The Rogue Voice


September 01, 2006

Beyond Polarization

Questions from the left and right

I find it hard to believe that conservatives are saying, ‘Trust the government.’ I wonder if you’ll think the same way when a Democrat is in office.

The Supreme Court settled the abortion issue a long time ago. Making abortion illegal or inventing new restrictions will only keep us from focusing on other problems that still need resolution.

Conservatives don’t automatically equate change with progress, don’t assume that we are necessarily any smarter than our ancestors were, and don’t strive for utopia this side of heaven.

The convenient thing about blaming Bush (or Rove, or Cheney) is that progressives don’t then have to do any soul-searching.

Editor’s note: Vitriol spills every day into public conversation about politics, the war in Iraq, crimes and misdemeanors; we’re a nation divided in a time of great unrest and uncertainty. Polarization has kept us from reading or listening to the other side. We decided to risk a dialog between two commentators with strong yet varied opinions on topics that divide us as a nation. Steve Pittelli, an outspoken war critic and peace activist, and Patrick O’Hannigan, supporter of the war on terror and contributor to the American Spectator, present each other with three questions addressing some of the most divisive issues of the day: terrorism, foreign policy, national security and, yes, abortion. Where we may have failed to bridge the gap, we hope, at the least, you will come away from this with a willingness to think beyond polarization.

Question 1: Support for the war?
More than three years after George W. Bush proclaimed “Mission Accomplished,” his justification for attacking Iraq — weapons of mass destruction — appears at best an episode of poor intelligence. More likely, it was a deliberate fabrication.
His subsequent rationales for war, such as spreading democracy, are even weaker. Iraq seems close to civil war, with civilians killed by the dozens daily, and U.S. troops still dying. Meanwhile, much of the world views the U.S. as a pariah, yet we keep hearing “stay the course” from the Bush administration. Why do you still support this war and at what point would you stop supporting it?

Patrick answers:
I reject the premise of question 1 on multiple grounds, but will answer it anyway.
Just to set the record straight, George W. Bush did not proclaim “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. Those were the words of a banner strung by sailors of the USS Abraham Lincoln as a backdrop to his speech aboard the aircraft carrier, which had indeed completed its mission. George W. Bush announced the end of “major combat operations” on the then-reasonable assumption that with Saddam Hussein deposed and the Iraqi military in tatters, all that remained for coalition troops was mop up. Bush turned out to be wrong.
WMD were never the sole justification for attacking Iraq, not before or after the invasion of 2003. Saddam Hussein’s continued flouting of UN inspectors and resolutions was the primary justification, made more urgent by widespread post-9/11 recognition that the West had better play more offense and less defense when dealing with despots who applaud both terrorism and terrorists.
I still support the war because any sane consideration of the cost/benefit ratio involved must look not only at American casualties and sectarian strife, but also at a) the removal of Saddam Hussein and his psychotic sons from positions of power; b) the successful hosting of three free elections in Iraq; c) the suddenly mannered and cooperative behavior of Libya’s Moammar Khadaffi; d) the exposure of corruption at the core of the United Nations’ oil for food program; e) the lifting of debilitating and increasingly unenforceable economic sanctions that harmed the people of Iraq; f) the opportunities now enjoyed by formerly oppressed Iraqi minorities such as the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs; g) the war-driven revealing of the black market in nuclear technology formerly run by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan; and h) the newfound reluctance of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to borrow bin Ladenesque phrasing in calling the United States “a weak horse.”
In short, I think the war has made us safer.
I would stop supporting the war if its end result was to pave the way for a Shia Muslim super-state dominated by Iran, or if the reconstituted Iraqi military and police forces thought Westerners should be the only ones taking bullets and IED blasts from the “insurgents.”

Steve rebuts:
I’ll leave “Mission Accomplished” interpretations to the reader. Saddam Hussein was no different from dozens of dictators (many of whom the U.S. supports), except for the large amount of oil in Iraq. It would appear that a Shia state, probably backed or supported by Iran, is a likely outcome, along with a society that is even more hostile to the U.S. because of this war. I don’t see how that is going to make the U.S. safer any time in the next few decades.

Question 2: Impeachable offense?
I have always understood that conservatives (particularly Libertarians) were supportive of privacy issues. The Bush administration now admits to large-scale monitoring of American citizens with no oversight from Congress or the courts. The justification, “national security,” is the same used in George Orwell’s “1984” and by regimes that garner little respect in the annals of history. Do you support such activity by the president, and why isn’t this just a clear instance of the president breaking the law in an impeachable manner?

Patrick answers
That totalitarian regimes do and have done bad things in the name of “national security” is no shock to any conservative. We’re the ones who say that human nature is fundamentally flawed. But the “large-scale monitoring of American citizens” that has some privacy advocates seething is nothing more or less than data mining. When looking for potential threats in a country with nearly 300 million citizens, no other strategy will do. Remember the wiretapping kerfuffle of some months ago? Most progressive pundits glided right past the fact that such wiretapping was a) not eavesdropping on telephone call content, only tracking numbers called, and b) not applicable to calls within the United States.
Moreover, I’m not convinced that there is “no oversight by the Congress or the courts,” in part because FISA courts are not the only ones around, and in part because too many Congressmen and Senators have egos too large to make them lapdogs for a popular president, let alone an unpopular president. Opinion is divided among legal experts as to whether George W. Bush has done anything that warrants impeachment.

Steve rebuts
We don’t really know what kind of spying the government is doing, who is being monitored, if there is any oversight, or for what purpose the information is being used. I find it hard to believe that conservatives are saying, “Trust the government.” I wonder if you’ll think the same way when a Democrat is in office.

Question 3: Define ‘conservative’
Can you give me a definition of “conservative”?

Patrick answers
If you want a definition of “conservative,” Russell Kirk’s is hard to beat. In “The Essence of Conservatism,” he wrote, “Conservatives distrust what Burke called ‘abstractions,’ that is, absolute political dogmas divorced from practical experience and particular circumstances. They do believe, nevertheless, in the existence of certain abiding truths that govern the conduct of human society. Perhaps the chief principles that have characterized American conservative thought are these: 1. People and nations are governed by moral laws; and these laws originate in a wisdom that is more than human; 2. Variety and diversity are the characteristics of a high civilization; 3. Justice demands equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome; 4. Property and freedom are connected: economic leveling is not economic progress; 5. Power is dangerous, so “that government is best which governs least”; 6. The past is a great storehouse of wisdom.
Burke’s essay had ten points, but the last four flow from the first six. Conservatives don’t automatically equate change with progress, don’t assume that we are necessarily any smarter than our ancestors were, and don’t strive for utopia this side of heaven, because we’re all imperfect beings who can’t get there without help. Many of us think pacifism on any significant scale is suicidal, precisely because people are imperfect. To all of that, I’d add only that faith and reason do complement each other.

Steve rebuts
I don’t think that Bush is following the six points that you list. I doubt that many of the people who call themselves conservative have these points in mind when they go to the polls. This is an idealistic version of conservatism, but it doesn’t seem to exist in practice, at least as related to the Republican Party. §


Question 1: Who speaks for the Democrats?
Given the high-profile race between Lamont and Lieberman in Connecticut, the ongoing rumors of a Hillary Clinton run at the presidency in 2008, and the sometimes-incoherent sound bites offered by Harry Reid and Howard Dean, who, if anyone, speaks for the Democrat party these days? And does it matter?

Steve answers
Perhaps it doesn’t matter from a political perspective. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress have fouled things up so badly in Iraq that Democrats might win solely on a “We’re not George W. Bush” platform. That would actually be an improvement from the “We support-the-president-and-wouldn’t-dare-criticize-his-war-but-vote-for-us-anyway” platform that they have been running on for the past few years. I hope, however, that they will put together a coherent platform.
The biggest problem for the Democrats has been the Iraq war. It is the elephant in the room and many politicians like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry refused to take a position against the war for political reasons. They have bottlenecked the party and the sooner they are pushed aside, the better. Dumping Lieberman is a great first step.
The Bush administration has been so successful at making any opposition to the war seem treasonous, and this has really kept the Democrats divided and capitulating. The Lamont primary victory shows that the tide is turning and I hope that the Democrats will unite behind a withdrawal from Iraq.
I wish that they would run on the kind of platform that the Green Party has been pushing for years: Environmental responsibility, a sane energy policy that explores alternatives to our oil-dependent nation, attempts at peaceful, diplomatic solutions to the world’s problems, a national health care system, a livable wage, etc. I doubt they will, but perhaps they will get behind at least a few of these issues and the election won’t come down to flag-burning, gay marriage and abortion.
Democratic Party leadership is yet to be shaped. I think that the Democrats are likely to coalesce around more progressive candidates and push away from the DLC, Clinton crowd that has held control for the past several years. Russ Feingold is a good example of the type of Democrat that we might expect to rise when the dust settles.

Patrick rebuts
We agree that the war is a problem for Democrats, but I would not accuse the Bush administration of making opposition to the war seem treasonous. The convenient thing about blaming Bush (or Rove, or Cheney) is that progressives don’t then have to do any soul-searching. Not liking Ann Coulter and her talk radio counterparts is not enough to prove that they take orders from the White House.

Question 2: Familiarity with other cultures?
Among progressives, the most common of many criticisms of the current administration seems to be that it’s led by a cowboy wannabe with no patience for dialog, no appreciation for nuance, and no thirst for learning anything about the rest of the world that hasn’t been spoon-fed to him by more literate handlers. I understand the perception, but as a conservative I wonder if it doesn’t rest on a fatally flawed assumption that familiarity with other cultures and peoples breeds tolerance for those cultures and peoples. Do you believe that, and if so, why?

Steve answers
Are you suggesting that the president need not have familiarity with other cultures and peoples? Frankly, I don’t see how he could become more intolerant, but shouldn’t our president have some appreciation for nuance and a desire to learn and understand what’s happening in the world? It would be one thing if the country was completely isolated, but the president is advocating wars, trade policies and aid to countries (including providing or selling weaponry) that he apparently knows nothing about. Basing decisions on your gut instincts might be good in a rugby match, but is this how our president should be making foreign policy decisions?
Your argument that it is “a fatally flawed assumption” that familiarity with other cultures will breed tolerance implies that we might find other cultures so bad that familiarity with them would make people even more intolerant. While cultural diversity can lead to a certain amount of strife, the U.S. (of democratic nations, at least) is arguably the least familiar with other nations and cultures and is also the most intolerant and indifferent. So, far from being “fatally flawed,” it is a demonstrated truism. I wish that Americans would travel outside of the country more often.

Patrick rebuts
I asked the question not about the president (who should read more), but because I do not think that the U.S. population is the most intolerant compared to other countries with democratic governments. How are you going to prove that? On the contrary, it’s shared civic culture that makes our multi-ethnic society tolerant. When neighboring cultures do not share common values, then familiarity does breed contempt. Pakistanis and Indians, Jews and Palestinians, Koreans and Japanese are all intimately familiar with each other’s cultures, and they continue to loathe each other. Also, I don’t think the U.S. media fosters intolerance. In fact, they go out of their way to bury ethnic identifiers whenever any member of a minority population commits a crime.

Question 3: Is abortion a ‘distraction’?
How does progressive respect for life and dignity square itself with high levels of support for abortion among people who self-identify as progressives, and why do so many progressives think of abortion as a distraction from more pressing issues? Does “choice” trump across the board?

Steve answers
Progressives aren’t cheering about how great abortion is, if that’s what you mean by “high levels of support.” If you wish to make abortion illegal, then are you suggesting that women who have illegal abortions go to jail? When abortion was illegal, abortions were still performed all the time in back rooms, often by people with little or no training, with some very nasty results. Putting women in such circumstances or jailing them, to me, is a lack of respect and dignity.
Making abortion illegal is not going to make it go away. What has changed in the past 40 years other than fundamentalist Christians gaining more control of the government? This is largely an attempt to legislate a Biblical commandment: “Thou shalt not have an abortion.” It is a bullying tactic to “officially” stigmatize women who have abortions.
It also seems odd that those who wish to make abortion illegal seem to support Bush’s position on unrelated issues, such as the war in Iraq, domestic spying, Social Security privatization, etc. Why do they blindly support the president’s position on these issues? Is it a devil’s bargain to make abortion illegal? Can’t they spend a tenth of the time they spend on that issue addressing the city of New Orleans?
The Supreme Court settled the abortion issue a long time ago. Making abortion illegal or inventing new restrictions will only keep us from focusing on other problems that still need resolution. Roe vs. Wade is a decision implemented in a real world, where people make a lot of imperfect decisions. New legislation is not going to change that.

Patrick rebuts
Nobody cheers for abortion. What people like me say is that if the primary duty of a state is to protect its citizens, and if the most defenseless citizens are those in the womb, then the state should not approve of killing them. Retroactive birth control is, among other things, a failure of the imagination. That people who perform(ed) back-alley abortions do not respect women is a given: why would you then institutionalize that lack of respect by codifying it in federal law? The Supreme Court’s “settling” of the abortion issue is part of the problem — it should have been decided by the people. We talk about this stuff because, for most conservatives, life trumps choice. You don’t have to be Christian to think that, else Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers wouldn’t lose sleep over improved ultrasound technology, or judges who think Roe v. Wade was a classic example of judicial overreach. §
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