Sunday, June 19, 2005

Durbin hits a nerve

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois hit a nerve when he challenged his colleagues to engage in a little thought experiment. That's right, if you haven't seen his remarks edited in a fair way, then you don't really know what he said. You might think that the Senator compared US troops, or our government, or our management of the Guantanamo Bay internment camp to the attrocities of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.

He didn't.

What he said was, and I'm paraphrasing because his own words seems to have led to the misunderstanding, "Read this FBI report. If you just read it, without knowing that it was written by a US FBI agent, about US actions, you'd think it was some document about Nazis or Soviet Gulags."

Give Durbin the benefit of the doubt. Imagine rereading everything you've read about Guantanomo Bay and Abu Grhaib without knowing it was about Americans. How would you react? Maybe you wouldn't jump tp Nazi's and Stalinists. Maybe you'd think of Serbs and Bosnians, or Rwanda, or a Turkish prison or any number of global Hell holes. But, unless you're really cynical, I don't think you'd jump to "America" as a first answer.

See, what Durbin has pointed out, and what people don't want to hear, is that a lot of what's happened in our prison camps defies what we like to think about America, its motives and its conduct. That is a painful realization for a lot of people. They've reacted with a backlash, by ignoring the substance of Durbin's words and going, instead for an attack on him personally as some sort of traitor.

Of course, invoking Nazis in any debate is always dangerous. In "Anything Else" Woody Allen ascribes this thought to one of his characters: The crimes of the Nazis were so attrocious that if the entire huiman race were wiped out as punishment, it could be argued that we got off too easy. A lot of people feel that way, and there are a lot of reasons for feeling that way. For many intelligent people, Naziism represented the worst of humanity, the literal creation of Hell on Earth and a crime not to be used for comparison. Even Stalin falls short of Hitler in the minds of many. So, Durbin fell into that trap.

But, it goes beyond that.

Just as, for many, Nazis represent the incomparable worst, the US, during World War II represents the heroic best. We're dealing with a mythos in both cases. We could argue forever about what genocide was worse or what war was mor justified, or what economic reasons we had for getting into World War II, but it doesn't matter. This is how people feel and their feelings about Nazi evil and US World War II heroism do have rational roots. Most peace-loving pacifists I know make a World War II exception though they criticize some of our more atrocious acts like the firebombing of Dresden and the H-bombing of Japan.

The result of this "U.S. World War II heroism" mythos is to give any comparison of US behavior to Nazis a little extra sting. Us? Nazis? My grandpa, a farm boy from Idaho, lost a hand fighting Nazis! We can't be like them, our entire conception of our military and of who we are, was defined by our opposition to them. By our opposition to evil. This is why Bush's rhetoric has been so effective. He says "evil," and he touches something, ingrained in the schooling of even the most cynical anti-Bush American: we fight evil. Pick up any book by Stephen Ambrose. I did, recently. He was more left wing than I thought. But he buys into this mythology, completely and he made a lot of money selling books to other people, who also buy it.

The thing is, no mythology is perfect and no mythology is completely wrong. There has to be something "right" about it for it to take hold. And yet, back to Durbin -- if you honestly perform his thought experiment, if you read about Abu Grhaib or Guantanomo without knowing that it's American behavior being discussed, you arrive at the frightening conclusion that our behavior right now has strayed quite far from the myths that sustain us.

Instead of calling the man a traitor, we should face ourselves and ask: Can we make American reality closer to America's mythos?


At 11:02 PM , Blogger Ideasculptor said...

Very well put, Mike.


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