America, Its Back Stabbed

The “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra” post from last week drew a lot of attention, and I’m glad to see someone else make a similar point. Gary Kamiya (who is very sharp, btw; I’m always impressed with what he writes) leaves out the Star Trek reference but writes that George Bush’s entire presidency is based on myth:

Bush’s entire presidency has been propped up by the War Myth. By aggressively presenting himself as a war leader, by wrapping himself in the sacred robes of patriotism, the military and national honor, Bush has taken refuge in the holy of holies, the ultimate sanctuary in American life. He has made criticism of his policies tantamount to criticism of the one institution in American life that is untouchable: the military. He uses the almost 4,000 new crosses in military cemeteries as a talisman against his opponents — notwithstanding the fact that he is wholly responsible for those crosses. …

… What is crucial to understand is that the War Myth can be effective even when reality utterly undercuts it. Myths appeal to transcendental values, shared sacred beliefs. Once we have entered the realm of myth, taboos replace rational discourse.

That irrational power explains the Democrats’ recent humiliating collapse on Bush’s intelligence surveillance bill. It explains why Republican politicians, whose ideology is steeped in the War Myth, have failed to rebel against a doomed war that could cost them their jobs. And it is why the American political establishment is waiting hat in hand for Gen. Petraeus’ predictable report, in which he will say the surge is working and ask for more time.

“Myths appeal to transcendental values, shared sacred beliefs. Once we have entered the realm of myth, taboos replace rational discourse.” A few people who read the “Darmok” post argued that lefties are just as bad about mythical thinking as righties. But I’m not sure these people understood what I was saying. A “myth” isn’t just a made-up story. Myths, whether religious or political, create a context in which we understand ourselves and others. People who are deeply steeped in mythos interpret everything in that context. For example, someone whose understanding of liberals is that they hate America will interpret everything liberals do or say through that filter. It doesn’t matter what liberals might do to prove they are patriots; it will be interpreted as phony. Because, you know, liberals hate America.

For example, yesterday Digby posted some right-wing comments published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Could’ve been a dead body on the stage and no delegate or speaker would have called attention, so desperate are they to appear mainstream. These are folks who think hiding their beliefs is necessary, because you wouldn’t like them if you found out.

Translation: The Democrats are not saying what the writer’s mythos tells him Democrats believe. Therefore, the Dems are hiding their beliefs.

This is the George McGovern anti-war party. Omega Lamont of Peachtree City calls it the “Botox convention.” Any cosmetic to dress up Kerry and his band of ’60s peaceniks as a party that can be trusted to lead in a world in which fanatics are determined to destroy us.

Translation: The George McGovern myth informs the writer that Democrats are “peaceniks” who will not defend America. I’ve written before that the McGovern myth is based on a gross distortion of history. See, for example, “Don’t Blame McGovern” and “Don’t Blame McGovern II.” But the important point here is the writer doesn’t feel a need to justify his claim that Democrats can’t be trusted to handle national security. He just evokes McGovern.

Once we have entered the realm of myth, taboos replace rational discourse. In this case, the “taboo” is entertaining the possibility that a Democrat might want to defend America from enemies and be as “tough” on national security as anyone else. This is in spite of the fact that two Democratic presidents led the nation in World War II, and another saw us through the Cuban Missile Crisis. The McGovern myth overrides all. Democrats are pansies, by virtue of being Democrats. The McGovern myth says so.

Elements of the far Left are not immune to mythic thinking. Alexander Cockburn explains,

These days a dwindling number of leftists learn their political economy from Marx via the small, mostly Trotskyist groupuscules. Into the theoretical and strategic void has crept a diffuse, peripatic conspiracist view of the world that tends to locate ruling class devilry not in the crises of capital accumulation, or the falling rate of profit, or inter-imperial competition, but in locale (the Bohemian Grove, Bilderberg, Ditchley, Davos) or supposedly “rogue” agencies, with the CIA still at the head of the list. The 9/11 “conspiracy”, or “inside job”, is the Summa of all this foolishness.

However, what I think of as mainstream lefties — which includes pretty much all of the leftie blogosphere and the more progressive parts of the Democratic Party — were never Marxists to begin with and barely pay attention to the truthers, except to ban them from our blogs for being tiresome.

But our counterparts on the Right live in the land of myth. And, as Gary Kamiya says, plenty of Democrats are hemmed in by rightie myths, either because they believe them or they think it’s political suicide to argue with them.

When Bush trotted out his highly imaginative version of Vietnam history last week, I realized that the facts of Vietnam were not the point of the speech. He was speaking of what Vietnam represents to the Right, emotionally and mythically. Gary Kamiya continues,

But for Bush, Vietnam’s real relevance to Iraq isn’t the early withdrawal issue — it’s the “stab in the back.”

The “stab in the back” holds that America was only defeated in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight. And those who sapped our will, those who betrayed our fighting men, were cowardly protesters and craven politicians. As Bush told “Meet the Press'” Tim Russert in 2004, “The thing about the Vietnam War that troubles me as I look back was it was a political war. We had politicians making military decisions, and it is lessons that any president must learn, and that is to set the goal and the objective and allow the military to come up with the plans to achieve that objective. And those are essential lessons to be learned from the Vietnam War.”

As Kevin Baker noted in an in-depth analysis in Harper’s, the “stab in the back” thesis is the ur-right-wing credo. It brings together two keystone beliefs: the idea that America is omnipotent and incapable of defeat, and that any war the U.S. engages in must be noble and heroic. Therefore, if America is defeated, traitorous elites — craven politicians, un-American punks, degenerates, longhairs, pinkos and agitators, and the cowardly elite media — must be to blame. Nixon and Agnew’s demonizing of “nattering nabobs of negativism” and Reagan’s claims that war protesters were giving “comfort and aid” to the enemy sprang from this belief.

I’ve written several posts that cite the Kevin Baker article, several of which are archived here; see this post in particular. Baker argues persuasively that in the postwar years Republicans saved themselves from irrelevancy by propagating the “FDR and Stalin at Yalta” myth. He wrote,

A growing chorus of right-wing voices now began to excoriate our wartime diplomacy. Their most powerful charge, one that would firmly establish the Yalta myth in the American political psyche, was the accusation that our delegation had given over Eastern Europe to the Soviets. According to “How We Won the War and Lost the Peace,” an essay written for Life magazine shortly before the 1948 election by William Bullitt—a former diplomat who had been dismissed by Roosevelt for outing a gay rival in the State Department—FDR and his chief adviser, Harry Hopkins, were guilty of “wishful appeasement” of Stalin at Yalta, handing the peoples of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states over to the Soviet dictator.

Please do read the Kevin Baker article if you haven’t already. The basic point is that the Vietnam myth and the McGovern myth are really just add-ons to the Yalta myth. And when you’re discussing Iraq with someone whose understanding of American defense policy is entirely steeped in the Yalta-Vietnam-McGovern mythos, you might as well be talking to a tree stump. And a nasty little bugger of a tree stump at that; one who thinks the only reason anyone would want to end the war is to stab America in the back.

Gary Kamiya thinks that most of America is no longer buying the “Bush the War President” myth.

The inescapable truth is that Bush’s war of choice has destroyed an entire nation — and there is no way for the United States or anyone else to control what happens next. The increasingly shaky plight of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shows just how unstable Iraq’s cobbled-together political system is. U.S. dreams of replacing him with a secular strongman like Ayad Allawi are delusional. The war is not winnable, and there is thus only one possible rationale for continuing it, the one Bush raised: preventing an even more apocalyptic blood bath than we have already caused.

If we knew that by staying we could avert such a blood bath, we would owe it to the Iraqi people, whom we have harmed so grievously, to remain. But the fact is that no one can really predict whether our departure will cause such a blood bath. Moreover, it is now obvious that the political and sectarian schisms that could lead to it will not heal themselves. As Gen. Petraeus has admitted, it might take a decade to achieve real stability in Iraq. In other words, Bush is asking the U.S. to keep troops in Iraq, possibly indefinitely, in an attempt to forestall an outcome that might never happen — precisely what he argues we should have done in Vietnam.

This is not a scenario that Congress or the American people are going to accept. We are now approaching an endgame in Iraq that has its own inexorable logic, which not even Bush’s appeals to the War Myth will be able to stop.

However, Bush’s “Vietnam” speech may serve other purposes.

In some part of his brain, Bush knows this — which explains his other motivation for invoking Vietnam and attacking war critics as defeatists. As a partisan Republican, still dreaming of Karl Rove’s permanent Republican majority, he wants to ensure that the Democrats take the blame in the coming argument over “who lost Iraq?” By defiantly insisting, contrary to all evidence, that victory is within grasp, he is planting the seeds of a resentful revisionism, a stab in the back II, which he hopes will come to fruition in the future.

But Bush has little credibility with most Americans. “Bush’s attempt to claim he was stabbed in the back is certain to meet the same fate. That notion will live on only where it always has, in the danker corners of the extreme right wing.”

I do believe that we lefties need to create and promote some narratives of our own to counter the Right’s narratives, but I don’t want to copy them and demonize the entire Republican Party, including moderates. I just want the darker corners of the extreme right wing to release its grip on Washington and mass media. Let the wingnuts take their myths and go home.


31 thoughts on “America, Its Back Stabbed

  1. The thing that disturbs me about these discussions is that the voice of reason keeps assuming reason can play some sort of role.

    I don’t think so. The pattern on the extreme right, and I include Bush, makes sense only if they believe might makes right. That’s a whole ‘nother world.

    (Tangentially, their argument that the US could win if it really wanted to. Well, it’s true, depending on how you define “win.” The US could certainly have won Vietnam, Iraq, and just about anyone except Russia. Throw a few nukes. End of story. Might triumphs. The point is that none of us except the loonies even think in those terms. So we can’t win. They can. If you want to call that winning.)

    The only way to change what might be called the mind of a might-makes-rightist is to make their current allegiance look weak, and to give them a stronger alternative. Another might-makes-righter would try the usual smash harder routine. But there is an even more powerful weapon.

    They can’t stand ridicule. And, sweet Flying Spaghetti Monster, do they ever make a ripe and large target for it.

    As for how to present a stronger alternative than smashing the world, I have no idea. Maybe dig the Rove out of whatever coffin he rests in by day and ask?

  2. Not only can you not use reason with the rightwing nut jobs; but, you cannot use an argument based on humanity or even from their most precious Bible, the golden rule. I have lost all hope and only have solace in my age and that I won’t have to live through what America has become for so very long a time. I believe that I will never see the America I grew up in ever again. If it comes back, I will probably be a long time dead.

  3. I forgot that I wanted to say that I am a fan of Alexander Cockburn’s; but, I found the quote above extraordinarly difficult to wade through. If any one has a translation, I would welcome it.

  4. The only reason people ever surrender one myth is when they are presented with a better one.

    And this is something we Liberals ought to be able to do, since we are the culture makers anyway. The key in my opinion is to tell a better story, dream a bigger dream. A dream that includes the apostate.

  5. William Bullitt—a former diplomat who had been dismissed by Roosevelt for outing a gay rival in the State Department…

    Mercy me, I do believe this gentleman is now reincarnated as a member of Bush II’s GOP.

  6. How does a dying empire reach rational self-understanding? More specifically as Quixote alludes to, a dying superpower with nuclear weapons? By a very long way around, most likely. Russia was in a way fortunate that they were clearly our inferior and fed up with Soviet mythology. Economic dislocation alone is not likely to help–especially not in the form of China cashing in. And the more setbacks we have in foreign adventures the louder the glass-em chorus will be. I really hope we make it to our oil-scarce broken-down hellhole future.

  7. Unfortunately, I am afraid that Kamiya underestimates the damage–I make it three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, and us.

    The war has not only allowed Bush to distract attention from domestic problems such as investment in our infrastructure (Katrina, bridge collapse), rising debt, and a falling economy, but it is also destroying the Armed Forces, which will need to rebuild equipment and recruit soldiers who aren’t gang members, skinheads, or religious nuts. Not to mention all the new unfriends he’s made for us around the world.

    Sadie makes a good point, but there’s a problem: liberal myths are optimistic and building things is boring. Nothing gets the heart pumping like dealing death and destruction. It’s so Spenglerian and Romantic to be the doomed noble hero. How will you get them to settle for the 9-to-5 when they’re on their way to Valhalla?

  8. You’re right, wmr, and Digby said it best (as usual) when she said something along the lines of “these are people who find it boring to raise children, cure diseases or build bridges that don’t fall down. The only thing that gets them excited is the prospect of killing people in large numbers.”

    But I also take hope from something someone else told me once, a former Klan member who had a rebel flag tattoed on his arm and a dog named Waco. We were talking about why he left the Klan and he said, “you know, hatred is exhausting.”

  9. One could add that a Democrat, LBJ, escalated a war that was just as stupid and far more bloody than the Bush/Cheney war. He had his good points, but LBJ was definitely not shy about spilling American blood.

    One could argue, and I do argue, that it was the Yalta myth, and even more the “Who lost China?” myth, that led LBJ to believe that he had to escalate in Viet Nam.

    The foundation for the Iraq Dolchstoss myth is in place; Democrats helped to build it and continue to do so. Their ignorance of recent history is amazing.

    They have had months to do the investigations and to publish the truth about how this war came to be, how it has been conducted and how Bush/Cheney are running out the clock to dump this mess on their successor. The Democrats seem oddly unconcerned with the fact that it will be them and, presumably, their president who will be wearing the jacket for the Iraq Disaster.

    This is the surest bet in politics.

  10. #11 – Isn’t it odd that the righties say that when most of them don’t even like New York.

  11. Stab in the back myths force history to repeat, not as farce, but as ever worse disasters, until the point is made : will only counts for so much, and no one always has luck on their side.

  12. Great post,Maha…It explains why Bush received standing ovations from a group of crusty old has beens when he delivered his Vietnam speech. Bush’s speech left me scratching my head wondering how there can be such a disparity in perceptions between what I’m seeing and what other veterans are seeing, especially when what he was saying was so off the I know.

    My sheep… they hear my voice..? 🙂

    To counter the myth, the Democrats should follow Harry Reid’s example of a repetitive statement that the Iraqi debacle is the biggest blunder in the history of US foreign policy, and continually ask the American people..HOW DID THIS DISASTER HAPPEN? Because the answer to that question will expose the fallacies of the myth to a greater audience.

  13. 8 :
    Make it four countries.
    Bush’s speech today makes it clear that we will soon be at war with Iran. Our objective: regime change.

  14. Revisionism can’t be stopped. If someone is hell-bent on clinging to a fantasy there will be no stopping them.

    The larger frame is Bush. Bush is no Reagan. Bush was a dismal failure forcing a steady stream of unqualified cronies on the American people.

    1 minute of the worst Bush lowlights would be a frame that could consume or envelope the other frames.

    Discredit Bush…put his incompetence on a pedestal under a spotlight for all to see. Cite all examples of him blaming others for his screwups. That is all easy to do. Then say “There he goes again”.

    Nobody has to feel bad about being merciless when it comes to Bush’s failures. All exposure is deserved.

  15. It is insufficient to say that Bush is a failure, or an idiot, if he can still be thought of as well intentioned. The lesson of Nazi Germany could not be learned without understanding what a thoroughly evil regime it had been. We need to do our own framing in the same terms.

    It is, after all, the metaphor which righties themselves use to demonize all enemies. They call upon themselves what they accuse.

  16. To counter the myth, the Democrats should follow Harry Reid’s example of a repetitive statement that the Iraqi debacle is the biggest blunder in the history of US foreign policy, and continually ask the American people..HOW DID THIS DISASTER HAPPEN?

    I agree, but maybe not 100%.

    Unlike most Bush opponents I think the Dems should attack them on their incompetent handling of the war and not just the fact that they started it to begin with. A lot of people seem to think that the “incompetence” thing is a “dodge” to try and deflect attention from the basic moral issues involved, but I think its a good way to challenge the myth that Republicans are better at war.

    I used to completely buy into that myth completely – it was after seeing the foolishness in Iraq that I realized that this belief wasn’t based on any evidence. I can’t really say it’s “false” or “true” because there just isn’t enough data to make any judgement either way.

  17. #21
    I think you’ve defined, in part, myth for me. It is neither false nor true, The Dems have to replace Repub myths with Dem myths.

    The “Daisy” ad may have done more to defeat Goldwater than any political speak ever could. Would election of Goldwater – the defeat of Johnson – really have resulted in a nuclear war? The ad was a Dem myth.

    Then there’s “Harry and Louise” a myth which probably did more to defeat health care reform than anything else. If someone had come along with an ad which conveyed the opposite of H&L’s they would have ended up in the bathroom waste-basket.

  18. #17 wrote:It is insufficient to say that Bush is a failure, if he can still be thought of as well intentioned

    There is an unfortunately high number of people who are not convinced of Bush’s evil. Beside, harping on evil without stating why only sounds like an ad hominem attack. Success will not come from adoption of conservative tactics and stressing evil makes no dent in others who otherwise might be made more acutely aware of dismal failures. Bush’s works speak for themselves and he has a long history of failing then blaming other’s for his failures. The gross disparity between his words and deeds are there for all to see.

    Given his acts others will make their decision based upon their personal concept of evil. people don’t like having morality stuffed down their throat by simply declaring “evil”. It is something entirely different to juxtapose Bush’s stated intent against results then pointing at the suffering it caused and the utter lack of works that beared nothing humane or just.

    Some will call that failure and others will call it evil but people don’t like morality stuffed down their throats from the left any more than we’ve liked it from the religious right.

    #21 wrote:Unlike most Bush opponents I think the Dems should attack them on their incompetent handling of the war and not just the fact that they started it to begin with….their miserable failures at every step and the misery they’ve caused by their acts, their benign neglect and their proactive grinding down of the middle and lower classes. Yup, that people know. That resonates.

    My moral bean counting calls that evil but it wouldn’t be my greatest source of strength in any rhetoric.

  19. Just wanted to say, the link Sven gives in #2 is fascinating – esp. for me, the comparison of two rhetorical responses: the administration’s prophetic dualism (Manichaean thinking; great battle between Good and Evil that can only end in total victory for one side, negotiation is surrender, etc. – see also the Cold War – and also how dissent then must be evil) vs. the left’s jeremiad.

    Given his argument about why the administration’s approach won, nakes me wonder if a certain form of the jeremiad (emphasized because remember, at its most extreme it gets into Ward Churchill (for the farfringe left) or Jerry Falwell (for the xtianist right) territory) might provide one proper narrative?
    – But I’m also start thinking of Mike the Mad Biologist’s post on Four Words that Distinguish Liberals from Conservatives (our version is “Because it can be better.” as opposed to ) – or as I’ve been dimly and platitidinally thinking, the politics of hope vs. fear. Or are these two things more two sides of a coin? We are lost – in a senseless war, in a land of broken levees and collapsing bridges and children who die because they don’t have health care – but we can be found?

    . . .I wonder if the apropriate theological analogy here is less puritan jeremiads and more related to renewal and rebirth?


    Anyway, the Philly Inquirer has a fine example of the mythomania discussed in the post, an opinion piece on A fine American forced out – about how the great Alberto Gonzales, who worked so hard to protect us from danger, is really a victim of lefties whose unhinged hatred for Bush leads them to try to destroy anyone loyal to “[him] and our nation”.

    One can see it as a good example, perhaps, at how fear & insecurity (the terrorists!) leads some folks veering off to a place (if not there already) where they need (and create, in their minds), these idealized, strong, perfectly good and right parent-protectors (I mean, look, he’s putting Gonzales on a pedestal, ignoring how one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement is how it was way past time for him to go), so that the only possible explanation for disagreement is hate-crazed treachery

  20. Pat, I don’t think I suggested we go around saying Bush is evil, I said that Nazi Germany was an evil regime. I do think it is fair to say that this administration has done evil things, like torturing people while lying and saying “we do not torture.” Should we not use the word at all?

  21. Help, Maha. I just commented on your most recent post on the Bushies, dumb or otherwise and when I submitted it the screen read sorry you don’t meet the criteria, or something like that. Did I do something wrong?

  22. “… the screen read sorry you don’t meet the criteria, or something like that. Did I do something wrong?”

    You gotta hold your mouth just right…

  23. “Translation: The Democrats are not saying what the writer’s mythos tells him Democrats believe. Therefore, the Dems are hiding their beliefs…..

    Translation: The George McGovern myth informs the writer that Democrats are “peaceniks” who will not defend America…. the writer doesn’t feel a need to justify his claim that Democrats can’t be trusted to handle national security. He just evokes McGovern”

    Hit the nail on the head.

    I used to buy into the myths too but eventually the disconnect between the myth and what I actually was seeing hit me.

    Its frustrating to deal with those who can’t seem to break out of it.

  24. Help, Maha. I just commented on your most recent post on the Bushies, dumb or otherwise and when I submitted it the screen read sorry you don’t meet the criteria, or something like that. Did I do something wrong?

    I didn’t know I had criteria, except that everyone’s supposed to fill in an email address. My spam filter must be having a bad day.

  25. “I do believe that we lefties need to create and promote some narratives of our own to counter the Right’s narratives”

    I think in general that what you write on here is excellent, but this may be looking in the wrong direction here.

    The Right didn’t plan the ‘stab in the back’ narrative, and then force people to believe it. It really did just happen. People are prone to believing what they want to believe (bolstered by the fact that the media also likes to tell people what they want to hear). Most of all they do not want to hear blame being placed upon themselves or people they identify with. This is how a whole slab of right wing narratives emerge. For my money, it’s what makes those narratives identifiably right wing in the first place.

    Right wingers in America, like most nationalists in most countries, have an unshakable faith that (among other things) America’s military is both morally perfect and physically undefeatable. Therefore they cannot tolerate any explanation of an event which suggests otherwise, and need a narrative to provide an alternative explanation – and to provide a scapegoat for the problem.

    In Vietnam, the military was defeated in a straight fight, and there remain serious moral questions about both the reasons for the war and its conduct. This cannot be squared with their absolutist faith in the military, and therefore a myth is required. It need not stand up to scientific scrutiny, or even in some cases make basic logical sense. The point about it is not its truth, but its patriotic value, and the provision of a scapegoat (liberals). The stab-in-the-back myth is ideal for these purposes.

    Similarly, I’d suggest the narrative about the terrible threat from Islam (which barely existed pre-2001) has been generated almost entirely by the same process. There was a need to square the belief in the moral perfectness of America with the torture and killing of civilians arising from the Iraq war, a war which really cannot be justified logically as retaliation for anything, or as preventing terrorism. Declaring all Muslims to be inherently terrorists in a single stroke both solves the problem of the torture and killing, and redefines the war in such a way that it has a purpose – and to boot it provides Muslim immigrants as a readily available local scapegoat for the resulting problems. The US military is therefore again made infallible, and all blame for the shortcomings of reality is diverted to people identified as being outside the group.

    You can find the same pattern in the right wing responses to global warming, especially in the attempts to divert blame onto third world population growth or some motiveless academic conspiracy, although a consistent myth has yet to be arrived at here. You can find the same pattern in right wing Serbian responses to the defeat in Bosnia. I could go on.

    The left wing (at least the liberal left) cannot invent and sustain these narratives, even if they were a good idea, since the left is far more concerned about truth than patriotic value or finding scapegoats to deflect blame. The liberal left’s narrative really should be the truth, not a myth. The real challenge is to make it understandable and accessible for everyone.

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