Friday, November 27, 2009

Moyers' Journal

Bill Moyers' weekly Public Broadcast System (PBS) hour long Journal last Friday (November 20th) was an interesting retrospective by Moyers of the critical 1964-1965 discussions among members of the informal “war cabinet” President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) assembled to advise him how to continue the U.S. presence in South Vietnam without wrecking the Great Society.

The choice and format of that episode of the Journal was predictable. In the 1960s, Moyers was not caught in the maelstrom generated by the Pentagon as his forte dealt with the domestic plans and proposals for legislative action that were to launch the “Great Society.” But it was not long before those developing Johnson’s “Great Society” became acutely aware of the havoc that South Vietnam could inflict on Johnson’s domestic agenda.

Skip over the next 45 years to November 2009. The U.S. is at war again – this time fighting not three countries (North Vietnam, Cambodia, the People's Republic of China) but a loosely knitted, multi-faceted ideological-based sub-national movements or groups operating in three (or more) countries ((Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan) hoping to implement their vision of a future paradise. Other countries oppose these groups but do not relish being engaged in a civil dispute. Their stance and the indecision of the White House on what to do becomes the basis of Moyers critique -- one that is rooted in his history as a well-known and respected commentator on U.S. foreign and domestic issues.

Forty-five years is akin to two generations. In the 1960s – the time during which Moyers served in the White House – international relations centered on fusing the idea of human dignity with the practice of individual rights leading to civil liberties for all against the traditional concentration of economic production and the exercise of social, cultural, and psychological power to control the observance of mores that are strictly enforced.

What Moyers remembered about the 1960s was virtually what he was seeing reproduced in the 2000s, to include the past ten months of the Obama administration. Last week’s glance backward rises from a brooding sense that the present commander-in-chief is confronting a set of foreboding circumstances that could torpedo his domestic agenda as Vietnam did the Great Society. Just as Johnson searched in vain for the formula to escape the Vietnam quagmire, Obama has been unable to garner public support for a pragmatic drawdown (not an increase) of forces. Soldiers are not trained to act as police. Neither do they understand the pillars of culture, customs, taboos, and principles of governance which are the bases of a foreign civilization.

If Vietnam was Johnson’s failure, Obama faces a similar dilemma with Afghanistan. Missing at the heart of this war is a rational and lucid statement of why U.S. military forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 and an equally rational and lucid statement as to why in November 2009 the United States is about to add a further 34,000 troops to the same country.

It is not too much to insist that Johnson’s inability to break the Cold War mentality that dominated Congress and many “advisors” immobilized the national security decision-making mechanism throughout his presidency. This Tuesday at West Point Obama will have his turn.

So will Moyers.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Having or Making an Argument

I received an e-mail yesterday in which my correspondent mentioned a book written ten years ago by Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Washington’s Georgetown University. Titled The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words, Professor Tannen focused on the decline she had observed in the quality – that is, the tenor – of verbal and written exchanges between prominent persons who are charged (or in some cases simply usurp) with responsibility for maintaining dialogue necessary for society’s to function.

At virtually the same time, a second e-mail – one whose origin was totally unrelated to the first but whose content was similar surfaced. This second e-mail was the transcript of a November 3, 2009 interview by BBC’s “Hardtalk” of Noam Chomsky, a well-known international linguist who is also a prominent voice in the development and application of modern political science philosophy.

Tannen was not the first to address the rise of incivility in rhetorical settings. But her critique starts with the observation that societies risk the collapse of their culture and governing values when the art of reason and reasonableness in discourse are discarded. Prominent in this calculus is the role played by competing elites – the “pillars of society” – and their factions, one of which will emerge with sufficient support from the public to assume control of the levers of economic, cultural, and military power. “Winning” might bespeak public approval to implement policies and programs favored by the successful faction. But winning may also induce the successful faction to reject any and all input from the defeated opposition, thereby undercutting efforts to reconstitute effective consideration of ongoing problems.

These elites comprise the adversarial political ranks (in the U.S. most often limited to two contestants at a time), financiers and corporate CEOs who pay for “”public oriented investigations” by pro-sector “experts,” “committees” and “commissions” to sway the outcome of public policy debates and ultimately votes on society- altering appropriations. A third set of elites is the judiciary and the law, an arena in which litigation has exploded exponentially since 1994 when the Republican Party created and “sold” the “Contract with America.” The fourth category is the unswerving interpretations of fundamental religious doctrine as eternally unchangeable.

The outcome to which Tanner (and Chomsky) point is the collapse of the long-standing distinction between “having” an argument and “making” an argument. Think back to the Federalists Papers in which Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (the principal writers) and others – all well-read – marshaled the pros and cons of the issues that were about to determine whether or not the new constitution would be passed. This was not an attempt to “pick sides” followed by a further attempt to “pick a fight” – physically -- with supporters of the candidate who lost the intellectual competition.

There were, of course, incidents when fisticuffs and even worse violence occurred between supporters of political opponents. Hamilton died from a bullet in a duel in 18064 By 1828 Andrew Jackson presented himself as a plain-spoken man who trusted the people; some called him “King Mob.” The Illinois 1858 senatorial contest between the “Giant Killer,” Stephen Douglas, and the Rail-Splitter, Abraham Lincoln, saw bullying and assaults by supporters after the principals had left the verbal confrontation. The last quarter of the 19th century saw the rapid rise of the newly-influential media moguls more interested in causing controversy by construction and then destroying “balanced arguments” designed to sell more papers and magazines. “Truth” – such as it was -- was not wanted by the media. All they wanted was what added to controversy: never mind exposing the indifference of those whose objective was to get rich or to win reelection to positions in government.

(As to how self-interested politicians can become, today’s Washington Post quotes Rep Kevin Brady (R-TX) as saying to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner: “For the sake of our jobs, will you step down from your post?”)

In the end, the question is whether “making” an argument has been more useful than “having” an argument to political philosophers intent on peaceful elevation of the rights of men and sustaining human dignity in western nations. For Chomsky, linguistics and radical politics do not necessarily “inform” each other daily, but they “can be traced to Enlightenment (and earlier) concepts of creativity and freedom as being at the core of essential human nature, most clearly revealed in the normal use of language.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans' Day 2009

As the calendar would have it, Veterans’ Day (Armistice Day in Europe) in 2008 fell one week after the U.S. electorate selected the person who would become the nation’s 44th president beginning January 20, 2009.

Together with the electoral success of the Democratic Party in the Senate and House of Representatives, many commentators predicted that the election of Barack Obama would mark a definitive change in the war-driven foreign policies of the soon-to-be-gone administration of George W. Bush.

Indeed, candidate Obama had pledged that among his first actions as president would be to order the Pentagon to curtail offensive operations in Iraq; to initiate the orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq; to close the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency’s illegal prison at Guantanamo Bay as well as the CIA’s secret “black” prison system in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other “friendly countries”; and to reevaluate the status of the coalition efforts to shore up the government of Afghanistan.

We have come once again to November 11 only to find that, despite promises from the campaign speeches, the reality of these wars is little changed. Obviously, we have a new commander-in-chief, the second time since the Second World War that a president has had no military experience. Conversely, the nation’s war experience stretches for more than nine years, within which soldiers have been deployed three, four, even five times with no end in sight. Not since 1969 has any other president entered the Oval Office with U.S. troops engaged daily in active combat. He may also become the first president since Richard Nixon to undertake a re-escalation of armed conflict on the false premise that the escalation of fatalities inflicted on any country, ethnic group, or sectarian faction will be justified as preserving a “vital U.S. interest.”

Not even the murder of 13 Americans by an Army officer November 5 at Fort Hood seems to have enervated or “touched” the nation’s emotional core. Yet it is this incapacity that has often puzzled me in trying to mobilize public sentiment to oppose the temptation to go to war that seems to pervade decisions by presidents and prime ministers. Obviously, the experience of war can have an effect on the pace of the march to the next war, but after a time going to war to hopefully prevent a future war becomes so illogical that it fails completely the “common sense” test.

And at this juncture, all that remains is to count the cost.