wrote me about an elaborate and carefully reasoned essay ("A Message to U.S. Military Personnel") I did on ZNet. But you don’t even deign to seriously address somber arguments about the war’s illegality and immorality. I am sorry for your pain (not great enough apparently to tell you that maybe "life" is not that "good" under the rule of Empire and Inequality), but this is about policy and democracy. It’s about what we want "our" government to be doing in our name.

I made a very reasoned and detailed argument about the war’s illegality, immorality, and (also) stupidity. I made a detailed and careful case for disobedience and suggested that the real cowardice and mistake is in following illegal orders. You responded with snide commentary ("Tokyo Rose") suggesting deep historical ignorance and by throwing back imperial propaganda about "cutting and running."

Your comments do not even attempt rational argument. They simply advance knee-jerk defense of dominant hierarchy and doctrine. They are authoritarian and contrary to the democratic ideal.

Paul Street

From Teresa M.:

Enough. Your perfect (and humble, I might add) article will never convince me that your course of action is correct. Your arguments hold no more sway than those of the far right (with a sad shake of my head to my brother whose politics are somewhere to the right of Ghengis Khan).

We in the middle have a lot of work to do to make things right. And I’m going to start on my local level.

I’m not anti-intellectual. College educated, well read, have lived abroad. I’m just tired of the hot air on both sides.

And – most importantly – neither of those young men was a coward.

‘Nuff said.

From Street:

The "middle" path at this stage is the death of democracy. You want the luxury of being wishy-washy and equating the left with the right, but it’s too late. The corporate-sponsored Empire-friendly Obamanist interlude is centrist pseudo-liberalism’s last fling…it will fail to deliver on all of its promises and you will have to ask yourself (to paraphrase the old labor tune) "Which Side Are You On" – that of the Many or that of the Few? Democracy or corporate rule and Superpower?

Jim Hightower wrote a book a few years back with a title you might want to consider: "There”s Nothing in the Middle of the Road But Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos." 

Think of the yellow stripes as cowardice; think of the armadillos as our our democracy, or what’s left of it.

And so what about the college degree?! I said "anti-intellectual" because you answered a reasoned argument with mindless reaction. Now you respond with mindless reference to an academic degree! You can’t be serious. I can’t tell you how many educated fools – some with degrees from the most "advanced" institutions of "higher education" known to humanity – I’ve had to educate on basic things over the last 15 years.

I stayed with "higher education" all the way through the doctorate and can guarantee you that it should not be equated with the life of the mind. It is about indoctrination and elite socialization, mainly.

People who equate the right with the left in pursuit of some myth of post-ideological objectivity are lying to themselves and to others.

Give me a flat out right wing reactionary any day: at least they have the courage to actually possess a coherent world view and an ideology and to be open about having it. I do in fact have more respect for open Republican rightists than many "moderates" and "liberals" I meet. It’s about courage and honesty.

You folks who pretend to not have an extreme ideology are engaged in monumental deception – of self and in many cases of others. In some ways you are actually more dangerous and problematic than the far right.

Paul Street

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