This is an abbreviated version of this, a relic from a time when some Senators took their jobs seriously in setting American policies in the world, including specific military policies, and not just launching balloons full of partisan hot air.
You can read it merely in terms of "there is no new thing under the sun," or you can think about it in practical terms (always demand a Declaration of War if you're going to go to war).
Or you can ponder the nature of opposition in legislature, and the ease with which even a moderately accomplished speaker such as Calhoun was judged to be was able to vigorously oppose the war and support the troops at the same time with perfectly patriotic rhetoric. It's a difficult trick, but it's not brain surgery. The ability to talk of liberty and freedom and virtue without rolling eyes and giggles and scare quotes certainly helps him, doesn't it?
But do read it:
"RESOLVED, That to conquer Mexico and to hold it, either as a province or to incorporate it into the Union, would be inconsistent with the avowed object for which the war has been prosecuted; a departure from the settled policy of the Government; in conflict with its character and genius; and in the end subversive of our free and popular institutions."In offering, Senators, these resolutions for your consideration, I have been governed by the reasons which induced me to oppose the war, and by the same considerations I have been ever since guided. In alluding to my opposition to the war, I do not intend to notice the reasons which governed me on that occasion, further than is necessary to explain my motives upon the present. I opposed the war then, not only because I considered it unnecessary, and that it might have been easily avoided; not only because I thought the President had no authority to order a portion of the territory in dispute and in possession of the Mexicans, to be occupied by our troops; not only because I believed the allegations upon which it was sanctioned by Congress, were unfounded in truth; but from high considerations of reason and policy, because I believed it would lead to great and serious evils to the country, and greatly endanger its free institutions.
"RESOLVED, That no line of policy in the further prosecution of the war should be adopted which may lead to consequences so disastrous."
But after the war was declared, and had received the sanction of the Government, I acquiesced in what I could not prevent, and which it was impossible for me to arrest; and I then felt it to be my duty to limit my course so as to give that direction to the conduct of the war as would, as far as possible, prevent the evil and danger with which, in my opinion, it threatened the country and its institutions. For this purpose, at the last session, I suggested to the Senate a defensive line, and for that purpose, I now offer these resolutions. This, and this only, is the motive which governs me.
I am moved by no personal nor party considerations. My object is neither to sustain the Executive, nor to strengthen the Opposition, but simply to discharge an important duty to the country. But I shall express my opinion upon all points with boldness and independence, such as become a Senator who has nothing to ask, either from the Government or from the people, and whose only aim is to diminish, to the smallest possible amount, the evils incident to this war. But when I come to notice those points in which I differ from the President, I shall do it with all the decorum which is due to the Chief Magistrate of the Union.
Ample provisions, in men and money, were granted for carrying on the war. The campaign has terminated. It has been as successful as the Executive of the country could possibly have calculated. Victory after victory has followed in succession, without a single reverse. Santa Anna was repelled and defeated, with all his forces. Vera Cruz was carried, and the Castle with it. Jalapa, Perote, and Puebla fell; and, after two great triumphs of our army, the gates of Mexico opened to us.
Well, sir, what has been accomplished? What has been done? Has the avowed object of the war been attained? Have we conquered peace? Have we obtained a treaty? Have we obtained any indemnity? No, sir: not a single object contemplated has been effected; and, what is worse, our difficulties are greater now than they were then, and the objects, forsooth, more difficult to reach than they were before the campaign commenced.
So far as I know, in the civilized world there is no approbation of the conduct of the civil portion of our power. On the contrary, everywhere the declaration is made that we are an ambitious, unjust, hard people, more given to war than any people of modern times. Whether this be true or not, it is not for me to inquire. I am speaking now merely of the reputation which we heard abroad -- everywhere, I believe; for as much as we have gained in military reputation abroad, I regret to perceive, we have lost in our political and civil reputation.
Now, sir, much as I regard military glory; much as I rejoice to behold our people in possession of the indomitable energy and courage which surmount all difficulties, and which class them amongst the first military people of the age, I would be very sorry indeed that our Government should lose any reputation for wisdom, moderation, discretion, justice, and those other high qualities which have distinguished us in the early stages of our history.
We make a great mistake, sir, when we suppose that all people are capable of self-government. We are anxious to force free government on all; and I see that it has been urged in a very respectable quarter, that it is the mission of this country to spread civil and religious liberty over all the world, and especially over this continent. It is a great mistake. None but people advanced to a very high state of moral and intellectual improvement are capable, in a civilized state, of maintaining free government; and amongst those who are so purified, very few, indeed, have had the good fortune of forming a constitution capable of endurance. It is a remarkable fact in the history of man, that scarcely ever have free popular institutions been formed by wisdom alone that have endured.
It has been the work of fortunate circumstances, or a combination of circumstances -- a succession of fortunate incidents of some kind -- which give to any people a free government. It is a very difficult task to make a constitution to last, though it may be supposed by some that they can be made to order, and furnished at the shortest notice. Sir, this admirable Constitution of our own was the result of a fortunate combination of circumstances. It was superior to the wisdom of the men who made it. It was the force of circumstances which induced them to adopt most of its wise provisions.
Well, sir, of the few nations who have the good fortune to adopt self-government, few have had the good fortune long to preserve that government; for it is harder to preserve than to form it. Few people, after years of prosperity, remember the tenure by which their liberty is held; and I fear, Senators, that is our own condition. I fear that we shall continue to involve ourselves until our own system becomes a ruin.
Sir, there is no solicitude now for liberty. Who talks of liberty when any great question comes up? Here is a question of the first magnitude as to the conduct of this war; do you hear anybody talk about its effect upon our liberties and our free institutions? No, sir. That was not the case formerly. In the early stages of our Government, the great anxiety was how to preserve liberty; the great anxiety now is for the attainment of mere military glory. In the one, we are forgetting the other. The maxim of former times was, that power is always stealing from the many to the few; the price of liberty was perpetual vigiliance. They were constantly looking out and watching for danger. Then, when any great question came up, the first inquiry was, how it could affect our free institutions -- how it could affect our liberty. Not so now. Is it because there has been any decay of the spirit of liberty among the people? Not at all. I believe the love of liberty was never more ardent, but they have forgotten the tenure of liberty by which alone it is preserved.We think we may now indulge in everything with impunity, as if we held our charter of liberty by "right divine" -- from Heaven itself. Under these impressions, we plunge into war, we contract heavy debts, we increase the patronage of the Executive, and we even talk of a crusade to force our institutions, our liberty, upon all people. There is no species of extravagance which our people imagine will endanger their liberty in any degree. But it is a great and fatal mistake. The day of retribution will come. It will come as certainly as I am now addressing the Senate; and when it does come, awful will be the reckoning -- heavy the responsibility somewhere!
Arkin got a lot of negative feedback. Some of it, predictably, was bilious and crude. The typical newspaper columnist response would be to pick out two or three of the crudest responses and hold them up as examples of everyone who disagrees with him and say, "See? See?"
Arkin, to his credit, goes to the edge of that precipice but doesn't jump. Oh, I am sure he was tempted: he goes so far as saying his strident critics "represent the worst of polarized and hate-filled America" and he talks about "the campaign to annihilate me." But he's a blogger first, not a journalist. So mostly he takes it.
What's amusing to me is to see an anti-war left-sider confront the chickenhawk meme, which apparently was dumped on him in industrial quantities. I've said all along that that beast, though now the left's pet, was going to bite more asses on the left than the right.
The argument I read is either that I haven't served (coward, leftist, not real American), or that even if I did wear the uniform (which I did), I had a comfortable and safe existence in Germany while my brethren were fighting and dying in Vietnam. Or, that I was not high-ranking enough to know anything. Or, that I was not low-ranking enough to really experience the truth. I can see, in the military blogs and in the comments of those who have written about my posts last week, that those who refer to themselves as Vietnam veterans still yearn for the recognition and thanks that they believe they haven't received. There is no question that Vietnam is still an open wound for them, and that they therefore only recognize the worth of fellow veterans, of those who have been through exactly the same experience.He feels the sting, and he also feel the absurdity of being attacked that way. But so far he really has no answer to it, except an ad hominem on the veterans who abused him. Not very good. I could give him a primer on how to artfully get those chicken teeth out of his cheeks. He comes back to it again in the column:
As this line of argument goes, the soldiers themselves and those who have served in Iraq are the only ones who really know what it is like, what the war is about, and what should be done. The media in general and war opponents in particular intentionally and purposefully provide a negative and discouraging view that doesn't comport with what the soldiers see, so goes this argument. But the bigger point is that any dissenting voices are just those of whores, politicians, tin foil hat liberals, or worse, un-Americans. In this view, there are no actual experts in this world, no one who studies and measures public opinion, no one who studies war or the military, who do not wear the uniform.Ah, well, I'm sure he was similarly denouncing this view when it was his friends and allies who spouted it. I'm sure.
I think the chickenhawk meme is a logical fallacy and a dangerous argument to make in a free nation. To accept it is to tacitly promote militarism and a marriage of martial and civilian authority. If only military men can make political decisions leading to war, all politicians ultimately will be military men. The alternative is an occasionally pacifist government that could not adequately defend itself in the modern world.
And if you think things in the U.S. military are bad now, imagine a nation where armed service was the doorway to political careers. Imagine every wanna-be legislator trying to get himself slathered in battlefield glory. No, you don't have to imagine it. The annals of 1861 and '62 still are damp with the gore of blood spilled by such politician-generals. Just Google "Ball's Bluff" if you don't believe me.
Back to Arkin. I think his original column was wrong-headed and foolish and insulting -- but not because of his military service or lack of it or the quality thereof.He called the U.S. military a pack of "mercenaries," and he got an earful in response. He senses the chickenhawk meme is an error -- once it has attacked him -- but not for any of the right reason. No, but because it's "anti-elitist." Seriously:
This is not some post-modern relativism, it is pure anti-elitism. The elite think they know it all, while those who do all of the dirty work, who do all of the suffering, are methodically ignored and dominated.And that's where he leaves it. Honest to Gods, with a whole toolbox of logical and political ripostes to the chickenhawk meme, the best he can do is say it's mean to the elites. Elites like William M. Arkin, who "strive to see an angle in an event that is different" and "try to be ahead of the curve, and not just reflect conventional wisdom ...." Yes, well, you can't very well be the new Will Rogers if you also want to carry on like Gore Vidal. You'll have to settle for being The Poor Man's Chomsky and take your appropriate lumps. It seems his editors are sitting on him:
Note: On the advice of my editors, this is the last column I will post for awhile on this subject. My impulse would be to continue to fight back and answer the critics, but I see the wisdom in their observation that nothing new is being said here and the Internet frenzy is adding nothing to the debate or our understanding of our world. I also see that I cannot continue to write about humanity and difficult questions if indeed what I wish is to vanquish those who attack me.That's a shame. It would be interesting to see this continue, and to see whether he eventually gets it. Though I suspect Armed Liberal and I would bet the same way on that one.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff Directive 1067 directed President John Edwards’ policy of deNeoconization.[edited: Typo fixed]
The United States initially pursued deNeoconization in a committed though bureaucratic fashion. For this process five categories of responsibility for anyone over the age of 18 residing in the U.S. were identified: major offenders, offenders, lesser offenders, followers, and exonerated persons. Ultimately, the intention was the "re-education" of the American people.
In early 2009, 90,000 Neocons were being held in concentration camps, another 1,900,000 were forbidden to work as anything but manual labourers.
A report of the Institute on re-education of the Red States in June 2008 recommended: "Only an inflexible longterm occupation authority will be able to lead the Americans to a fundamental revision of their recent political philosophy." On 15 January 2009, however, a report of the Democratic National Committee (classified as restricted) stated: "The present procedure fails in practice to reach a substantial number of persons who supported or assisted the Neocons." On 1 April a special law therefore transferred the responsibility for the deNeoconization process to the White House chief of staff, who established 545 civilian courts to oversee 900,000 cases.
The deNeoconization was now supervised by special ministers like Dennis Kucinich in Ohio. By 2010, however, with the Islamist War now clearly in progress, American attentions were directed increasingly to the threat of jihad; the remaining cases were tried through summary proceedings that left insufficient time to thoroughly investigate the accused, so that many of the judgments of this period have questionable judicial value. For example, by 2012 members of the Republican Party like Rudy Giuliani could be declared formally deNeoconized in absentia by a government arbitration board and without any proof that this was true.
In December 2009 U.S. President John Edwards justified his refusal to alleviate the induced famine of the Midwestern population: “though all Red Staters might not be guilty for the war, it would be too difficult to try to single out for better treatment those who had nothing to do with the Neocon regime and its crimes.”
The Information Control Division of the White House had by July 2009 taken control of 37 newspapers, 6 radio stations, 314 theatres, 642 movies, 101 magazines, 237 book publishers, 7,384 book dealers and printers. It’s main mission was democratisation but part of the agenda was also the prohibition on any criticism of the White House.In addition, on May 13, 2010 the White House council issued a directive for the confiscation on all media that could contribute to Neoconism or militarism. As a consequence a list was drawn up of over 30,000 book titles, ranging from school textbooks to poetry, which were now banned. All copies of books on the list were confiscated and destroyed, the possession of a book on the list was made a punishable offence.
Orwell, thou should'st be living at this hour.
A war and an anti-war driven by a politicized mass media and a media-gaming political class naturally devolves to a place where words and clichés trump realities.
The new SecDef seemingly had to pass only one confirmation test: Use the words "not winning in Iraq" in front of Congress. Anti-war types get all apoplectic over whether Bush calls it a "war" or not. "Stay the course" ... "mission accomplished" ... "cut and run." Everybody knows these; what kind of war is it where everybody on the home front can bicker about slogans and no one can name a hero?
Words like "neo-conservative," "civil war," WMD," "democracy," "treason" inhabit the core of the public discussion about Iraq -- and no two people who use them daily can agree on what they mean. Are 20-year-old Sarin gas artillery shells WMDs? Is Dick Cheney a neo-conservative? Is Iran a democracy?
Every 100 deaths in Iraq is a "grim milestone," by fiat of the media. It is the most overworked cliché of local journalism since, "Rain couldn't dampen the spirits/enthusiasm of _____ graduates of _____ high school during last night's commencement ceremony as they looked to the future and pondered the past."
It requires no thought or reflection. It treats round numbers as the definition of reality. This has been a media trope since the first shots were fired ("After days of intense searching by ground and air, U.S. forces on Saturday found the bodies of two soldiers missing north of Baghdad, as the toll of American dead since the start of war topped the grim milestone of 200 ..." -- Associated Press, June 29, 2003). I doubt anyone who wrote any of these headlines could explain to you why death number 3,000 was enormously more significant than death number 2,997. Certainly not to the parents of number 2,997.
Does it help you to know these numbers divorced from context? Are there not many Americans who would consider, say, every 1,000 abortions nationwide a "grim milestone?" Even if you set 1,000 battle deaths (not the AP's preferred 200) as the benchmark for "grim milestones," you had a grim milestone every five days during America's involvement in World War II with nary a "grim milestone" headline to show for it.The Associated Press coverage of Bush's recent speech on Iraq played up his admission of mistakes more than what he actually proposed:
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush acknowledged for the first time last night that he erred by not ordering a military buildup in Iraq last year and said he was increasing U.S. troops by 21,500 to quell the country's near-anarchy. "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me," Bush said.Because it's become a media/anti-war trope that "Bush never admits mistakes." But he sometimes does. Does he admit fewer than Roosevelt did in public? Than Reagan? Than Lincoln? Than John F. Kerry? How would you know that? Does the media even care? Now it's surge.
One thing is clear: Using the word "surge" to describe President Bush's forthcoming plan for reshaping U.S. efforts in Iraq has ignited a fiery political brouhaha.Thus the LA Times. What's missing there? The sentence has no subject. "Who" is "[u]sing the word 'surge' to describe President Bush's forthcoming plan ..." The media, including the LA Times." In a laughable bit of journalistic commentary, the Times has a Roseanne Rosanadana moment and slips this into the article well down in the text:
The controversy has not been diminished by the fact that Bush and senior White House officials have steered clear of “surge” themselves.And this well after the paper has allowed a Bush critic to blame it all on the president and his minions:
"I've noticed a complete acceptance on the part of most of the MSM [mainstream media] (and Congress) to accept the White House nomenclature," blogger Nicole Belle wrote in a complaint posted on crooksandliars.com.Other anti-war pundits take umbrage at "surge" because their definition of "surge" is the real one and pouti that those evil neo-cons are stealing their language.
"This need not be complicated. A 'surge' suggests a brief increase in troops.Let's look at that ol' dictionary, shall we?
... "Well, enough of this. Liberals, journalists, I'm calling on you. We must never talk about a surge unless we're actually talking about a surge -- a temporary infusion of troops. We should resist that as well. But now, if the proponents of escalation have escalation on their agenda, we must bring this out in the open and defeat it. Deal?"
1. to rise and fall actively : TOSS [a ship surging in heavy seas]
2 : to rise and move in waves or billows : SWELL [the sea was surging]
3 : to slip around a windlass, capstan, or bitts -- used especially of a rope
4 : to rise suddenly to an excessive or abnormal value [the stock market surgeed to a record high]
5 : to move with a surge or in surges [felt the blood surging into his face -- Harry Hervey] [she surged past the other runners]
Nothing in there about brief, small, or short. Nothing about "temporary." When "she surged past the other runners" there's no implication that they then all overtook her again.
These are not peripheral words in this national debate. They are its heart, and that heart is philological mud. Reactionary "progressives" and illiberal "liberals" rail at "conservatives" who couldn't find a single touchstone of philosophical conservatism with a Geiger counter.
The American Civil War lasted until 1877, and the South won.
While we're in the business of pouring new wars into old bottles, I suggest we re-write history, too, to make it conform with the realities that are claimed for the present.
The statement at the head of this post, for instance, is where you'd come out if you applied the prevailing pessimist's view of Iraq and J. David Singer's "Journal of Peace Research" definition of "civil war" (the one embraced by journalists and anti-administration polemicists).
Shockingly revisionist, but arguably right. The CSA suffered military defeat and government collapse. Its leaders were driven from power. But a relentless insurgency and the dirty work of policing internal ethnic strife wore down the patience of the people of the North. The old U.S. army never had much of a taste or aptitude for peacekeeping. Political tides shifted in the North and eroded any remaining federal commitment to reconstruction, and the U.S. government simply declared victory and went home, leaving race-based slavery wobbly and battered, but essentially intact in everything but name. (Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, writing after the war, described "slavery - so called -" as what "was with us, or should be, nothing but the proper subordination of the inferior African race to the superior white ....")
Of course it overlooks whole swaths of reality, but so does every ideologically driven paradigm, eh?
A prominent and distinguished scholar, feminist, and historian, like her husband Eugene (whose specialty is the ante-bellum South), she moved personally away from the cushy secular platitudes characteristic of faculty lounges in the ivory tower. But the courage was in then bringing that shifted perspective into the same line of inquiry and studies she had been pursuing.
As a historian, scholar and self-described complex conservative, Dr. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese took comfortable orthodoxy and turned it inside out, generating vitriolic criticism and devoted followers in the process. ... Through her scholarship, Dr. Fox-Genovese alienated doctrinaire feminists and attracted conservatives, especially on women's issues.It quotes Sean Wilentz, one of the more prominent American historians representing the prevailing paradigm (the one that generally has tried to plug its ears when the Genoveses spoke), who is carefully respectful without being enthusiastic: "She had a sharp intelligence and a sharp pen, all the more to raise hackles, and that's good."
But there's no doubt that, to the academic clique, she was a "them," not an "us." As Wilentz says, "Betsey's voice came from inside the academy and updated the ideas of the conservative women's movement. She was one of their most influential intellectual forces."A dean at Emory gets it right:
"She believed that the purpose of the life of the mind was to question every orthodoxy. She had an appetite for turning everything over and inside out."Which usually is what you'd say of a liberal/progressive, an I.F. Stone or some such. But where radicalism is orthodoxy, the conservative becomes the progressive, and ... ouch, it makes my head hurt. For a tour through the controversy a life like hers can engender, see the glowing obituary in the National Review, which focuses on her anti-abortion positions:
Betsey knew that public pro-life advocacy would be regarded by many in the intellectual establishment as intolerable apostasy — especially from one of the founding mothers of “women’s studies.” She could have been forgiven for keeping mum on the issue and carrying on with her professional work on the history of the American south. But keeping mum about fundamental matters of right and wrong was not in her character. And though she valued her standing in the intellectual world, she cared for truth and justice more. And so she spoke out ever more passionately in defense of the unborn. And the more she thought and wrote about abortion and other life issues, the more persuaded she became that the entire secular liberal project was misguided. Secular liberals were not deviating from their principles in endorsing killing whether by abortion or euthanasia in the name of individual “choice”; they were following them to their logical conclusions. But this revealed a profound contradiction at the heart of secular liberal ideology, for the right of some individuals to kill others undermines any ground of principle on which an idea of individual rights or dignity could be founded.And compare that with the simplified, muted snark of the New York Times version:
“When we last left Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, at the end of ‘Feminism Without Illusions,’ she was deploring people who ‘find it easy to blame feminism for some of the most disturbing aspects of modern life: divorce, latchkey children, teenage alcoholism, domestic violence, the sexual abuse of children.’ Five years later, it seems she has become one of the people she warned us about.” Ms. Fox-Genovese, who in her early work supported abortion, though with reservations, would in later years equate it with murder. She would also argue publicly that the women’s movement had been disastrous, and extol the virtues of traditional marriage and family.
"I had the gravest forebodings about this organization and warned the President that as set up neither he, the National Security Council, nor anyone else would be in a position to know what it was doing or to control it." [Dean Acheson, "Present at the Creation"]This year is the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The Agency is a living relic of the first flush of the Cold War, along with the Department of Defense, the independent Air Force (was that really necessary?), and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And it's time to ask some serious questions.
Is there any entity in modern America that has eaten up more money, wasted more lives, and done less good to the American people? Is there any group representative of America in the world that has brought more humiliation to our friends and more delight to our enemies? Is there any federal agency, however necessary, that is more untrue to the spirit of America? Any less accountable for its errors? Any that has brought down more blowback on our heads? Any that has done more to undercut the American people's belief in the essential decency of our public servants and the transparency of our government?
Who enacts U.S. policy in a given Latin American capital? The CIA station or the U.S. ambassador? If you ask the locals, what would they say? If you ask the ambassador, confidentially?
Is there any spy agency in the history of the world more reckless, amateurish, and incompetent? The two most effective Cold War presidents, Reagan and Eisenhower, largely ignored the CIA in dealing with the Soviet Union, and they made their best tough calls based on hunch and common sense. Just as well, since the CIA was consistently and potentially lethally wrong on Russian abilities and intentions throughout the period.
And will there ever be a president or a Congress strong enough to stand up to it? Even a vigorous and ruthless agency director like William Casey could not hack through the bramble of bureaucracy that surrounded the heart of the CIA. The bureaucrats knew they'd be standing after he was gone. As for U.S. presidents, none dared really try. Not even after the calamitous failures of 9/11. And what does the answer to that say about what we have let ourselves become?
[Read the rest at Done With Mirrors]
"The Rise of American Democracy" by Sean Wilentz
Wilentz's book covers the evolution between the revolutions. The War of Independence and the Civil War stand as bookends to his text. His narrative spikes in three political revolutions, so-called: those that put Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln in the White House.
The book opens as the leaders of the young nation test their new American system. Their different notions of how it should work jostle for authority. Wilentz does a good job of pointing out how distant some of those assumptions were -- especially regarding the role of parties and the press -- from where we've ended up.
The Founders as a group never intended us to be a pure democracy in 1787, though a few of them would have supported the idea if the rest did, and a few of them later helped the process along when it became expedient to their political causes.
A key principle of the early republic was that the people should rule, but that the power to vote ought to be the privilege of free men only. One who was bound by debt or loyalty to other men was not free to give himself, or his vote, totally to the good of the public. That accounts for the Founders' general horror of debts, banks, lenders, and mortgages.
It also accounts for why many states required voters or office-holders to be men of a certain income or property. This was at heart a republican, not an aristocratic, principle. The ownership of property, unencumbered by debt, was the rock foundation of republican independence, virtue, and liberty.
And that's my reading of it. But it's not Wilentz's. In his mind, property restrictions on voting seem to have been a rank relic of aristocracy and proof of capitalist mistrust of the lowly orders of society.
Wilentz tells how the new republic quickly came to a crisis with Jefferson's election in 1800. Afterward Americans, including the political leaders, overcame the Founders' scruples and arrived at a general consensus that elections ought to be open to as many white males as possible.
Andrew Jackson's victory in 1828 was both a result of expanded suffrage and a rout of the last conservative defense against it. For the first time in America, popular causes begin to really drive national policy.
In the book's final third, the struggle over slavery distorts the march to democracy by forking it into two ideals: a Northern one and a largely anti-democratic Southern one.
But "The Rise of American Democracy" fails to rise above the mundane school of academic history-writing. It sees the past too much through the filter of current events. (Historians even have coined a word for this, "presentist.") Wilentz even lapses into modern catch phrases like "support the troops" that have dubious utility when applied to the War of 1812. Consequently, a great deal gets left out of his narrative.
Wilentz gets right to work in his introduction, asserting his right to define "democracy" in terms that would make it unrecognizable to the Founders, readers of ancient Greek, and many modern Americans.
Madison, for instance, might have defined "democracy" as a form of government vesting sovereignty in the majority, and in which the rulers serve the ruled.Poppycock, Wilentz writes. "I think we go astray in discussing democracy simply as a form of government or society, or as a set of social norms ... a thing with particular structures that can be codified and measured." No? If democracy is not a form of government or society, what is it?
Democracy appears when some large number of previously excluded, ordinary persons -- what the eighteenth century called "the many" -- secure the power not simply to select their governors but to oversee the institutions of government, as officeholders and as citizens free to assemble and criticize those in office. [p.xix]Ah, so. Democracy is a permanent state of "power to the people" revolution against the would-be ruling class gnawing at the roots of the tree of liberty. But instead of defining what democracy is, he's only described one way it happens.
I might call that a sometimes-feature of democracies, but to Wilentz it is the whole elephant. In so doing, Wilentz sweeps aside the notion that democracy ever can be a "gift bestowed by benevolent, farseeing rulers." Which puts the Founders in their place. Instead, "it must always be fought for."
And well you might assert that if you were publishing in 2006 and you had just announced your opinion that "George W. Bush's presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace." In Wilentz's world, it seems the only assurance of a nation's freedom is a continuous state of anti-administration truculence by the working people, and carping at leaders is the highest form of patiotism.
Contra Wilentz, however, American democracy was more than just a tug-of-war between rich aristocrats and noble working people. New England had a "classical/puritan" model of republicanism, the South embraced a "modern/agrarian" model, and different strains of republicanism flourished in between -- in Dutch New York and Quaker Jersey and Pennsylvania. Democracy had roots in cultural and religious traditions Wilentz ignores.
You can find that in the works of historians like David Hackett Fischer, but none of this really gets any treatment in Wilentz's book, which presents America's political evolution as the work largely of organized lower-class outsiders and a few insider allies in Washington.
Wilentz, whose specialty is American working class leaders and movements (his c.v. is here) naturally wants to make radical labor leaders and anti-capitalist agitators the heroes of the story. Certainly they played a role in the evolution of the United States from the mixed-government republic of the Constitution toward the horizontal democracy it was becoming by the time Wilentz winds up his book circa 1861.
But his attempt to pump up the importance of the radicalized working class often oversells the product. The result can remind the reader how classless American politics, as opposed to European, tend to be. Marx's old perplexity remains, and that probably wasn't what Wilentz wanted you to notice.
For instance, in the chapter on the Van Buren administration he touts "polemics" by Fanny Wright and other radicals against paper money. As though Van Buren sat up at night in bed reading radical pamphleteers and shaping his policy accordingly.
The more likely results of the radical agitation turn up a few pages later when Wilentz mentions the administration's opponents made hay by tarring its fiscal policy as "the 'Fanny Wright' campaign to destroy all banks." Then as now, in America, shrill voices tend to taint the causes they preach, however valid those causes may be in the minds of most Americans. Only devotees of Ann Coulter and Cindy Sheehan need be surprised by that.
In chapter after chapter, Wilentz breathlessly builds up the momentum of a working-class or radical movement on some issue. Mass meetings gather and brave men make bold speeches. Then the elections come and the radical parties get a "respectable" 10 percent or so, and in a month it's all forgotten. But you can be sure Wilentz will remind you the winners were "forced to take notice" of the distant third-place finishers.
And though throughout Wilentz shows his propensity for retroactively empowering "ordinary Americans, including some beyond the outermost reaches of the country's formal political life," he also believes this progress toward democracy was accomplished by the combined efforts of the people and certain egalitarian political leaders.
As such, the book actually is a corrective to much of what has been written in the past 20 years or so. Those works can make it seem American history only ever happened from the bottom up.
Wilentz stays true to his purpose to write a history of the politics of the times. "The Rise of American Democracy" is blissfully free of statistics. Science and literature are invisible. "Moby Dick" appears only as an allegory of the national struggle over slavery; Walt Whitman strolls across the stage only as a political journalist.
Unfortunately, Wilentz seem to have fallen into his topic, like Alice through the looking glass, and has written a history book in political prose.
All historians do this to some extent, but the scent of it is particularly strong here. Wilentz uses campaign-trail rhetoric: good fanatics are "passionate" "reformers" who "rail against" their enemies; bad ones are "hot-headed" "extremists" who "sneer at" them. A writer he approves is an "author;" one he disapproves is a "scribbler."
If a class of men you approve engages in politics you don't, blame it on exploitation by party bosses and propaganda. If a class of men you despise engages in politics you approve, dismiss it as the cold calculation of self-interest and temporary expedience.
Men of Party-I-Like have "moral seriousness" and take care to be "estranged" from the extremists on their side. Men of Party-I-Don't-Like, on the other hand, believe in their hearts the most extreme versions of their dogmas; it's only the "more candid" ones who say "frankly what others try to cloak."
The most complex situations resolve into simple good guy-bad guy plotlines more worthy of a professional wrestling show. Working-class Irish-American racism against blacks, deftly analyzed in Noel Ignatiev's "How the Irish Became White," tends to crop up in Wilentz's book as a case of innocent immigrants exploited by political schemers. The Irish immigrants, you see, are "offended by the Republicans' nativist tinge and empathy for black slaves" (never mind that the racism was in place a generation before the birth of either Know-Nothing nativism or Republicans).
Wherever Wilentz mentions Irish antipathy to blacks, he couples it with the political press and Democratic candidates who benefited from Irish votes. It all begins to read like an apology, as though the press was the source of the racism, not the fan to the flames. As though the basic arithmetic of wages and available labor were something only a politician, not an Irish workman, could calculate. It is odd that Wilentz's class-consciousness would overlook this, but he has bigger fish to fry. If working people are heroes and working people are racists, it must be someone else's fault.
It's only in a footnote on Irish-black relations that Wilentz admits his version is outside "The conventional and by no means wholly discredited view on Irish-black relations ...."
In such a milieu, it's no surprise political men, who ought to burst to life on these pages, simply fall out of them like cardboard bookmarks.
The great chamaeleon Van Buren goes from a cynical but brilliant coalition-builder for Jackson, playing footsie with the slave-masters for the sake of a majority, to the "courageous" and principled candidate of the Free-Soilers in their anti-slavery crusade. He then reverts to party hack when he refuses to join a later abolitionist movement.
John C. Calhoun is the great cartoon villain of the work, of course. And of course every breath Calhoun takes is explained as being grounded either in his pathological desire to make himself president or his twisted racist defense of slavery. Which would be absurd to anyone who could step outside Wilentz's world long enough to glance at Calhoun's career of deliberate steps that sabotaged his hope to lead the nation, or the future of slavery, for the sake of being consistent to his principles.
Wilentz is content to mouth the old Van Burenite slanders against Calhoun, because doing so suits his ideological need for a slaveocrat arch-satan. The caricature is downright scurilous, as when cartoon Calhoun's opposition to the huge annexations that followed the Mexican War, on anti-imperialist grounds, is dismissed as merely a racist desire to keep swarthy Mexicans out of the union.
Calhoun's constitutional position, the key to everything he did, finally gets a word in edgewise on page 729 of Wilentz's book, more than 600 pages after Calhoun first pops up in the text. He's already a decade dead and buried by that time, and Wilentz only deigns to give his doctrine a reasonably fair one-sentence summation for the sake of then pointing out how extreme, by contrast, were some of the Southern leaders who followed him.
(Along the way he also manages to misidentify Calhoun's "Disquisition on Government" as "unpublished" -- probably to diminish its importance. It was the summation of thought that Calhoun worked on until his death, and it was published three years later in a treatise of 107 pages.)
Nothing shows how completely Wilentz fails to consider Calhoun more than his description of Calhoun's "attacks on democracy -- or what ... he carefully called 'absolute democracy' ..." blithely eliding over the chasm of distinction at the core of Calhoun's entire career as though it was a rhetorical trick any clever modern-day Princeton historian can see through.
Even Lincoln, who in this book can do no wrong, is a cypher as he rides the political rapids from one political alignment to another. Other men seem to be simply inexplicable in Wilentz's world, such as Mayor Fernando Wood: champion of New York City's working-class poor AND pro-Southern conservative.
As a result, some of the juiciest perplexities of the times go unexplored in "The Rise of American Democracy." The evolution of radical anti-constitutional and disunionist sentiments by the Northern abolitionists happened at the same time there was, for the first time, a mainstream abolitionist political party. Why is that?
Wilentz rightly notes something historians often overlook: It wouldn't have mattered if the Democratic Party had maintained unity in 1860; Lincoln would have won anyhow. But this comes after a lurid account of how the evil Southern fire-eaters gleefully split the Democratic Party in hopes it would spur secession.
That, he sees, is a threat to democracy. The fact that a regional candidate like Lincoln could win the national election with only 39 percent of the popular vote doesn't seem to cross his transom for trouble. Eighteen-sixty was the most anti-democratic election (defining "democracy" in the usual way) in American history, yet because it brought to power an outsider minority that ultimately set another outsider minority free, it was for Wilentz the supreme democratic event. You'd think he'd at least acknowledge the contradiction in that.
The modern Middle East is sobering some Americans to the ugliness that can rise up to power in a popular election. A look at our past might teach the same lesson.
In the 1850s, the extreme men of the South made slow inroads among the leadership class in Dixie -- the aristocrats of slavery that Wilentz scorns. Instead, the underminers of the union had much more rapid success among the enfranchised masses in popular elections. Wilentz even notes this paradox -- "The upholders of Southern aristocracy were gaining power through the Southern democratic ballot box" [p.755] -- and there it starts and ends, as far as this book is concerned.
The Southern Confederacy and its rhetoric offer a broad-side barn target for a modern enlightened American. Wilentz's abhorrence of racism and African slavery make him the kind of fellow you'd invite to a dinner party. But they alone hardly qualify him to write this sort of drive-by history book.
The national deterioration in the 1850s was a radical table tennis match played across the Mason Dixon Line: Christiana riots, Nebraska, Dred Scott, John Brown. But in Wilentz's chicken-or-egg story of the conflict between North and South, the Southern fried chicken always comes first. To see the thing in purely political terms requires the historian to put aside his revulsion at slavery, his utter sympathy for the abolitionists, and consider the process.
Wilentz simply drags out the dusty old dossier of quotes mined from Southern political speeches and declarations of 1860 to prove defense of slavery as the central motive for secession. Then he angrily dismisses the reflective views of the chief men of both sides, years after the bid for Southern independence had failed, as a pack of lies. Because the later writings put the slavery debate in the context of the spark that lit the fire, the perceived proof of the need to separate, not the purpose of the new nation.
And so we have here the spectacle of the historian of politics dismissing the calmer reflections of historical writing as wicked lies and insisting the political boilerplate speeches and heat-of-the-moment rallying cries are the only true statements. Oh, he's not alone. It's prevailing wisdom these days, however absurd it will look to a future generation.
Still, Wilentz passes up a chance to explore the really interesting political mentality of men like Alexander Stephens, a Henry Clay-style Southern Whig by nature who felt the need to reconcile his later embrace of slavery with his essential Whig ideology based on order and philanthropy.
The slavery passage in the speech Stephens made in Savannah in 1861, which Wilentz cherry-picks to prove that the Southern rebellion had no purpose but to protect slavery, is a reflection of Stephens' internal struggle to maintain consistency of thought.
Here was a man who had publicly reversed most of his earlier political positions. As late as the 1860 election, Stephens had backed the moderate Douglas, not the South's hard-line choice, Breckenridge. He considered secessionists "demagogues," and he defended Lincoln, with whom he had served in the House. Lincoln, he wrote, "is not a bad man. He will make as good a president as Fillmore did and better too in my opinion." Lincoln, for his part, actually considered inviting Stephens to join his cabinet.
But Stephens cast his loyalty with his section, not his principles. If he could not correct the South, he would try to guide it and, by compromising some, attempt to save the rest. He failed, and the South failed.
The Savannah speech is a sad affair, not just because of the blunt racism of that one passage -- the racism itself, it ought to be noted, would hardly have offended any white audience in 1861 America, North, South, or West, outside a few abolitionist circles. But sad because it shows a politician who has so twisted himself to try to hold the reins of a revolution that he has got tangled in them and they now rule him. He embraces what he once scorned, and he mocks positions he once held. He has thrown away his ideals, and the "cornerstone" passage, to me, reads so much more accurately as an odd eruption of a warped and very personal ideological struggle.
Jackson's Indian removal policy, he writes, has become "the great moral stain on the Jacksonian legacy." Wilentz bristles that "Jackson's democracy, for these historians -- indeed, liberal society -- was founded on degradation, dishonor, and death." Jackson, Wilentz insists, "truly believed" his policy was relatively just and humane. He was "a benevolent, if realistic paternalist." Why, he went so far as to adopt an orphaned Indian boy. What's more, his policy was constrained by his commitment to follow the Constitution.
Thing is, I agree with Wilentz about all that. And that the Indian removal, however well intentioned, was the least-terrible from a short list of terrible options, a tragedy, and a misguided benevolence whose good intentions were undercut by the administration itself.But still it's amusing to watch Wilentz completely flip-flop on a paternalistic master-race leader and rally to his defense because, after all, the man advanced democracy, the one value that matters. He scolds the version of the story given by Jackson's detractors in the history-writing profession:
Like all historical caricatures, this one turns tragedy into melodrama, exaggerates parts at the expense of the whole, and sacrifices nuance for sharpness.Which is a better summation than I could write of my opinion about "The Rise of American Democracy."
There are better studies than this one available for every issue and administration covered here, and they make the same points with more vigor and evidence. I suppose it's some use to have all this between two covers. But so much ground gets covered that, even for a book this size, and even if you agree with Wilentz about everything, the treatment is superficial.
The Jackson section is best, but we already have Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s "Age of Jackson" for that. Wilentz adds only a few dabs of color to that masterpiece. Compare any passage of Wilentz and Schlesinger on the same topic: Calhoun in the Senate grimly casting the tie-breaking vote that he thinks will end Van Buren's career; Van Buren remaining in "careful ignorance" of the unfolding scandal as the rest of Jackson's cabinet self-destructs in the Peggy Eaton affair.
Feel the vitality of the writing, the subtlety of the political comprehension. Nuance can share a page with sharpness.
Talking about "Islamic fundamentalism" is a dangerous business for one outside the religion. Many Islamic things that to us look alike on the surface (and have the same effect on our lives as non-Muslims) come from different sources.
Is Bin Laden a Wahhabist? How would you know whether he is or is not? Is he a disciple of Sayyid Qutb? Often they write alike. But that is not the same thing. Again, how would you know that?
Something that ought to have been obvious all along struck me while reading "Basic Principles of the Islamic Worldview" by Sayyid Qutb.
Even the furiously defensive preface by Hamid Algar (who is of the Israel=Nazi Germany school) notes the "curious and paradoxical" quality of Qutb's writing, that while he announces his intention to expound on Islam, he spends most of his time condemning and refuting everyone else's beliefs and systems -- Christians, Buddhists, Jews, philosophers, Marxists, secularists. "In some cases," Algar writes, "they receive greater analytical attention than the characteristics of Islam that form the subject matter of each chapter."
Of course, Algar goes on to excuse this by blaming it on the West -- specifically on the "censorious Westerner peering over the shoulder of the writer." But invoking that fictional specter, which many Islamic writers beside Qutb seem to fear, begs a question. After all, apologists for Western liberalism don't seem to feel a censorious Qutb peering over their shoulders.
Likely the fixation with rejecting and refuting Western/Christian ideas reflects a silent acknowledgment of their powerful lure to the people in the Islamic world (and elsewhere) as well as an awareness of the poor performance turned in by Islamic societies in most of the measured achievements of modernity.
[Whether we ought to measure human achievement by the standards of Islam or modernity, of course, is the essential question between Qutb and us.]
That the Wahhabis, Qutb, Bin Laden, and to a certain degree Hamas, Hezbollah, and others tend to look the same to us is perhaps less a matter of "this begat that" or "this evolved from that" as it is an outcome of the nature of fundamentalism in religion, which is an attempt to turn back the clock as far as possible toward the zero-point of revelation. It seeks to purify the faith of the compromises and borrowings, the rust and "debris" (in Qutb's word) that accrue to it once it passes from divine hands into himan ones.
In Christian history, you have Christ preaching a way to live, and then 300 years later you have Constantine marching into battle under the banner of Christ. The gap between the two experiences is disturbing to many Christians, and attempts to turn Christianity back to its dynamic wellsprings generally bypass Constantine.
In Islam, Muhammad is both Christ and Constantine. Struggle -- jihad -- is integral to the roots of the faith. Islamic fundamentalism embraces the struggle for purity within the community and the aggressive engagement with outside powers, because both are prescribed in the revealed text.
As Algar puts it in his introduction, the "Islamic concept" is "dependent on engagement in struggle and effort to create the society mandated by revelation." Qutb's "urgent concern" was to "reconstitute, after a more than millennial lapse, the environment of struggle in which the revelation had first been received and to achieve thereby a new, exemplary era, mirroring the first."
And that struggle will naturally follow the path laid down in the original revelation: a call to establish a world founded on the justice of the faith, with other creeds tolerated, restricted, taxed, and protected under the virtuous rule of Islamic leaders.Here Qutb shares his vision, rebuking those who deny the accusation Islam is the religion of the sword by the equally (to him) false assertion that it is a religion of peace:
Some Crusaders and Zionists, for example, doggedly accuse Islam of being the religion of the sword, claiming that it was spread by the edge of the sword. Consequently, some of us defend Islam and refute this accusation by invoking the idea of "defence." Thereby they lessen the value of jihad in Islam, narrow the scope, and apologise for each of its instances, claiming that they were undertaken only for the purpose of "defence," in its present shallow meaning. These people forget that Islam, being the last divine path for humanity, has an essential right to establish its own system on earth so that all humanity can enjoy its blessing, while every individual enjoys the liberty to follow his chosen creed, for "there is no compulsion in religion." Establishing the "Islamic system" to have beneficial sway over all humanity, those who embrace Islam and those who do not, does indeed require Jihad as does the liberty of men to follow their own beliefs. This goal can only be accomplished with the establishment of a virtuous authority, a virtuous law and a virtuous system that calls to account whoever attempts to attack freedom of worship and belief.[emphasis added]
I often urge people to read the writings of Bin Laden. In fact, I think it would be a valuable exercise to have the whole nation take a day off work and read what the man has said and written about us and what he plans to do to us and why.
But the next question is, where do I get them; and the answer to that is surprisingly difficult. There is one published collection in English that I am aware of, Messages to the World. It's a good collection, but it has problems.
The problems in the book are not so much in Bin Laden's words, but in the surrounding material. The introduction by Bruce Lawrence (a professor of religion at Duke) seems to bend over to present Bin Laden as an honorable man reacting to legitimate grievances with appropriate resistance that he perhaps takes a wee bit too far.
This is repulsive to me, but perhaps the editors thought they were counterbalancing the hyperbole that the demon evoked from us. Bin Laden certainly is not a madman, and he often uses reason in parts of his arguments and he has a highly developed sense of honor.
But was it necessary to present so many encomiums of praise to the architect of 9/11? If this introduction is merely an attempt to balance other writings, why not say so, and what exactly are those writings? He's also a liar and a mass-murderer and a racist and an implacable enemy of Americans. This is glossed over in the introduction, and at the top of the list of the "further reading" section at the end is Tariq Ali's "Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq."Not America, Americans. Just take the man at his word:
Every Muslim, from the moment they realise the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews, and hates Christians. This is a part of our belief and our religion. For as long as I can remember, I have felt tormented and at war, and have felt hatred and animosity for Americans.That's from an interview aired on Al-Jazeera in December 1998. The quote is on page 87 of the book.
But, curiously, if you look in the index under "bin-Laden's anti-Americanism" or "Jews," both of which have separate headings in the index, there is no reference to page 87, either alone or in a sequence. The whole index is highly curious in this regard. Certainly if you wanted to know what Bin Laden has said about Jews and Americans, that quote is pertinent. But the compilers of his writings have seen fit to steer their readers away from it.
The footnotes are just as deceptive. The editors jump in with a footnote every time they find a chance to bolster one of Bin Laden's points. But on his errors, they are silent. Why have footnotes at all if all you wish to do with them is legitimatize Bin Laden?
Example: In the 1998 Al-Jazeera interview, Bin Laden says America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki "after Japan had surrendered," a gross error that is allowed to stand without comment by the editors [p.67].
But in Bin Laden's more carefully crafted open letter to Americans (posted on the Internet on Oct. 14, 2002) he wrote "You dropped a nuclear bomb on Japan, even though Japan was ready to negotiate an end to the war" [p.168].
Here the editors jump in with comments from "several high-ranking US military commanders" and one post-war military report to support Bin Laden. Nowehere do they add that there are as many comments to the opposite effect, and the topic is hotly debated among historians even today, and that the whole business of speculative history is far from certain.
Part 2 of 3 of a series written by my friend Kat, who was a contractor's employee in Iraq for almost two years: "You'll Never Know What We Did" | " I Learned to Handle Myself..." | "I Wasn't Chasing Blood"
She refutes the media's excuse for not covering the Iraq reconstruction. The introduction to the series is here. The series hinges on an interview with Dexter Filkins of the "New York Times" in which he says the media can't cover the reconstruction work ongoing around the country because doing so would be too dangerous to the media.
Her post about that drew a faintly hostile comment from "Bob," insinuating she was just pushing "a larger GOP talking point," implying her work in Iraq was less dangerous than that of a New York Times journalist, and challenging her to prove her right to criticize the media.
This is her response. Part one is here.
You're apparently upset that I come down hard on Dexter and the NYT. That's understandable, but stay with me a little here.
I didn't have lots of guards. I had Iraqi nationals working for me who had to worry about being shot. I had to help them figure out safe lies, figure out safe ways to go home. I had to teach the girls working for me how to do their jobs because they'd never had a really good job before. I also had to try to protect and watch out for them. Girls working for us sometimes also needed support with lies about their jobs, travel information, and occasionally security for travel.
The lying extended to producing false job-related paperwork for their cars and to carry on their persons. From three different offices we "sold" orders for detergents, orders for cell phone batteries, and sandals, and produced an array of paperwork to support those claims.
And that's not about me taking care of myself, Bob. That's about my people, my employees, who half the time couldn't get their jobs done unless I was there to help them.
So what did I do for my security? What did I do when I needed to move? Well, my bosses got us security, kinda. And we had pretty good trucks, even if they weren't armored. My security for much of my time in Iraq was a 19-year-old kid who more than anything needed a job and owned his own gun. He was a big kid for an Iraqi and I'm more than sure he was hooked up on the street, so he was actually pretty safe to have around (unless you were one of the younger women in my office, but that's a different story).
My other guy was in his mid-40's and Iraqi army. He wasn't suitable for regular duty. But he was filling Iraqi obligations as the coalition began handing over government responsibilities to the interim Iraqi government. He was a true sweetheart, but nothing like U.S. soldiers or the Iraqi soldiers you see on TV today.You wonder about what I saw, in terms of blood. That appears to be, beyond my pierced belly-button, what will provide for your comparison of me to Dexter and the "Times" crew. Okay.
That experience was crazy because we came up on them fast and they didn't recognize our IDs and we came very close to being shot. We nosed the truck to the side of the road, had to get out of it, and lie on the ground while we and our vehicle were being looked over. We had come up on the fast, immediately after the explosion, and that's a no-no.
On this occasion I was in Iraqi clothing, my security was in civilian attire, and it was too confusing to get myself identified. Fortunately, our soldiers are pros, we obeyed their signals, and we didn't get shot. You just lie face down and wait until they're ready to deal with you, but it's difficult to live through that time. On the other hand, if they'd shot me by accident, you can bet your life you'd have read about that in the news. Those guys have zero room for mistakes, and their lives are always targeted.
As we were leaving, more rounds started going off; I didn't even know what was going on until we were suddenly swerving and my security person was yanking me down to the floor in the truck. One of our (American) soldiers caught a bullet in his thigh and another in his knee and was close to dying from loss of blood when they got him out of there.We spent the next hour huddled against our truck with it wedged up next to the outside wall of the orphanage until two hummers drew up next to us and escorted us out of the area. It's only by chance that they even saw us, because of where we were, and if I'd been veiled at the time we might have been shot instead of rescued because we both had our guns in our hands.
Western contractors and supply vehicles were targeted much more regularly than were military vehicles. They were softer targets, and insurgents often could see what materials were being delivered, and they usually knew what they were being delivered for. The insurgents understoood that halting the reconstruction work we were doing was an essential part of their plan to win in Iraq. The biggest prizes were, of course, major military vehicles. But trucks and materials could be taken out with less trouble and explosive materials, as could key workers if they could be identified.
So the least-safe circumstances involved a contractor hauling materials for rebuilding. As things got worse in the area, my bosses moved my office further north and east into an area that at the time was safer but ultimately proved to be just as violent, though for entirely different reasons.
There, instead of having to worry about myself or others I worked with being blasted by a IED or RPG, we had to worry about snipers and kidnappers, rapists and thieves. I began dressing “local” more consistently and wearing a veil more at this time. And you are right: It is easier to blend in when this is done.
On the other hand, adopting the look and dress and manners of locals also subjects a woman to a different set of scrutiny usually reserved for Muslim Iraqi women. If you intend to blend in, you must accept that there are certain things you may do and things you cannot do. Wearing the clothing brings certain expectations, and it does not pay to let people know you aren't who they thought you were and then hang around long enough for them to feel foolish. In the wrong neighborhoods, the entire event can become a highly complex theatrical act, particularly if you have something important that you must accomplish. This is true for men, but it is especially true for women.
Ultimately, I learned to handle myself, as myself, around some very hard people. I also learned to appreciate the softer people who were trapped there alongside the hard ones. And in doing so I gained a rather deep appreciation for the situations that existed in certain areas. In those areas, people sometimes died for what seemed to me to be nothing, but in truth there were reasons as complex as you could imagine.
Regardless of the reasons, I shared some of the pain, and I certainly saw a good deal of the blood. In doing so, amongst other revelations, I could understand the limitations of our military and realize the depth of their responsibilities. And, Bob, this is where the differences are.
I asked my friend Kat, who has lived and worked in Thailand for the past year and a half, to explain what she sees as going on there. Though she's currently visiting in the States, she has her perspective and her contacts. Here's her answer:
Last night -- Thai time -- Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prime Minister of Thailand, apparently attempted to make his third stab at assuring his position as head of the Thai government. Unlike his other attempts, it may be that after this, he will retain no power or chance of assuring it in the future.
Thaksin is the elected prime minister of Thailand. He came into office some four years ago riding high on the rhetoric and promises of the TRT (Thai Rak Thai - meaning literally "Thais love Thais") party. As it was formed, the party represented all that was good about Thailand in traditional terms, but also represented the Thai desire to bring that nation back to the forefront of southeastern Asian development. Thais are particularly nationalistic, and as such are very proud of their culture and accomplishments. In a promising nation with an abundance of talented people, the picture painted in TRT political speeches seemed entirely possible to Thais, and the promises of the party brought Thaksin and TRT into power.
Thaksin was a very promising figure to Thais. He was a native son who had completed his education in the USA, had returned to Thailand, and had created a telecom company that led the nation and had expanded regionally. He was, to most Thais, a thoughtful and promising personality who appeared to be trustworthy.
But to most Thais today, that appearance was just a front. Shortly after taking office, Thaksin pressed to pass laws that limited competition to his own company. This allowed him to expand his business with little opposition, thought many people and members of Thailand's legislature complained. As a result, he transferred his personal holdings to his family, to present the appearance he had nothing to gain by the laws he pressed forward. After his (family's) company became powerful on a regional basis, he entered into a sales agreement, but performed his sale through Singapore, allowing him to collect billions in profits outside of Thai taxation laws. When this information became available to the Thai people, a growing number of Thais began to call for Thaksin to step down.
Thaksin responded as if he had done nothing wrong. As if he was being informed of some outside breach or faith and law, he instead passed laws to ban other businesses doing exactly what he had done himself. It was as if he had no belief or understanding that he had done those things he was then denouncing, and in fact publicly declared those angry with him to be wrong and himself to be completely innocent of any wrongdoing.
That didn't sit very well with Thais, who value honesty, character and face above everything. Thailand is a Buddhist society, believing in a sort of yin-yang form of good and bad, or basically "what goes around, comes around." Therefore a leader who is a cheat, or worse, a liar, is only going to bring bad luck on the rest of the country.
Elected officials in the legislature began to complain, and complain loudly. Others outside of the government began to write and complain as well.
This started coming to a sort of crest late last year. By January, Thaksin had taken advantage of a loophole in the Thai constitution and abolished the elected legislature that had begun to call for investigations. In effect, in response to protests against his own actions and those of members of his party, he completely removed the elected government of Thailand.
In abolishing of the legislature, Thaksin took advantage of his position and weaknesses in the Thai constitution yet again. According to the constitution, it became the prime minister's job to create an interim or "caretaker" government. This allowed him to legally step into the position of head of the "caretaker" government, which essentially preserved his leadership. In this position he was required to appoint a committee for elections, and then set dates for elections. His solution was to appoint TRT cronies and call for snap elections, to be held in March.
By February, the first major protests were being held in Bangkok by outspoken critics of Thaksin and the money-oriented government he led. These protests in BKK were week-long events, with thousands showing up. The main complaint of these protests was alleged actions by Thaksin or the TRT, and the snap elections that most members of the opposition claimed were to be held too early, leaving opposition parties without candidates to put on the ballots. Thaksin ignored the protests.
So when the elections came around, the people responded in the only way they really could, that is, by essentially boycotting them. Another feature of Thai constitutional law holds that candidates without 30% of the registered vote cannot be certified for office. At the end of the elections, TRT candidates who ran unopposed collected less than 15% of the available vote, so some 23 positions within the legislature were left unfilled. Legal challenges were immediately filed, and eventually Thai courts ruled the election to be invalid. On top of that, accusations about the conduct of the elections had been filed against Thaksin's election committee for election fraud.
In the meantime, the King of Thailand, the most revered man in the nation, had celebrated his 60th coronation jubilee in June, with world dignitaries and every Thai who could possibly come attending. During a rare speech to the nation, he urged both the Thai people and the government to look inwards for what was right, and to strive to do those things that were necessary to keep the strength and quality of the Thai people. At about the same time, he also urged Thaksin to make right on elections. Subsequently, Thaksin bowed to the wishes of his more respected leader, and called for new elections to be held in October, even while claiming those preceding them were valid.
Vast quantities of political BS have passed between then and now. But one prevailing feature has been Thaksin's attempt to proclaim innocence, and to legitimize himself and his government. This has gone as far as to point an accusing finger, lightly veiled, at the King himself, as the cause for his and his party's problems. This hasn't sat well with Thais, who do not tolerate insults to their king well, especially from other Thais. Meanwhile, in August, all three members of Thaksin's self-appointed election committee were found guilty of election fraud and sentenced to some 15 years or so in jail.
My understandings from my boss and friends in Thailand has been this. While Thaksin has been in NYC for U.N. meetings, members of the military and police loyal to him have moved to arrest and push aside opposition members prior to the coming elections in a sort of coup. This has been expected by other members of the military and police loyal to the King and the Thai people. In response, they have moved in, sealed off the government house of the interim government, have sealed off the home of Thaksin, and have placed guards around the palace of the King, presumably for his protection.
The soldiers doing this are wearing or showing yellow flags or ribbons from uniforms and equipment, which is a sign of devotion to the King. This suggests that they will hold themselves loyal to the King, who has opposition to Thaksin and a well known loyalty and affection towards his people and fully supports their efforts towards a workable democracy.
I suspect that Thaksin made his move while he was out of the country because there was a good chance he might not be successful. For whatever reason, he does not share the humility towards his fellow Thais that most have. In a country where shame is incredibly horrible, he feels none, though he is literally buried in it.
I also believe the army has stepped in to stop what has been impossible to stop otherwise. If the Thaksin of the past can be compared to that of the future, the October election will be no more fair or valid than that which proceeded it. And the Constitution provides for nothing beyond more of the same. Thaksin has made the faults of the present constitution abundantly clear to most Thais, and I believe this is why the military has, for the moment, abolished it.
At present, the majority of the army and police appear to be in charge of the government, and they in turn are apparently sworn in loyalty to the King. The King in turn is dedicated to a democratic Thailand, so unless fighting occurs between the army and other armed portions of the government, most things should be calm. Fighting cannot be ruled out, however, because Thaksin gave substantial amounts of money to police forces and other armed security forces within the Thai government, apparently to preserve their support.
The news will tell you that many Thais support Thaksin. This is true. He is supported in certain parts of the business world, but more importantly, within the more poor and rural portions of Thailand. The business support is to be expected, as he threw open doors for certain supporters. But in the farm portions of Thailand where people are the most poor, he is appreciated because he stepped into the place vacated by the King as the ruler has grown older and less able to travel.
The King and royal family have a long tradition of working alongside farmers and laborers to improve their production techniques and provided additional help when necessary. These projects still hold the attention of the royal family, but Thaksin stepped in to present himself as a representative of the King. Traditions die hard, and Thaksin wisely took advantage of that. In these areas, education levels are typically primary grades and below, so political sophistication is out of the question. If a representative of the King can come to the village and show a new way to help reduce water loss in ponds during the hot season, then he's beloved, no matter how many baht he cheated the people out of in a telecom deal.
Hopefully this helps. It's hard to know that much right now, even for me. TV coverage is under strict control at the moment, but Thais aren't stupid. They find ways to learn about what's going on, including by talking to friends in the U.S. So if anything of great interest comes up that you don't see in the news, I'll pass it on.
Also, let me say, I'm not worried. In my opinion this has been coming for months. Thaksin has made it almost impossible for the Thai people to get him out of office. I consider that the army is doing nothing more than carrying out by arms what the people have been unable to do by themselves.
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