Thursday, September 13, 2012

800 Words: I Love Being Wrong

The above statement may strike people who know me as a shock, or perhaps an outright lie. I’ve debated and argued with far too many people over the years to give much evidence of its truth. And in one way, it’s certainly false; I don’t much like being proven wrong by others – few if any people do. But in most ways, the above statement is absolutely true. I’ve learned to love it, I had to. Because over the years I’ve noticed that I eventually think that nine out of every ten things I once believed are wrong – and then the new things I believe are wrong too. People evolve, and whether in matters of politics, culture, people, science, or workaday banalities, you’d better be willing to change your mind at the drop of a coin if you want to stay in touch with reality.

 Some people believe that doubt is a cancer of the mind, ruining all that is good and true in the world and undermining the dogmas they cling to as the only way of making sense of our crazy world. They cling to a set of beliefs and values as the rest of us do a favorite shirt. These people believe that consistency is a virtue – I think it shows an extreme lack of thought. If you don’t reconsider your beliefs, if they don’t evolve from year to year, if you’re the exact same person you were five years ago, you’re not only boring, you’re probably a dangerous person who makes the world a worse place to live for those of us trying to live in the real world.

It takes an enormous amount of repression to stay consistent in the face of a world that’s always turning. As the paradoxical argument goes (best summed up in the Pixar movie, Ratatouille), you can’t change nature, but nature is change. It’s the paradox at the heart of human nature – we all try to change ourselves and others, only to find that we are all precisely the same people we were before the change. And yet, at the very same time, we are completely different people for having undergone such strenuous efforts to change. From year to year, month to month, day to day, hour to hour, etc., we are completely different people than we were before, and yet the more we try to control the difference, the more those differences run away from us. Life is what happens to us when we’re busy making other plans, …said some guy with sunglasses (more or less),

It was an enormously educational experience to re-read that Hopkins paper I posted yesterday. I probably hadn’t looked at it in four years. Looking at it now, aside from some glaringly obvious typos, I suddenly realize that I no longer quite believe some of the things I wrote. I’m not sure I believed some of them then.

I was a freshly new poli-sci grad student with visitor status, hoping against hope that I could either get the kind of professorial recommendation that could get me into a second-rate PhD program or at least a master’s program in international relations. As a graduate from a second-rate music school, there was no way I could have ever gotten into Hopkins on my own merits. But I was at the height of my political passions – having spent more time thinking about politics at American University than I ever did about music. For people whose passion is politics, there is not a single school in America that provides a better environment – AU lived and breathed politics the way state schools breathed sports. In the years after 9/11, it was absolutely impossible not to be caught in the sweep of people’s passions – and passionate discussions were happening everywhere you turned, from drunken debates at parties on the grandest philosophical first principles to cafeteria talk on the extreme minutia of polling numbers which people discussed the way University of Maryland sports nerds discuss shooting percentages. It was a grand, grand time.

After four years at AU, a year in Israel, and far too many Christopher Hitchens articles resounding in my head, I managed to convince Hopkins to take me as a poli-sci student on visitor status – determined to make up for my lack of education by sheer dint of effort and a surfeit of classroom bluster. For the first two months, I was probably an embarrassment – constantly condemning realism in American foreign policy while not realizing that my main professor was a realist in the Brent Scowcroft mode (so that’s why that other kid was suppressing giggles…). I hardly understood or made my way through the articles I was assigned, and I all too quickly realized I had neither the talent nor the desire for typical academic work – reading and writing obscure, jargon-filled, theoretical articles in political journals which told you absolutely nothing about the history or the practice of international affairs and everything about how the English language can be mauled. After a few weeks, I just decided to fake my way through the class discussions, and suddenly the professor found my contributions to class discussion much more valuable.

But that year at Hopkins did provide me with one crucial political insight. After five years of listening to Republicans from my uncle to college drinking buddies yammer in my ear about the importance of deposing dictators in the Middle East, I saw the entire world from a nearly neoconservative point of view – or at least a Tony Blairite liberal hawk one (and I was on the hawkish end of liberal hawk). I was always an economic and social liberal, and rarely ever wavered on those points. But on foreign policy, I’d become nearly as hawkish as people came.  To me, there was little if any difference between people who subscribed to and the Henry Kissinger realists; both of them were obstacles to liberal democracy who subscribed to the racist notion that Arabs are not ready for it and should not be encouraged to embrace it by all means at our disposal.

But there was one circle in this circular logic I could not square. Why had the Palestinians elected Hamas in their first reasonably free legislative election? Columnists and friends on the left would have me believe that they’d done it because the radical Islamic party Hamas was the only competent party in Palestine – a fact whose truth was demonstrated by the secularist Fatah party producing two competing party lists and two more secessionist party lists. But it still troubled me greatly that faced with the prospect of democracy and freedom, a plurality of Palestinians would willingly choose to elect a party whose entire ethos is grounded in an unmoderated political Islam which would almost guarantee the end of any prospect for democracy to burgeon.

My professors were almost all realists; real realists, who were nearly as hard-bitten, almost authoritarian, in their views as their students were leftist. They’d grown up in the Cold War era, and saw it as a given that alliances with dictatorships were absolutely necessary to keep the balance of power. The moment I was moved to an argument like theirs was the moment I started tabulating the political murders committed by various dictators – 11-21 million under Hitler, 20-62 million under Stalin, 40-over 100 million under Mao, and a similarly large proportion of population under less powerful dictators like Pol Pot, Saddam, Suharto, Seko, and Idi Amin. If you actually care about the world, a mere list of these death tolls is enough to make you wretch – and that doesn’t even begin to account for how these people were killed, or how many were imprisoned, displaced, maimed, driven insane, and raped. It’s very hard to get worked up over far away dictatorships that kill mere thousands of people, or even authoritarians in your own country, when you realize that whole civilizations can be wiped out in the span of a few years. Compared to the aforementioned murderers, Pinochet and Mubarak were downright principled and Rick Santorum is St. Rick of the Gay Pride. As I think any rational person can see, I was forced to conclude that yes, some dictators are worse, much worse, than others. The United States is blamed for making these sorts of ‘lesser evil’ decisions to assist a dictator in coming to power so that a worse one may not, and sometimes deservedly so. Certainly in the cases of Suharto in Indonesia and Seko in the Congo, virtually any communist government would have been preferable to the apocalyptic bloodbaths which followed.

The problem with neoconservatism is not that neoconservatives don’t take the threat of totalitarianism too seriously, it’s that they don’t take it seriously enough. To policy-makers in the Bush administration, any country whose government is possessed of an over-arching ideology with a predisposition to violence (that isn’t neoconservatism) is totalitarian ipso-facto. It helped their case that Saddam was a truly totalitarian dictator (though less than he once was), but to think that a country could embrace democracy without first having a reliable rule of law, a functional and uncorrupted civil service, and economic security, is beyond ludicrous – it’s downright dangerous. It left (and still leaves) open an invitation for a leader even more bloody-minded than Saddam to impose his rule.  

But looking at that paper now, I see I went too far in the other direction. The realist jargon term ‘national interest’ is sprayed all around that piece – never mind that no two realists seem to agree on what’s in the ‘national interest.’ I don’t know if I meant that it doesn’t matter whether self-interest is an amoral question or if the morality of doing something in the ‘national interest’ is implied, but either way, it does not sit well with me now. Doing the right thing is what’s important, far more important than any national interest, and I’m sure I believed that then as well as now. Clearly, I was either trying to impress my professor or misstating my case.  

I still think Jimmy Carter was a terrible president whose abandonment of the Sha had dire consequences that were utterly predictable*. I still think Pinochet, bloody as he was, was far from the worst option (try to imagine how easily a Latin-American civil war could have spread around the world… it’s not hard…), but there’s one sentence that particularly jars me:

In the case of 1970’s Chile, we find an example in which Kirkpatrick is proven correct in her assertion that support for right-wing autocracy is sometimes very necessary due to very real threats of communist infiltration.

I could point to a number of instances like this in the paper, but this was the first sentence I wrote in the “Chile from Allende to Pinochet” section. Well…yes, I suppose that in the beginning it was necessary to support Pinochet’s coup. But the brutality was also completely preventable, and neither Nixon nor Ford did much to prevent it – not even when an exiled Chilean Statesman was assassinated in Washington DC.

But at the same time, Communist infiltration is a very dire thing  – even if it’s danger was co-opted by all sorts of right-wing demagogues for their own purposes. What I deliberately left out of this paper is that, on the whole, Communist dictatorships were at very least a little bloodier, more repressive, more disgusting regimes to live under than non-Communist ones, just not nearly to the extent which Jeane Kirkpatrick claimed. To give just the most obvious example, many people on the left like to argue that Chiang Kai-Shek was just as bloody a dictator as Mao. To be sure, Chiang was a foul, foul murderer; his forces killed approximately 4 million Chinese people, but they did so in wartime. Upon winning the Chinese Civil War, Mao Tse-Tun’s reign saw the political murder of at least 40 million people (perhaps three times as many) – and that was during peace time.

The world is what it is, and whether the subject is politics, philosophy, culture, the people around us, or everyday chores, it’s up to us to understand the world if we can. It’s entirely possible that my view of the world will change yet again as time goes on. As far as politics goes, I was a leftist in high school, a liberal hawk in college, a liberal realist in graduate school, and (hopefully) a liberal in adulthood. I’m pretty sure I thought of myself as a liberal the whole time, but my beliefs were always changing: I evolved, perhaps for better fitness, perhaps for worse. But either way, I’ve tried to go from year to year with a better understanding of things than I had before.

*Let us pray that Obama’s abandonment of Mubarak doesn’t have the same consequences, I believe Obama did the right thing, but the jury is very much still out. Nevertheless, it should occur to us all that if an Ayatollah-like figure is about to take over Egypt, he’d have appeared by now. 

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