The tarnish is the flag…

05/17/2004

It’s probably evidence of the good that a couple of days off work can do to a man that I suddenly find myself able to write a brief post about politics – a subject that I’d normally handle with kid gloves attached to the end of a long barge-pole, itself glued to the end of some kind of excrement-encrusted stick. In my experience, most arguments about any subject function by flattening down complexities to tiny arguable issues. Normally we derive significant utility from this style of argument – but I think with politics our ability to find core and simple arguable issues disappears. With each person added to a political situation, the complexity grows exponentially, and when we try to reduce things down to first principles we end up with the sparsest and most atavistic of binaries – things like “them” and “us”, and appeals towards cheap solidarity or patriotism, desperate attempts at face-saving and feeble gestures towards self-interest.

Which brings me to a post from the 37 signals weblog called It’s good that you’re upset. It’s not an evil piece, it’s not even a stupid piece – it’s actually a desperately sad and mournful piece that tries to scrabble for positive meaning out of the behaviour of a small selection of incredibly stupid American servicemen overseas. Here’s a quotation:

The world is rightfully disgusted by the treatment of some Iraqi prisoners, but the fact that the world is outraged is a good sign that America is still held to a higher standard. The Arab street remained mostly quiet when Saddam tortured for three decades or when American soldiers were dragged through the streets and hung to dangle in public a few weeks back. And how many leaders in the Arab world will be outraged that one of their own ruthlessly beheaded an American contractor after forcing him to name his parents and his siblings (and donít forget about Daniel Pearl who had to admit he was a Jew before his head was cut off)? The world barely gave notice to the Talibanís systematic and despicable treatment of women in Afghanistan or the destruction of ancient works of irreplaceable art and culture. The world was barely interested in stopping the carnage in Bosnia until over a half-million were killed (and then the UN still didnít want to get involved). The world is still barely affected by the genocide taking place right now in Africa. But, when the US humiliates some Iraqi prisoners, people are outraged and are calling for resignations at the highest levels of our government. And thatís a good sign for America. Weíre held up to a higher standard and itís something we should be proud of. Not the vile treatment, of course, but the worldís response. Weíre in trouble when people stop caring about how we act as a nation.

I wish I could agree, because although the UK’s own parallel media situation has been resolved, I don’t doubt for a minute that some British soldiers somewhere have undertaken very similar actions to the ones that these American servicemen perpetrated. But to try and find in that evidence that the tarnish is so noticeable because the flags are so bright… Well, it’s pretty far from convincing.

The world is not looking towards these things as a momentary blip – that’s not why they’re so powerful. They’re seen as emblematic, as representative, as illustrative of a relationship that America has with the rest of the world. These actions are seen by people to be illustrations in microcosm – direct analogies – with the way America (and the UK) acted flagrantly without consent from the United Nations. They’re seen as directly illustrative of their disregard for international law, directly illustrative of America’s perception of itself as superior to the rest of the world and qualified to police all of it according to what best serves it’s own best interests. Those countries that are railing against America because of these pictures are not doing it because they’re holding America to a higher standard, they’re doing it because they finally feel they have human-scale evidence of the enormous insensitivity and clumsiness of the entire nation.

I think the most important thing I could say at this point is that it doesn’t matter whether that’s true or not. It doesn’t matter whether or not America is a rampaging power, it doesn’t even matter that an incredibly small minority of US forces have been behaving in this way or exposed. What matters here is that we in the west actually understand and accept that the stances of our governments are not seen by much of the world to be moral or good or positive, but rather self-serving, arrogant, interventionist and actually corrupt, and that pretending that we’re well-liked isn’t going to anyone any good.