Tuesday, March 27, 2007

On Liberal Guilt and Conservative Paranoia

OK, it's time to get over my giddiness of late and get back to politics. (Sorry, I've lived most of my life in a climate where spring lasts roughly three weeks in May and am now in the midst of veritable explosions of cherry blossoms.) My theme today is liberal guilt and conservative paranoia.

Let's start with some definitions and examples. There are many varieties of liberal guilt: among them, feeling bad about a situation you actually have something to do with but disavowing any relation to it; feeling bad about a situation and acknowledging your complicity in/responsibility for it but having no intention of doing anything to change it; feeling bad about your lack of success at changing the situation; getting angry at those in the situation for failing to respect how bad you feel about it; and so on. For a case study, check out the comments over at Berube's latest (and its spillover), where leftists and liberals of all varieties are tearing into each other in comments for not stopping the invasion of Iraq. You need a scorecard to tell all the factions apart!

The dominant strand of conservative paranoia, on the other hand, is quite simple: get them before they get us. Pick a random post from any of the Dick Vader/Darth Cheney dead-enders left in Right Blogistan for an example; I won't dignify them with a link and I leave the mocking to the professionals.

(While I'm doing the link-o-rama I should note that for other offerings of definitions and explorations of examples, you should check out what Anonymous Liberal, Amanda Marcotte, and Lindsay Beyerstein have written in the past several months.)

OK, now that I've got the stage set up, it's time for the plot. To argue that the War on Terra has brought out the worst reflexes of U.S. liberalism and conservativism and empowered those who have most given in to them, as I'm going to do in this post, is bad enough, but to suggest that close to the root of the problem are tendencies toward liberal guilt and conservative paranoia is worse. Pop psychologizing. Oversimplifying. Haven't liberals acknowledged Audre Lorde's critiques from the 1970s? Haven't conservatives outgrown Richard Hofstader's critiques from the 1960s? Hasn't American political culture moved on since then? If you clicked on any of the above links or have ever encountered a rhetorical question in your life, you won't be surprised that my answer is "not quite."

Let me emphasize from the outset that I am not making an argument for moral equivalence between what I called in the comments on Berube's Crooked Timber post "U.S. Sovereignty Liberalism" and "U.S. Dominion Conservatism." I am a lot more worried about the latter's paranoid logic than the former's guilty feelings. Here's Dominionist "logic": given how ugly America's history and foreign policy have been (though they hardly ever acknowledge this publicly), given how many people around the world are angry at the U.S. (but to ask "why so many more since the U.S. invaded Iraq?" is treasonous), and given 9/11 (which changed everything, duh), we'd better go get them before they come for us again (with "them" a particularly flexible and shifting target). The run-up to and the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq are perfect examples of why paranoia makes for bad national security "strategerizing," which raises the question of why the "liberal" response for far too long ranged only from rolling with the paranoia to criticizing the failures of execution of the old "the best defense is a good offense" strategy that stems from it. (You know, except for such weirdos as The Nation and much of Left Blogistan, whose wisdom and prescience earns them about as much respect and deference these days as those days.) Could liberal guilt have been the straw stirring the Kool-Aid that the corporate media and too many Democrats have been drinking for much of this century?

Since it's so difficult to gain perspective on one's own culture and history, let's take a quick look at Japanese Prime Minister Abe's terrible March, particularly the outcry around blogtopia (h/t: skippy) and the world to his insistence that the Japanese military did not coerce the "comfort women" into sexual slavery during World War II. Having mocked his claim myself, I wonder if all the people who are so forthright in their criticisms of Japanese conservatives' unwillingness to face the past frankly are willing to apply the same standards to U.S. liberals and conservatives when it comes to atrocities made in America. Would we see an outpouring of support in the U.S. if the Japanese Diet were to respond to Rep. Honda's proposed sexual slavery resolution with one of their own, calling for the U.S. President to take responsibility for, say, the U.S. government's endorsement of slavery, Indian removals, and so on, up to the fire bombing campaigns and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WW II, the entire Vietnam War, and the sexual violations by U.S. military personnel around bases all over Asia since the invasion and occupation of the Philippines? Or would we see the same kind of defensive and/or guilty reactions from U.S. political elites as we've been seeing from all-too-many mainstream Japanese politicians this past month?

It seems to me that liberal guilt and conservative paranoia are flawed strategies for dealing with the fact that citizens of a nation inherit all its history, not just the parts that they would like to remember or are convenient for them to memorialize. Just because my ancestors came to the U.S. from Poland and Hungary just before the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act shut down most U.S.-bound immigration for decades does not diminish the responsibility for the legacies of slavery all living Americans (and not only Americans) have to live with. Continually wallowing in guilt or repeatedly whirling in paranoia at our situatedness--our differential implicatedness--are worse than useless. In addition to wasting energy and distracting attention, both responses, while failing to exorcise responsibility, forestall exercising it. I'm not talking about reparations or apologies here; I'm talking about thinking through what restorative justice might look and act like.

While debates over our cruise down the road to Iraq are intensifying as we all wonder if the Bush team is really going to take that scary-looking exit for Iran, we don't need to go back to the nineteenth century to start the paranoia-guilt dialectic in motion. What I believe is fueling the War on Terra's version is the fact that during WW II the U.S. was the first and only nation-state to use what was at the time the ultimate WMD: the dropping of atomic bombs on civilian populations. Liberal guilt and conservative paranoia can't square the circle that the indiscriminate bombing of civilians was a war crime when Japan was doing it to China in the late 1930s yet became a key tactic for ending "the good war" when the Allies were doing it to the Axis just a few years later. U.S. historians have been arguing over the case for the air war and the use of atomic weapons for generations, but the mainstream political culture is still stuck in the same kind of "consensus" that allowed the right to successfully demagogue the proposed Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibit in the mid-1990s. But no matter how controversial it is within the U.S. to criticize the decision-making process that lead to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no amount of internal controversy can erase the fact that America is exceptional in the WMD sweepstakes. The lesson conservative Dominionists take from this example of American exceptionalism can be found in the two Bush national security strategy documents. What most U.S. Sovereignty Liberals take from it is the need to distinguish good exceptionalism from bad exceptionalism, which helps explains why the principles they put forward for doing so receive so much criticism (from each other, from Dominionists, and from those who are more skeptical about the history of U.S. sovereignty).

If you a U.S. citizen, whatever your politics, you have inherited Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whether you believe the atomic bombings were indefensible or justifiable--whether you see them as crimes against humanity or the least bad among terrible options during a time of War Without Mercy--your standing as an American citizen alone puts you in a position of unavoidable responsibility. Keep in mind that every justification for the atomic bombings that makes Japanese civilians responsible for everything the Japanese government did from the 1890s to the 1940s can be applied with greater force to the U.S. citizen/U.S. state relationship at any point in U.S. history. If American democracy is by, for, and of "the people," then as a legal member of that collective you bear some responsibility for what has been done in your name by the U.S. government, even if it took place before you were born, even if you tried to stop it.

Liberal guilt and conservative paranoia obscure and evade the fact that citizenship entails responsibility as well as rights. Perhaps soon post-9/11 Americans will come to understand that acting out on one's own paranoia only creates more and newer enemies while indulging in or seeking absolution from one's guilt does nothing to turn enemies into allies.


Anonymous said...

Fine post sir, and well stated. Two wee bits of proposed changes i proffer however. First i dont think it is "liberal guilt" so much as liberal's own paranoia about the impending collapse of the economy. One must keep being a good and faithful capitalist to the bitter end, just in case something bad happens to the economy, therefore one must still promote the control of petroleum in US dollars. The conservative paranoia is really much more socio-pathic, a deep delusionary psychosis predicated on profound selfishness. Liberal paranoia and conservative psychosis seems much more analogous to this mess-o-potamia.

Then, this just grates on me:
Could liberal guilt have been the straw stirring the Kool-Aid that the corporate media and too many Democrats have been drinking for much of this century?
The problem is that none of them really did ever drink the Kool-Aid! If they had they would have seen more clearly the issues that have laid bare the cannibalized soul of this nation. The typical 2oz cup of Kool-Aid contained the average dose between 300 to 500 mcgs of pure LSD. That would be five to ten times the current dosages available in the last dozen or so years. That is a big deal, and a vast chasm of incapacity to comprehend.

The conservative psychos are feeding like vultures on the American Soul, scraping the last vestiges of value out of the diminishing resources including the energy mined from the minds of our children. They have no qualms about doing it, no moral compulsions whatsoever that restrains their vast greed to use whatever means necessary (WMD's) to wipe out any and all threats to their precious way of life. A healthy serving of the real Kool-Aid would shatter their brains much as one would expect from dropping a fine Limoges porcelain from a three-story building (afterall, you want to be close enough to see it). Perhaps that is why Pierre Tristam wrote today:
The 1960s’ Unheeded Lessons
The country supposedly began “slouching toward Gomorrah” in the 1960s. But the conservative story-line about that decade is bankrupt. Iraq and the Bush years have exposed conservatism for the duplicitous opportunism that it’s been. The 60s were a model of constructive self-doubt and social renewal—and just what’s needed now. blockquote

JP Stormcrow said...

Very thought-provoking piece TC. I will talk a bit to both to your overall point as well as more specifically to the atomic bomb usage.

I do take your point that as a US citizen one takes on and wears the history for good or ill of the country to some degree (and agree that this is part of what the person becoming a citizen today, is getting with her/his citizenship.) However, my country is not the total boss of me. There are other groups associations that I or others have that bring along the similar "responsibilities". being an Ally of the US in World War II, a scientist, a member of the economic elite anywhere (including Japan), - all bring some degree of association with those particular acts. I must confront the world as an American plus many other things.

My personal feelings on the bombings themselves have been complicated by discussions with my father, who was an amphibious tank commander hanging around on Okinawa preparing for an invasion of Japan, after experiencing near life-shattering personal hell during the battle on Okinawa. He (and his cohorts), were not surprisingly, all for the bombings. (And he probably would have been anyways, as he is pretty much a "tribal" & "patriotic" Republican, although one lacking elements of true wingnuttery.) I appreciate that there is a very slippery and potentially flawed moral calculus at play here. but it is one with no solution. How to balance my father's (and cohorts) "right?/desire?" to not go bouncing towards the Japanese coast in a barely seaworthy craft and then engage in what they presumed would be an extended version of the preceding 6 months, versus the "right?/desire?" of citizens of Japan not to have unprecedented weapons of death and destruction on them?

There are of course many avenues to explore further, mainly on how these two groups came to be in the positions they were in vis-a-vis these decisions. I will just stop by saying: that this is one reason why Cry havoc! and let slip the dogs of war is such a provacative cautionary quote. They are the dogs of war, once unleashed you lose any chance of following a path of reason and moral clarity. You have then played the irrationality card, and it takes you where it will. (This is not meant to imply that deeds in war are beyond moral judgement, just that it is quite the tangled web, and much blame should accrue to those on all sides whose actions led to the initial breach.)

The Constructivist said...

spyder and JP, thanks for the thoughtful replies and sorry I don't have time for a thoughtful response till the weekend. I'll have to do some Okinawa blogging here when I get back, too....

The Constructivist said...

Here's an interesting post on Jonestown as partial penance for my Kool Aid crack!