Millions of us shuffle around, sighing that most of what we hear pounded into our brains is either banal or as untrue as it is dangerous to identify it as such. So we ignore it, we the dead souls who live in the world of unmentionable thoughts.
The world of banality
Here is a daily inanity: “The great majority of Muslims are moderates,” and its ancillary: “Only a tiny percentage of Muslims are terrorists.” Both are true, but they have value as admonishments only if there were a widespread Western effort to demonize Islam and persecute Muslims, or we knew that mass destruction required millions of conventional troops. But neither is true.
Last year anti-Semitic hate crimes far outnumbered attacks in America on Muslims.
Let us do some hypothetical math to suggest a small minority can be a very great worry. If the common referent of 1 billion Muslims in the world is roughly accurate, and if there are only, say, 10% of the number who are rather radical in their beliefs (e.g., the tens of millions in places like Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia), we may be talking only about 100 million Muslims who are indifferent to speaking out against terrorism (we saw that reflected in a number of polls after 9/11 tracking public opinion in the Middle East, in which only a quarter to a third of the respondents had a positive opinion of Bin Laden or the tactic of suicide bombing.)
And further if, of that 10% /100 million subset, only one in ten is actually sympathetic, or willing to offer aid, to terrorists, and if, among that population of about 10 million, another one in ten actually wishes to commit terrorist acts, then we would have 1 million Muslims worldwide to watch out for — or one in a thousand Muslims that might cause some worry.
In that context, I ‘d prefer the other banality “not all Muslims are terrorists, but most of today’s global terrorists are Muslims”— given that terrorism of the age requires very few zealots. The miniscule .1% of the Muslim community as potential terrorists is quite a lot, given we never hear of the size of the pool from which we are postulating.
No military solution!
I heard this banality four times this week on the air and at two lectures: “There is no military solution!”
Well, yeah, of course, you cannot bomb or blow up your way to democracy in Iraq or Afghanistan. But who ever embraced that straw man as the sole answer in our ongoing wars?
The fact is that in both theaters only military action can demoralize the terrorists and insurgents enough to back off to allow ongoing diplomacy and so-called nation-building to proceed.
Iraq is fairly stable not just because of constitutional reform and Ryan Crocker’s inspired diplomacy or Gen. Petraeus’s brilliant efforts to assure civilians hope and safety, but also because the U.S. military and the Sons of Iraq in the Anbar Awakening annihilated vast cadres of al-Qaeda and radical Sunni terrorists.
The history of war suggests gridlocked conflicts evolve to diplomatic solutions once one side fears losing or at least sees it cannot win. The banality of “there is no military solution” among today’s elites has become synonymous with either “we are losing” or “we want out.”
Then there are the unmentionables that we dead souls carry around as well. All matters that even touch on race are good examples. The California papers are now heralding that the state’s schools have a majority of Hispanic students. But while that is good news to liberals who seem to see race as essential not incidental to larger society, it raises then some very uncomfortable corollaries for reporters — such as, is there any connection to why California’s once top-flight public schools have fallen to near dead last in test scores, given millions of non-English speakers?
Answers are offered in our major newspapers this week along the following lines. We are told in these articles that only 40% of Latino parents can vote (= if they could vote, would schools change for the better? And why did parents not take action to qualify to vote? And did not they already vote — with their feet — by the very fact they fled their homes to risk something entirely alien in the north?)
In order not to address those questions, an “expert” is introduced into the article to reference school board elections where noncitizens might vote (= if one does not follow the law, change it!). We are next reminded in these reports that few parents speak fluent English. Presto! — another PhD is found to suggest that rather than illegal aliens learning English, California should learn Spanish (= if a century and a half of custom is bothersome, drop the custom).
We the dead souls read this and conclude just the opposite: Massive illegal immigration into the state — by millions over the last two decades from the interior of Mexico — has resulted in a sizable resident population with no English, no high school diplomas, and no legality. For most in these rubrics, an entry-level, manual-labor job too often became a dead-end one at minimal wages — with all the ripples we’d expect into the second generation.
Therefore one should stop illegal immigration, restore respect for the law, push English immersion, and stress the traditional American melting pot of cultural assimilation — on the theory those who flee the nightmare of today’s Mexico surely do not wish to recreate up here what they left down there, and instead are ready for a different social, economic, cultural, and political paradigm that explains why life changes radically from Tijuana to San Diego.
Then a nanosecond later, we the dead souls sigh that we know such a melting-pot paradigm would work, and yet will not be tried in this era of the “salad bowl.” Those who voice the unmentionable will be branded as racists by those who are mostly a) terrified of living in a world like they see today in Mexico; and b) believe that they live in a neighborhood or earn an income or navigate in a world that insulates them from the concrete wages of their easy political correctness.
Rhetorically ignorant — or “he’s back”
Andrew Sullivan is an iconic character of these depressing times — a sort of herky-jerky Paris Hilton of the blogosphere, in which brash amorality, such as accusing the Palins of faking pregnancies or smearing officials as “war criminals,” substitutes for any real thinking.
His latest attack last week offers another teachable moment. Sullivan claimed that I, and others, committed the “big lie” (note the characteristic Sullivan bombast: “liar,” “torturer,” “criminal” are favorite slurs) by stating that Obama did not believe in American exceptionalism, based on the president’s following remarks:
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.
And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.”
Here Obama engaged in what in American parlance is sometimes known as prebuttal (see below) — the anticipation of criticism to come through preemptive qualification.
But Sullivan thinks that the “context” and qualifiers that Obama tacked on, praising the U.S., nullify the force of his more dramatic and sarcastic introductory statement: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Therefore those of us who quoted Obama to the effect that the president felt American exceptionalism was simply a variant of what all countries profess were peddlers of the “big lie.”
Of course, Obama really did make it clear that exceptionalism is just a notion that every state claims, America no differently than any others in its belief in its own singularity. But Sullivan leaps to the puerile conclusion that the Obama add-ons, the prebuttal, nullify the force of the controversial statement.
Yet such subsidiary amplification — sometimes known to the Greeks as prolepsis and sometimes more technically with elements of procatalepsis, and perhaps antanagoge — serves two purposes: the controversial theme can be voiced for the record, and yet the speaker is protected from criticism by preemptive qualification. We know what Obama meant since he otherwise need not have said anything about exceptionalism; we also know that the naïve or disingenuous partisan like Sullivan would immediately point to the qualifiers.
Most politicians do this. When George Bush gave his May 1, 2003, “Mission Accomplished” speech on the deck of the USS Lincoln, he infamously stated, “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
Bush wanted to convey the thought that we had won the war and so spoke as he did. He also wished to qualify what he said, just in case violence again broke out. So he added all sorts of add-ons and qualifiers in the speech, starting with the word “major” (as in maybe less major combat has not ended). There were others like this in the speech, such as: “And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.” And this: “We have difficult work to do in Iraq.” And this: “The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done. Then we will leave, and we will leave behind a free Iraq.”
One could argue that Bush’s “major combat operations … have ended” statement referenced only more “major” combat operations in the three-week war against Saddam’s conventional forces and government alone, and not insurgencies or terrorism or non-conventional fighting, but I won’t argue that. I think even Bush regretted that premature assessment, which often had the later effect to discourage noting progress from the surge, given the public’s remembrance of the prior false hope.
I think instead Bush wanted to assure the nation that most fighting of all sorts was largely over, and yet he was not entirely certain of that — thus the qualifications. He was logically faulted for that speech by the Left, especially by the likes of Andrew Sullivan, who posted repeated attacks on the controversial “major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” but who on that occasion ignored the qualifiers that followed throughout the speech. Sullivan, however, is never consistent in his criticism because he suffers, inter alia, from the worst trait of a commentator — the constant desire to adjust his own opinions, often in blatantly hypocritical and contradictory style, to the assumed prevailing view.
Bombast and hyperbole do not denote passion of belief or sincerity.
This week, I gave an internet lecture (“The Life of an Ancient Soldier”) and Q&A with Philip Terry as part of Professor Paul Cartledge’s (Clare College, Cambridge) global efforts to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the Athenian (and Plataean) victory at Marathon. It can be accessed at http://www.marathon2500.org/. Cartledge wrote, among his many books, an underappreciated biography of the Spartan King Agesilaos (Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta). I say underappreciated because the title misleads; the book is really a comprehensive history of fourth-century Greece and Sparta in particular, with a wealth of insights and references.
In September, C-Span, as part of their series to tape representative classes at American colleges, came to Hillsdale, where I was teaching for a month. The video of a class on World War II, in particular emphasizing the strategy of Churchill, Hitler, Roosevelt, and Stalin, can be found here. Warning — the class was a marathon one, and I lectured without notes and impromptu for the entire period of three hours. Although I haven’t watched it yet, I imagine there are plenty of slips, given the lack of a prepared text (the same is true of the Marathon lecture). The preview of the long tape is here: