Ian Frederick Finseth
Here in the midst of another Presidential election season – or more precisely, on the upslope of another phase in the seemingly permanent wave-cycle of electoral politics – we are hearing a lot about the techniques of effective, or ineffective, political communication. The fate of candidates, parties, nations, seems to hinge on who best manages the alchemy of words and images; finds the right blend of theme, gesture, and utterance; marries the power of language with the aspirations of an audience; and, in today’s fashionable parlance, “frames” the issues in the most advantageous way.
The idea that the United States is fighting for “freedom” in Iraq, and in the greater Middle East, is the last reed the Bush administration seems to be clinging to as the turbulent waters of sectarian civil war rise higher. Unfortunately, it is a weakly rooted reed, and clinging to it has about as much promise as adhering to a strategy of clear-hold-and-build, or clinging to the fragile, suspect Iraqi regime.
The desire to advance human liberty is certainly laudable, but the problem is that the administration has emphasized freedom as a policy goal at the expense of clearly articulating another social value, justice, which is much more deeply rooted in Arab culture. The result has been to cloud our understanding of the conflict, to limit our options for dealing with it, and to distort badly our entire foreign policy in the Middle East.
In recent months it has become common, even fashionable, to describe the situation in Iraq as “Hobbesian.” In his Nov. 29 column in the New York Times, for example, Thomas Friedman wrote that Iraq “is not the Arab Yugoslavia anymore. It’s Hobbes’s jungle.” Or, as Washington Post correspondent Thomas Ricks said on “Meet the Press” on Dec. 10, the Iraqi sectarian conflict is a “Hobbesian war of all against all.” Helena Cobban, in the June 6 Christian Science Monitor, wrote that Iraq “has become a Hobbesian nightmare.” The examples could go on and on.
The point, clearly, is that the situation in Iraq is really, really bad, but never do those invoking Thomas Hobbes’s name bother to examine the deeper issues that such a comparison invites. What does this persistent reversion to a seventeenth-century British political philosopher tell us? How far does it take us in understanding the war in Iraq? How does it work to frame the issue, and what assumptions are built into it?
For the past year, Russia has held the presidency of the “Group of Eight,” or G-8, the exclusive club of powerful nations which together account for about two-thirds of the world’s economic productivity. What a strange turn of affairs! For the G-8 is supposed to represent the interests of economically modern liberal democracies, and Russia is neither economically modern nor a liberal democracy. Moreover, in its foreign policy it is increasingly acting against the interests of the other member states. The time has come, therefore, to reevaluate Russia’s membership in the G-8
The day after the 2006 midterm elections, the basic conservative interpretive frame emerged. A veritable chorus of commentators on the right rose up to declare that the results represented not a defeat for conservatism but rather for a Republican party that had abandoned its conservative principles. The election was less an ideological victory for Democrats, progressives, or liberals, we were told, than it was a sharp correction administered to the incompetents and big spenders who had disappointed their conservative constituents.
Like some kind of strange avatar of controversy, the pop singer Madonna from time to time bursts back into the national conversation, through carefully transgressive acts that can seem at once silly and yet revealing of our cultural preoccupations. This month has witnessed a double-header. Most visibly, her fast-tracked adoption of an infant from Malawi has generated lots of hyperventilating headlines about the unfair prerogatives and unseemly habits of celebrity. Less visibly, but more importantly, she has once again offended religious sensibilities in a provocative stage performance – and this time lost.
In a September 12 meeting with a group of conservative journalists, President Bush suggested that the United States might be experiencing a “Third Awakening,” or widespread resurgence of religious faith and expression similar to earlier such revivals in American history. Bush, offering his views on the causes of this apparent trend, predictably linked it to anxieties generated by the ongoing “war on terror”:
“A lot of people in America see this as a confrontation between good and evil, including me,” Bush was quoted as telling his audience. “There was a stark change between the culture of the ‘50s and the ‘60s -- boom -- and I think there’s change happening here. It seems to me that there’s a Third Awakening.”
Aides hastened to emphasize that Bush did not see this “confrontation between good and evil” as a religious war between Christianity and Islam. “He’s drawing a parallel in terms of a resurgence, in dangerous times, of people going back to their religion,” one aide told the Washington Post. “This is not ‘God is on our side’ or anything like that.”
Ever since the Republican Party, in the 1960s, embraced the "Southern strategy" of appealing to middle-class and working-class whites opposed to the Civil Rights Movement, modern conservatives have had something of a race problem. That problem is Anglo Christian bigotry. Certainly, high-profile conservative leaders have made of point of eschewing racial language and denouncing overt prejudice. Political prudence explains this, to a degree, but so does, in many cases, a genuinely enlightened egalitarianism. The conservative "race problem," however, continues to reveal itself in two primary areas. First, there’s the fact that conservative economic policies have been hard on the lower income brackets and therefore disproportionately hard on African Americans. Moreover, the hard-right proposals on immigration reform in the House of Representatives promise to be equally hard on Latinos. Second, there’s the occasional embarrassing comment or episode which serves as a reminder of the dark association between conservative politics and racial intolerance.
Once upon a time, in a small Maryland town on the Chesapeake Bay called St. Michaels, a teenaged slave named Frederick Douglass beat up a white farmer named Edward Covey who had been hired to "break" the difficult boy. That fight was a turning point in Douglass’s life, liberating him from fear and instilling self-respect, and it set him on a path that would lead him out of slavery and into a career as the preeminent African American spokesman of the nineteenth century.
Is it too early to begin talking about how to survive the collapse of civilization? If the more pessimistic predictions about global warming are to be believed — and there is reason to believe them — within a decade or two the trend may become irreversible, leading to an accelerating global environmental catastrophe and, as a possible consequence, the breakdown of many of the social and economic systems that much of the world has come to take for granted.