Wednesday, May 27. 2015
This reminds me of a lot of things, but let's start with Robert Fulghum's slim 1989 bestseller, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Fulghum was a minister, so that may explain why he never needed to know anything about geometry or chemistry or, more generally, history and arts and sciences. Even so, I doubt he really meant to deprecate post-kindergarten learning. Rather, he wanted to make a point about the value of certain things that can be learned in kindergarten. A Wikipedia summary:
I never read the book, but got the gist from the blurb, and it always struck me as a clever idea with a kernel of wisdom. I thought of it because Huckabee is also a minister, so that got me wondering whether a kindergarten frame of mind is endemic to the profession. On the other hand, I don't recall Fulghum's list -- as I recall, 21 short items (the shortest: "Flush.") -- including anything on the importance of beating down bullies. Maybe that's a Baptist thing? (Fulghum's ministry was Unitarian Universalist.)
Still, there's more wrong with Huckabee's bully analogy than his infantilist mindset. I suppose it's possible that bullies are more of a problem today than they were when I went to grade school -- I knew a couple but I'd characterize them more as thugs than bullies. But while Huckabee is probably right that bullies tend to pick on kids weaker than themselves, what distinguishes them more is their isolation from social norms and their willingness to cross authority. As usual, the best defense was to keep the problem from appearing, which has more to do with good management than stern policing. But one thing I never saw was a "sheepdog" (to use Chris Kyle's term) who would defend the weak (the "sheep") by beating down the bullies (the "wolves"). But then, had one appeared, he would have gotten nabbed by the authorities: bullying is intimidation, so it makes sense that intimidating "bullies" is bullying too.
In Kyle's mind what distinguishes the sheepdog from the wolf is the purity of his intentions. One thing that means is that it is hard, perhaps impossible, for an independent observer to tell the difference. For the US Army, pure intentions are a given -- not something any American politician, least of all a simpleton like Huckabee, would dare examine. If the US Army whips your butt, you had it coming. Still, there are at least four problems with this assumption: one is that pure intentions are real hard to come to and maintain (especially in an individualist/capitalist society which puts so much motivational weight on self-interest); second, even if your intentions are pure, the information you act on is often faulty (which is the main reason we keep killing people we didn't intend to); third, power is seductive and addictive, so as you build it you'll be tempted to flaunt it (cf. Madeleine Albright's tease: "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" ); fourth, no one else can see (or trust) your intentions, so all they have to go on is your acts.
If the last paragraph seems theoretical, remember that what Huckabee is proposing isn't a hypothetical. The US has had the world's most dominant, most expensive, most far-reaching military in the world at least since 1945, so we have seventy years of history we can reflect upon. No one can doubt that the US had the power to destroy any nation that tried to bully it. As a first approximation, you might even think that strategy worked: no other nation has directly attacked US soil, nor the soil of any nation the US has a multilateral defense treaty with. On the other hand, that hasn't meant 70 years of secure peace. In fact, the US has engaged in dozens of overt and/or covert wars throughout the period. I'm not going to run down the list. The point is that being able to "whip butts" isn't a formula for peace. As practiced by the US for seventy years, it's a formula for perpetual war.
One reason is that lots of people have come to view the US as the bully. After all, what do bullies do? They use the threat of violence, demonstrated on occasion, to intimidate weaker folks, to take advantage of them, to limit their freedom. Arguably the US has done this many times. Bullying doesn't explain every US war -- US support for the Contras in Nicaragua and the Muhajedin in Afghanistan was more malicious, meant not to impose order but to tear down an order we didn't like -- but it is a pattern, and is more often than not never comes to war, the merest of threats sufficing. On the other hand, the bully pose is most explicit when faced with possible defeat: the Bush response to 9/11 was obsessed with reasserting American global domination, while the Nixon response to impending defeat in Vietnam was to raise the stakes, to show the world how much anyone who challenged us could be made to suffer.
On the other hand, the calculus of bullying is more complex, as Todd Snider points out in his song, Is This Thing On?, where he describes a kid who stands up to a bully, not by beating him down but by letting the bully disgrace himself:
You can see this dynamic most clearly with Israel and Palestine, where the former's periodic wars, no matter how overwhelming the result, only generate more sympathy for the latter. But even where the tide of public opinion never turns, overwhelming intimidation may be met not with submission but with greater resolve to find other, more asymmetric, forms of resistance. Guerrilla warfare and terrorism are two such forms, but the range of options is myriad. And while the US has weapons sufficient to kill virtually every living thing on earth, all that power has proven impossible to use with much precision. (The central problem of the "war on terror" is to distinguish friend from foe, but inability to exclusively target the latter has actually led to a multiplication of foes, a trend that portends failure.)
One more point: In the early post-WWII (post-New Deal) period, the US enjoyed a full range of options for dealing with the rest of the world, backed by an ideology which for the most part was democratic, progressive, and anti-colonial. In particular, the US supported international organizations, especially the UN, to provide a diplomatic framework for resolving conflicts, based on a broad and universal declaration of human rights, much as law provides a framework for resolving civil conflicts. The US also had the wherewithal to provide extensive economic aid to other countries. The military only became a significant factor with the Berlin Blockade (1948) and the Korean War (1950), and has become increasingly hegemonic in American thinking, with the CIA gaining ground in the 1950s. This shift in approaches was locked into an ideological sea change, as the US came to side with capitalism against labor, and as such with crony dictators against popular movements. This shift not only makes it harder to justify America's "pure intentions" -- it has led Americans to take an increasingly brutal view of the rest of the world, and indeed of ourselves. One tiny example is the hero worship accorded a stone cold killer like Chris Kyle (the SEAL hero of American Sniper), but you find it everywhere, not least in Huckabee's passion for whipping butt.
I have a little quote from Linda Robinson's review of Bill Russell Edmonds: God Is Not Here:
Edmonds was stationed in Mosul in 2005-06, and was working as an advisor to Iraqi intelligence officers, so was involved in interrogating Iraqi civilians (the key word in the subtitle is "Torture") He later suffered some sort of mental breakdown, something this book attempts to reckon with. Just one case, but this sheds some light on how the bully army breaks down at the individual level. Many other soldier reports don't show this because most soldiers are more isolated from the people they harrass and kill -- contained within their units, fearing the unknown.
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