Concerning Dissent

by Margaret Magnus


Margo's Magical Letter Page

Demography of Patriotism

I'd like to comment on The United States is in the grip of a certainty crisis -- Bush's waffle-free directness alarms the fashionably doubtful commentariat by David Brooks

Excerpts: The American commentariat is gravely concerned. Over the past week, George W. Bush has shown a disturbing tendency not to waffle when it comes to Iraq. There has been an appalling clarity and coherence to his position. There has been a reckless tendency not to be murky, hesitant or evasive. Naturally, questions are being raised about President Bush's leadership skills.

The United States is in the midst of the certainty crisis. Time magazine is disturbed by "The blinding glare of his certainty", as one headline referred to Bush's unwillingness to go wobbly on Iraq. "Moral certainty, for the most part, is a luxury of a closed mind," observed William Lesher, a Lutheran school of theology professor, who presumably preserves a subtle open-mindedness about the Holocaust and other such matters.

The leading Democratic presidential contender, John Kerry, has become the political standard-bearer of the high-toned, agnostic and incomprehensible. He begins his speeches on sunny days and under crisp skies and proceeds to lay down such a miasma of equivocation and on-theother-hands that the sun is blotted out and you can't see the question marks as they fly by in front of your face. The fog of peace is thick indeed.


I do see a flaw in this logic. I could imagine myself in Bush's position recognizing that I have sufficient information to make the right decision, and not wavering accordingly. But from where I'm sitting, I can't tell:

A. Whether Hussein in fact has WMD, how many, where they are, how lethal they are.
B. Whether he intends to or is able to use them.
C. Whether UN inspectors could find them.
D. Whether Bush is honorable, informed and intelligent enough to make the right decision. Whether Bush is dogmatic, driven by narrow self-interest, uninformed, lacking the perspective to make a good decision.
E. What kind of loss of civilian (or other) life a war would entail. What degree of hardship and long term ill effects would be introduced by a war.
F. What kind of loss of life and what degree of hardship and long term ill effects would be introduced by refraining from a war.
G. What the effective alternatives are.
H. What kinds of weapons we have, whether they in principle could destroy the WMD.
I. How dangerous it would be to world affairs to have an America which is so much more powerful than everybody else -- how effective our democratic traditions and culture would be in encumbering our greed.
J. What actually happened in Afghanistan.
etc. etc. etc.

Like I REALLY don't know. I have every right to waver. I defend unconditionally the correctness of my wavering. There are very few people apart from those closest to the White House and Baghdad who can honestly know which of those options is correct. I doubt if even his wife really knows. So how could I?

You also don't hear me complaining about Bush being too sure of what he's doing, because maybe he has grounds to be sure of himself... I just don't know. All these people in my view are adamantly defending either the right or the left, and I have no reason to believe that they know any more about A-J than I do. Consequently, they are adamantly holding one or the other position, based not on a genuine knowledge in any absolute sense of even the most fundamental aspects of the situation, but based on a sort of internal conviction or inclination which has no genuine rational basis whatever.

The fact that there is so little dissent among those who one expects are genuinely informed inclines me to think that the White House is wiser and better informed than the left gives them credit for. And I'm also inclined to believe that the centralizing of power in the US government is more dangerous than the right likes to admit. But I would be lying if I said I knew for sure.

Yet it is a beautiful thing that we express ourselves as we do... that too is part of the process -- the dissent and support on both sides. I do believe America is only as great as she is good, and I fear that hegemony could destroy that which I hold most dear in her -- will we when the time comes have the strength not to wield the Ring? We don't have a perfect track record -- no honest person could claim that we do.

And yet I confess I have hope. I just got back from a routine annual condo association meeting, where I sat in the back observing how comfortable 24 random Americans -- a woman's lacrosse coach, a housewife, a hippie cowboy cryptozoologist, an investment banker and her programmer husband, a plumber, a widowed grandma with some kind of Internet business, an ex-marine turned landscaper, a receptionist, a divorced single Mom with two teenage sons... -- are with everything from NH corporate law to capital gains to replacing culverts and retaining walls, assessments, proxies, spreadsheets, insulation, accustomed everyone is to taking responsibility for their situation, how expediently they identify and prioritize the problems, propose real solutions, avoid personal issues, identify the correct motion to make, vote and get on with the coffee break without thinking for a second that anyone outside is going to solve any of their problems. I've worried on occasion about the US turning to a dictatorship like Plato predicted, like Germany did during WWII, and it still concerns me. But at that moment I sat in back thinking, "Saddam couldn't even control the Crotched Mountain Condo Association. They're armed. And they'd obviously organize."

So the irrational emotionality everyone is venting on Iraq expresses the extent and nature of the fear and pain they feel, and that is very important, because it furnishes the empirical data which must serve as the foundation for decision... the objective is to minimize pain and fear. Everybody's better off that way.

That Hussein is an jerk is beyond reasonable doubt in my opinion, but so was Stalin. So are a lot of people, and although we wish ultimately to free people from being subjugated to the likes of Hussein, it doesn't necessarily follow that this is the way to do it. Right and left agreed that it wouldn't have been right to start bombing Russia under Stalin, but they thought so for different reasons. From a right-wing perspective, it was not feasible to win that way -- the relative might of the two nations made that solution unworkable. From the left-wing perspective, it was not our job to free them at all. That was something they needed to do on their own, for only by going through that process does a people own the culture of democracy for itself. You can't impose it from without. The right wants to impose a democracy and then hold them to it. The left wants them to recognize it for themselves and take it. Which is right? Probably a balance of both, and a balance of both is probably what they'll get in the long term.

If you go bombing a country, you inevitably and justifiably raise more suspicions regarding your motives than if you bring them down economically, the way the West did the USSR. We get blamed for involving ourselves too much in fighting Communism and not enough in fighting Hitler, but the truth is that those decisions were not really issues of how evil or good we are, but issues of our good/bad judgement. Naturally, if we had known in advance how WWII would go down, we would have involved ourselves sooner. If we had known in advance how Viet Nam would go down, we would have involved ourselves differently or not at all... and what would have happened if we'd just let Russia have it's way? How could we have known? How could we know even now? You only know what you know.

If everybody felt a genuine large-scale threat, I don't think we'd be wavering as we do now. If Hussein in all probability had the will and the wherewithal to nuke all the major cities in the world, we wouldn't argue. We would place complete faith in those elected representatives who are best informed and hope for the best -- which I suppose is what the right wing does more than the left... so I gather from that that the right feels more threatened by Hussein than the left, and the left feels more threatened by centralizing power even more in the hands of this huge state than the right. And who is objectively right? Neither of them genuinely knows. That's the only thing I'm wholly convinced of.

But if Hussein just dropped a random unsolicited nuke on Champs Elysées or the Taj Mahal, then all of Europe and Asia and Africa would swing way right in 2 seconds or less.

Does Bush know now? Maybe he has a much better idea than the rest of us... certainly he's better informed... how bright he is, I can't really say. If you're going to do a war, you better not be wavering, though. You better commit and do it right or not at all, otherwise you really hack things to pieces.

It may well be that Bush's lack of wavering is what the author of this article portrays it to be, in which case he will get what he deserves in the eyes of history. But in that case, all the dissent can do him no harm, and it does the rest of the world a great deal of good. It is good that Bush be inundated with everybody's doubt on the verge of such a decision -- it forces him insofar as possible to face his own doubts honestly, and the world needs that now. If there is any doubt in him, this wave of doubt in the nation will serve toward his clarity... I give him credit for that.

But it's only someone who has no real understanding of the democratic process who would want everyone to blindly back Bush in a situation like this. That's what Hussein wants... a nation that compensates for his own doubt by agreeing with everything he says. If Bush genuinely is certain, then the nation's doubt won't sway him.

I've been in what Bush's supporters regard as his current position in various work situations. I'm perhaps assigned to a project, and told how to go about it. And because it's my field where I have much more experience than anyone else, I know a better way to go about it or a better objective altogether. Sometimes I'm 100% sure I know a better way. But no one else can know whether I really do know or not... no one can in principle know except me -- and maybe not even me -- until I either do or don't produce. But if you genuinely know, then no amount of dissent on the part of those who don't know will persuade you. If 20,000,000 protested that 21+22=608 and barked at me for lacking open-mindedness in insisting they were wrong, it wouldn't sway me in the least, because I know what 21+22 is. Period. If Bush genuinely sees the way like I know 21+22, then he has the backbone to stand by it. And in either case, all the dissent serves us. For people can be trusted to act in their own self-interest.

If people genuinely feel a threat, they will defend themselves in whatever way feels best. Both right and left are doing that. They just assess the dangers differently. The right blames the left for assessing Bush as a meaner guy than Hussein, but that's not what the issue is. They genuinely distrust the govt of the US to act effectively in their best interest simply because it has no one to balance its power. And that's fair enough. There is ample historical precedent to affirm that unbalanced powers tend toward abuse. The left doesn't regard Hussein as enough of an international threat to surrender their concern about the potential US abuse of power, which though less sinister than Hussein's is vastly greater, and hence potentially more of a long term threat.

Since the US is a democracy, the Europeans have the option of appealing to American public opinion by complaining of our abuses. And American left-wing dissent is very effective in calming their fears. In effect it is saying that if a Republican government gets carried away, the American left can be counted upon to vote in another government which will be less aggressive. That's fair enough. They need to be consoled that the US is not just another machine to take over the world, and the American left's dissention is a more effective expedient toward calming those concerns than any rational reasoning that can be made by anyone on the right. And those concerns are valid.

I can give a specific example where I feel left-wing dissent has served the right-wing cause greatly. I have various Middle Eastern friends and correspondents -- most of them now American citizens -- unfortunately, since that makes them not really representative. They were almost universally in doubt, after 9/11, whether America as a whole just wanted to take over the Mid-East, whether it would use 9/11 as an excuse... and they are still in doubt about that. But whereas at the beginning, I experienced almost pure opposition among them, pure criticism of America and its superficial power-hungry ways, now that there is so much dissent that the war in Iraq is perhaps not going to happen at all, I see them getting in touch with how they feel about the reality of us backing out altogether... the reality of possibly just trying to handle this as we always have with negotiation and sanctions and stuff... and they don't like that either. They find themselves leaning in favor of US military intervention when a few short months ago they were wearing Ben Ladin T-shirts.

I think we have the dissention of the American and European left to thank for their freedom to express also that. After all, in my view, the people whose opinion counts most are those of the citizens of Iraq themselves.

At this point, there are only a couple things about which I feel some reasonable degree of certainty:

1. In a world where weapons of mass destruction have been invented, we cannot afford dictatorships. The whole world has to be converted to democracies which have basic civil liberties, free trade. There's a clear relationship between tyrrany and terrorism. And we can't risk terrorism for much longer. Some terrorist will eventually get a very big bomb. That would be no good. I prefer to disarm them before they unleash it, but even if we have to sacrifice Berlin or Chicago to a terrorist nuke -- or worse, sacrifice 1/3 the world population to some germ (like small pox took 1/3 of Europe), they will be disarmed eventually.

2. We need a balance of power. The UN doesn't function, because most of the countries represented aren't democracies. We can't consent to giving Mozambique or Chad the same clout with the US as does France or Great Britian. The left wants us to pretend like Chad and Pakistan are run just like Holland, and therefore deserve a similarly democractic say over world affairs... That's just wrong. We need to set up a workable world government. I think the founding of the US serves as a good example. Powers are strictly limited -- the nations decide over themselves in every respect not explicitly stipulated in the international constitution. Membership is voluntary. There are two houses in the legislature, one based on population, the other granting an equal number of representatives to each nation. There should be some minimal population limit. More wealth does not give you any more say in the government. And there are certain criteria for membership -- just as there were criteria for statehood in the US. The nation must be democratic itself. It must allow for free enterprise, relatively free trade. It must enforce certain civil liberties effectively -- freedom of speech, press, right to gather, non-discrimination of sex and race.

This is the message I'm hearing in all of this.

We're concerned about the Moslem world now of course... But it seems to me that Africa is going to be a much harder nut to crack in the long term.