Monday, June 8, 2009

What Everybody Knows

It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true. -- President Barack Obama in Cairo Thursday

Diplomacy is not simply going in and threatening them and saying, "There, I talked to them. Okay? You guys do this again, you're dead." Diplomacy is not simply going in and saying, "I'll give you this. You give me that." It's about changing people's perception of their future possibilities. -- Wesley Clark

In this week's Sift:
  • Obama's Cairo Speech: How to Rebuild the Center. The speech was quite deft, if you understood what he was trying to do. Self-centeredly, I read the speech as a vindication of what I was saying in 2004.
  • Where's the Real Media Bias? Nobody to Obama's left is getting a seat at the pundit table. And it's not because there's nobody to Obama's left.
  • Short Notes. Online socialism. A baby fashion convention. If we could rerun 1988 today, Dukakis would win. Same-sex marriage reaches New Hampshire. "Onward Christian Soldiers" isn't just a metaphor any more. And more.

Obama's Cairo Speech: How to Rebuild the Center
Back in 2004, I wrote a piece called Terrorist Strategy 101: a quiz, which explained that an extremist's path to power has two major steps. Everyone knows about Step 2, which is fighting an apocalyptic war against the extremists on the opposite side. But it's much less well understood that Step 2 only happens after Step 1: Deflate the center.

You see, the greatest threat to any power-seeking extremist is the human tendency to muddle through. All over the world, most people would rather make a living, marry their true love, and raise the next generation than fight an apocalyptic war. If nobody interrupts that process, folks on both sides of just about any divide will support moderates, and the moderates will negotiate peace with each other -- maybe not a millennial lion-lying-down-with-lamb peace or even a Disney small-small-world peace, but peace enough for most people to muddle through.

If you're an extremist, that's a disaster. Your apocalypse never gets off the ground. But fortunately for you, you have one big ally in Step 1 -- the guy you're planning to fight in Step 2, the would-be commander of the other side in the apocalyptic war. The two of you don't even have to conspire, because your interests just naturally coincide in a long sequence of attacks and reprisals. You get revenge on the evil bastards for their last attack, and then they get revenge on you for yours, and on and on. Of course you never defeat the extremists of the other side -- what would be the point of that at this stage? -- but between the two of you, you make normal life impossible. Look at, say, Gaza, or Baghdad in 2006, or many parts of Afghanistan today: There are no jobs, and planning to raise children to adulthood seems even crazier and less likely than winning a jihad. In those places, Step 1 is nearly complete.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the Bush administration played its assigned role in this process. Bush and Bin Laden both did the deflate-the-center dance: You're either with me or you're with him. The Other Guy is a conscienceless madman, and his threat justifies us abandoning our consciences and acting like madmen. Either Bin Laden is a demon that only Bush can defeat, or Bush is a demon that only Bin Laden can defeat. And so on until the apocalyptic war really gets rolling.

That's the situation that President Obama has inherited: The center is deflating, the world polarizing. On both sides, the muddling-through vision of a world where people of all faiths can work and love and raise the next generation in some good-enough peace -- it's been looking more and more like naive wishful thinking. Or it's been turning millennial: You can work and love and raise the next generation in peace only after we win the apocalyptic war.

I think Obama has as much ego as anybody, but I don't believe he sees himself as the Great Apocalyptic Commander. He wants to stop this polarization and rebuild the center. But how?

Rebuilding the center is a process of un-spinning and de-propagandizing. It begins with stating facts calmly, respectfully, and in terms that people leaning towards the extremes can still accept if they're not too far gone. You want to build a substantial mass of things-everybody-knows and things-everybody-knows-that-everybody-knows. That's what Obama was doing in Cairo on Thursday. (You can read the text or watch the video.) In the middle of the speech he makes the rebuild-the-center case very clearly:
regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations -- to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.
Here are some of the simple, common-sense points he made:
  • In America, Muslims live in peace and freedom, and are protected by the government just as Christians and Jews are. This is a constant subtext of the speech, and starts right at the beginning. Lots of commentators remarked on the "Assalaamu alaykum" in Obama's first paragraph. Fewer noticed how he frames it: as "a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country." Elsewhere he says "Islam is a part of America" and notes that the 7 million American Muslims have an average income above the national average. These American Muslims have a tremendous symbolic value: If Muslims can live well in America, non-American Muslims can live well inside the world order that America promotes.
  • Islam and American democracy share many principles. Like the Bible, the Quran can be quoted out of context to sound pacifistic or blood-thirsty or anything in between. If you pick bloodthirsty, you can frame the idealistic parts as window-dressing that's just there to con the unwary. Obama chooses to take the idealism of Islam seriously, as moderate Muslims do. American democracy and Islam, he says, share "principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."
  • Obama himself knows Islam as a reality, not a caricature. He says explicitly that he is a Christian, but mentions his Muslim ancestors, his childhood in Muslim-majority Indonesia, and the American Muslims he worked with as a community organizer in Chicago. (Specifics are important here; all over the world, Muslims turned to their neighbors at this point and said, "My cousin went to Chicago.")
  • Muslims are civilized. He called attention to Muslim contributions to civilization, like algebra. (Just about any English word that begins with al goes back to the Muslims: algorithm, for example. Even alcohol, which is banned by sharia, gets its English name from the distilling process that Muslims used to make perfumes. The Crusaders brought it back to Europe and invented whiskey.)
  • Caricatures of America are just as wrong as caricatures of Islam. Obama presents us as a nation formed in reaction to colonialism and empire; hence our ideals of equality. (Unspoken: Egypt and America were both British colonies.)
  • 9-11 really happened. Al Qaeda killed 3,000 innocent people that day. But Obama frames Al Qaeda as the common enemy, not as a taint on all Muslims. He notes that most of the innocent people killed by Al Qaeda have been Muslims. "The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer."
  • If Americans could be safe from further attacks, we would bring our troops home. In both Iraq and Afghanistan "we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources."
  • The Bush administration over-reacted to 9-11. Bush is not mentioned in the speech. But Obama describes Iraq as "a war of choice" and says that 9-11 "led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals." While not explicitly confessing that the Bush administration tortured people at Guantanamo, Obama forcefully says he has banned torture and will close Guantanamo.
  • The Holocaust really happened. "Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful." Anti-semitism is real too. America is committed to the existence of Israel, and Israel has sound historical reasons to be hyper about its security.
  • Palestinians have gotten a raw deal from history. They deserve something better than refugee camps. "The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security."
  • Violence hasn't been getting the Palestinians anywhere. Obama contrasts their continuing suffering with the accomplishments of the non-violent civil rights movement in America, in South Africa, and elsewhere. (I've believed for years that the Israelis are textbook targets for nonviolent tactics, because they have such a strong self-image as a moral people. Gandhi would have turned Likud inside-out by now.)
  • Building Israeli settlements on disputed land makes peace harder to achieve. This is one of those things "everyone knows" that needs to be said out loud.
  • The United States and Iran have done bad things to each other. We overthrew their democratically elected government in 1953 and put the tyrannical Shah back in power. They violated our embassy and held our people hostage in 1979.
  • A nuclear Iran would be bad for a lot of people, not just the U.S. or Israel. I think this was a subtle reminder to Sunnis that Iran is on the other side of the Sunni/Shia divide. If Iran gets a bomb, don't the Saudis and Egyptians need one too? Where does that scenario go?
  • America wants to support democratization in Muslim countries, but not force them to be just like us. Bin Laden wants all Muslim countries to believe that if the U.S. ever gets done with Iraq, they're next. Obama wants to assure Muslims this isn't true. He had to tread carefully here, because Egypt is a dictatorship with some democratic stirrings. Obama didn't want to spit in his host's face, but he also didn't want to give his blessing to the Mubarak government.
  • Muslim women can be free without abandoning Islam. This point was widely misunderstood in America because we take the underlying idea for granted. Many moderate Muslims of both genders don't like the vision of womanhood they see in American media. They want a daughter to be free to get an education and a find career if she wants; they don't want her pressured to compete with Britney Spears. The two ideas are tangled up in Muslim imaginations in ways most Americans don't quite grasp.
Conservatives have characterized the speech as self-abasing and weak and even un-American, and the trip as an "apology tour". For the most part, criticism was based on either not getting or actively denying the goal of rebuilding the center. I thought David Frum did the best job of stating this position:
in Cairo [Obama] exhibited the amazing spectacle of an American president taking an equidistant position between the country he leads and its detractors and enemies. It is as if he saw himself as a judge in some legal dispute, People of the Islamic World v. United States. But the job to which he was elected was not that of impartial judge, but that of leader and champion of the American nation.
Charles Krauthammer put it this way:
The problem is we are in a War on Terror, we are in a struggle against Iranian nukes. We are also in a struggle of philosophy between our way in the West and the more extreme examples of Sharia law. And if you don't defend them unequivocally and without apology and without moral equivalence, you are conceding defeat in advance.
In other words, Frum and Krauthammer take the Bush/Bin Laden polarization for granted, and feel that it is an American president's job to uphold the Bush pole, to present anti-Muslim pro-American-empire spin as convincingly as possible. The idea that Bush and Bin Laden are both extremists who abandoned the ideals that most Americans and Muslims share -- it doesn't even enter their minds long enough to be rejected.

Most of the rest of conservative criticism was nit-picking that supported this central point. Much was made, for example, of the fact that the word terrorism doesn't appear in the Cairo speech. (Fox News falsely implied that Obama avoided the subject of terrorism, not just the word. And Sean Hannity went completely around the bend.) What conservatives don't recognize and can't admit is that they broke the word terrorism by misuse. A terrorist was any Muslim the Bush administration didn't like; the word didn't apply to anybody else. When Muslims hear the word terrorist now, they assume they're just hearing anti-Muslim propaganda.

Another you-don't-get-it criticism is "moral equivalence" charge. Whenever Obama mentions grievances of opposite sides, the Right accuses him of claiming the grievances are equal. He never makes that claim. Most of the time, such a claim wouldn't even make sense.

But the height of cluelessness comes from Fox News' Gretchen Carlson:
Was it only me who thought that the release of the audio of Osama bin Laden is just so extremely significant here? Because if you're trying to reach the radical members of Islam, you haven't.
Jon Stewart replayed that clip, and then stage whispered the obvious: "He's not trying to reach the radical members of Islam. Those are the people he's trying to push aside." Then he played a clip of Carlson reading figures about America's unpopularity in the Arab world and asking, "They don't like us, so why are we wooing them?" To which Stewart replied (slowly, as if talking to a moron): "Because they don't like us. That's why you woo."

In spite of the bad predictions I made in Question 9, Terrorist Strategy 101 holds up very well after 4 1/2 years. I was surprised to discover that separate copies of it showed up at #2 and #4 when I did a Google search on the term terrorist strategy.

While touring the pyramids, President Obama noted that an engraved figure with big ears "looks like me". How long before somebody claims the image as evidence that Obama is the Antichrist?
I wish our pundits would learn the difference between Muslim and Islamic. It's not that hard: Something is Islamic if it's part of the religion of Islam. But it's Muslim if it's associated with the human beings who practice Islam. So if a bunch guys from the mosque rob a bank, it's Muslim crime. It's not Islamic crime unless bank-robbing is some kind of holy ritual.

Where's the Real Media Bias?
An interesting discussion was started by Matt Yglesias -- or maybe by Bill Kristol. In response to North Korea's latest nuclear tests, Kristol said on Fox News that "targeted air strikes" might be the "wise" choice. And that provoked this observation from Matt: There are no pacifist pundits. If you think that war is never the answer, there's very little chance your voice will be heard on the major networks or your writings will appear in major newspapers. But Bill Kristol, who thinks that war is always the answer, has no trouble getting major media outlets to provide a soapbox for him. Why is that?

Chris Bowers responded with this observation:
A pacifist is excluded from holding prominent national media positions not because of the invalidity or unpopularity of such a position, but primarily because they clearly do not demonstrate a willingness to use our power to damage and destroy other people. As such, they are not "serious." Whatever else someone can say about pacifism, it is an inherently non-exploitative position, and thus actually dangerous to powerful, exploitation institutions. You aren't serious until you demonstrate that you are willing to use power to damage other people.
E. J. Dionne makes a similar point in more general terms:
For all the talk of a media love affair with Obama, there is a deep and largely unconscious conservative bias in the media's discussion of policy. The range of acceptable opinion runs from the moderate left to the far right and cuts off more vigorous progressive perspectives.
And then it loops back to Matt Yglesias. He points out that the economists (like Paul Krugman) who thought the stimulus package was too small got almost no airtime, and then concludes:
And you see this time and again. Yet, everyone could always tell from Obama’s voting record in the Senate, from his statements as a candidate, and from basic common sense that Obama is not, in fact, the most left-wing politician in the United States of America. On issues from climate change to health care to Afghanistan to stimulus to banking regulation there is a critique-from-the-left that doesn’t get heard at all.

Short Notes
When I was a kid, you could always count on magazines like Popular Science or Popular Mechanics to have an article on how you could make your own jet airplane in your garage for about the price of a car. I didn't have the price of a car and my parents would never have let me take over the garage if I did, so I never found out if any of those plans worked.

These days, you can almost always count on a magazine like Wired to tell you that some radical social change has started on the Internet. With that caveat, this article (The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online by Kevin Kelly) is pretty interesting

Jon Stewart comments on Dick Cheney's media tour. The clip starts slowly but it gets good about the 1:50 mark and the real punch is in the last minute.

The latest state to allow same-sex marriage is my own New Hampshire. We did it the old-fashioned way -- not by court decision, but by a law passing the legislature and being signed by the governor. From my desk I can see the Nashua River, so if it turns to blood or there's a plague of frogs or something, I'll be sure to let you know.

Chris Bowers has an interesting way of demonstrating how demography is working against Republicans: Mike Dukakis would have won the 2008 election. Dukakis got 40% of the white vote, 89% of blacks, and 70% of Hispanics, which in 1988 added up to 46% of the vote. In 2008, that would have been over 50%. Bowers estimates that there's a demographic current flowing towards the Democrats, at a rate of about 2% every four years.

As we move into summer, "The Worst Cinematic Crap That's Ever Been Made" turns its attention to beach movies.

Unemployment hit 9.4% in the numbers released Friday. But cheer up, things are getting worse at a slower rate. (I can't decide whether I wrote that sarcastically or not.)

The Conventional Wisdom video series takes us to a couple of mind-boggling conventions: baby and tween fashion and the latest in video games.

I've talked about this before, but it's not like the problem is going away: Little by little, evangelical Christianity is taking over the armed forces of the United States.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Jesus Killed Mohammed"... that's just ghastly.... Makes me want to throw up...