Helplessness and War

January 13, 2007

In her book “Self-Therories,” Carol Dweck describes two broad categories of students – those who display helpless responses in the face of difficulty, and those who display mastery-oriented responses. They are roughly equal in their prevalence and overall intelligence and performance, and together account for 85% of students – these are, it seems, the two basic typologies of self among students and learners. She writes,

“…the helpless response is not just an accurate appraisal of the situation. It is a reaction to failure that carries negative implications for the self and that impairs students’ ability to use their minds effectively.”

It’s not difficult to see the parallels to contemporary political discourse in this statement. On any range of issues – and on either and both side of many debates – we see the helplessness response pop up, time and again. Many committed environmentalists regard global warming as “too big” a problem to possibly even address; many Democratic activists before last November’s elections invented scenarios grand and small for why they would never be able to regain power; many social conservatives regard American culture as “too sick” to possibly survive; etc., ad infinitum.

But the blade cuts both ways, and the helpless response can also result in tremendous obstinancy, as Dweck demonstrates with an historical example:

“Richard Nixon, in the wake of the Watergate hearings, was facing almost certain impeachment and conviction. Yet for a long time he refused to give up his presidency, saying, “You’re never a failure until you give up. He was equating giving up not simply with failure but with being a failure.”

The parallels from this particular obstinancy to the present day are also obvious – as Atrios has been saying for a long time (at least a year):

We will never leave Iraq while George Bush is president, because they’ve decided that leaving is losing.

Is all politics really this simple – is it possible to explain the most important, life-and-death, war-and-peace issues based on a simple typology of childhood learning styles? I’m coming around to the belief that perhaps this is the case.


Culture and Culpability

January 10, 2007

These next few months, I’m going to be focusing especially on culture and identity…because the raw bits of the several thousand pages of reading I do on that stuff is gonna have to go somewhere.

Atrios yesterday pointed out something that’ll probably be getting a lot of play in coming weeks:

Not going to place bets either way, but it will be interesting to see how wingnuttia responds to Dinesh D’Souza’s latest book. From the back cover blurb of the book which showed up in my mail today;

The cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11.

There you go.

This didn’t come from nowhere, either. It’s a meme that emerged as early as…well, as early as two days after 9/11, when Jerry Falwell said,

“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.'”

He apologized, but the die was cast – and it didn’t come from nowhere. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t just a case of crazy people being crazy, but that in a very important way, this claim – this kind of claim – is true to some people. It’s the same way of thinking that ascribes blame for the United States’ defeat in Viet Nam to the forces of the cultural left, who “undermined the will” of the country to fight, and is already doing the same regarding the debacle in Iraq.

This way of thinking is thrives both on triumphalism – the belief in the inherent rightness of the views and actions of its preferred parties and actors – and martyrdom – the belief that any episodes of failure can only be attibutable to insidious undermining forces from within. Given such a mindset, it is a short step to the next logical rhetorical strategy – eliminationist rhetoric. For if it is only insidious internal forces that stand in the way of eternal success, what option is there but to do away with those dissenters?

This is, needless to say, a dangerous and inherently anti-democratic outlook, superstitious in the extreme and not even acknowledging things like reason and empiricism (indeed, these are often the tools of the undermining forces). But it is nonetheless a major trope in contemporary American discourse, and ought to be acknowledged and addressed as such. That it is also the rantings of the vaguely mad does nothing to change the fact that it holds a powerful sway over our national conversation.

Post-Reality: a Case Study

September 8, 2006

There has been an enormous and deserved furor in the blogosphere (again – hate that word, but it is what it is) these past few days about “The Path to 9/11,” an ABC-produced mini-series that may or may not air this Sunday and Monday, wherein outrageous fabrications are represented as though they were events which actually occurred. Better and more thorough coverage of these misrepresentations and some of their truly terrifying implications (which I may discuss more, later) can be found here, here and here.

Of all the commentary, Bob Somerby’s non-minced words of this past Wednesday are perhaps the most instructive for my purposes:

“…what can you say about ABC? Plainly, this upcoming show is a form of Stosselism, in which the network provides an alternate menu for its dumbest pseudo-con viewers. This used to be called a “broadcast” network. Now, they narrow-cast to the intellectually challenged—and make a sick joke of our public discourse. Sorry, but the American system—indeed, the western experiment—simply can’t function this way.”

As is often the case, I might have chosen slightly different words than Somerby’s incomparable phrasing. “Dumb” isn’t quite right, as many intelligent people believe the perfectly false claims of “The Path to 9/11” and even more outrageous fictions about our recent history and current politics. But on the larger points, Somerby is dead right.

In this case, and increasingly so across all areas of content, ABC (like all of its broadcast competitors) is designing its content not to appeal to a single mass audience but to one of the four or five Americas [I would actually contend that in addition to the four or five, there are probably 20 or 30 large sub-Americas – but more on that later].

The good old days were never as good as we’d like to believe – remember, advertising used to be read by the anchors on the evening news (radio and TV). And though there was an idea that broadcast television really was broadcasting, even that wasn’t quite right: it was disseminating a consensus reality, but that consensus was one by, for and about middle-aged, straight, white, Christian men. That was America, and suffice to say that that consensus is no longer operative.

Instead, there are now many competing narratives, and “The Path to 9/11” embodies a particular narrative of American history and identity that strongly emphasizes nearly every bad outcome in the country’s history as being a “stab in the back” from internal political enemies. Invariably, those enemies end up being members of the political left. The “betrayal of Yalta” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Who “lost China”? Harry S Truman – and Korea, too. And Cuba? Amazingly, John F. Kennedy gets the blame here. And on and on – Lyndon Johnson “lost Viet Nam”; Jimmy Carter gave away American hemispheric dominance with the Panama Canal, and somehow comes in for blame in the ascendance of the Iranian Revolution; and, finally, Bill Clinton is to blame for 9/11, an act perpetrated nearly a year after George W. Bush’s ascendancy, and for which his national security team specifically warned Bush’s incoming officials.

It almost goes without saying that this particular group-identity – broadly, contemporaray American conservatives (not entirely, but most who ascribe to this notion are contained therein) – affix the blame never on themselves but on their politically-mistaken countrymen while at the same time taking on-board the full credits of martyrdom for the events.

Again, I want to emphasize how right Somerby is: the American and Western democratic systems cannot function like this, for two chief reasons:

  1. These particular interpretations of history are provably false, and
  2. Inherent in the idea of democracy is collective responsibility for the acts of a government. You might not have voted for a particular administration or legislature, but by your sanctioning of the process, you have agreed to abide by the results of the contest – and thus, by the outcomes of its policies.

ABC, by tailoring their programming on this incredibly important event of recent history to suit the view of one and only one group of cultural and political identity, cheapens not only the value of truth in broadcasting and a responsible public dialogue – these are, after all, our airwaves – but undermines a core tenet of our democratic system. The media is at its core a means of communicating information – be that information news, entertainment, or whatever else – and the media hold an important place in our political system. Freedom of the press, after all, was enshrined as our most important right, and no press fixated on appeals to narrow groups of interest and identity – regardless of considerations of truth or accuracy – can rightly be regarded as free.

War and Information – Cont’d

August 30, 2006

A while back I wrote about the new methods of propaganda and discourse at work in the most recent conflagration between Israel and Lebanon. One of Israel’s, let’s say major annoyances in this latest iteration of a long conflict, was its inability to get Hezbollah’s satellite TV station, al-Manar, off the air.

Now, via Defensetech, comes word that where bombing physical installations failed, Israel is looking at a technical fix: blocking al-Manar’s frequency. But it’s not quite so simple as just getting Hezbollah off the air – from Defensetech:

…according to [an Israeli] executive, jamming a communications satellite is “like interfering with civil aviation. You can do it, but it’s against international law and you’ll be subject to all kinds of lawsuits.”

It is technologically impossible, he said, to selectively jam only those satellite signals that carry enemy broadcasts.

“Everything goes out as a single beam, and it is impossible to jam only those channels viewed as a threat,” the executive said. “If you make the decision to interfere with one [satellite signal], then you must be prepared to face the consequences of the collateral damage incurred to the many other legitimate users of the signal.”

Robert Ames, chief executive of the Satellite Users Interference Reduction Group… said it is relatively easy to jam a specific satellite transponder.

“Transponders are separated by frequency,” he said. “All you have to do is know the frequency which it operates on and then put up a signal that is stronger than the programming carrier of the satellite…

Talk about asymmetric warfare. Hezbollah lobs Ketushyas at northern Israeli towns – Israel takes out the sat feed for al-Manar…and, oops, guess you can’t watch the latest football matches, either.

War and Information

August 14, 2006

It appears that the most recent chapter of the Israel-Lebanon war is close to wrapping up; I’d like to go back and examine some observations from the beginning of this conflict. Anthony Bourdain wrote in Salon of being stuck in Lebanon as Israeli airstrikes began:

“…in the blink of an eye, everything went sideways: Relaxed smiles froze and disappeared. Suddenly, there was the sound of automatic weapons firing randomly in the air from a nearby neighborhood. And fireworks. Then cars — a few of them — teenage kids, women and adults, some leaning out the windows and waving Hezbollah flags and flashing the “V” for victory sign, celebrating what we were told, after a few quick cellphone calls, was the grabbing of two Israeli soldiers. Our fixer, a Sunni; Ali, a Shiite; and “Marwan,” a Christian, who’d just minutes ago been pointing proudly at the mural — all three looked down in embarrassment, a look of sorrow, shame and then resignation on their faces. Someone muttered “assholes” bitterly. They knew — right away — what was going to happen next.

Our irregular “intel” (Mr. Wolfe’s favorite word) consists of printed analysis from a faraway corporate security company (useless speculation), BBC News (pretty good), local TV (excellent — though in Arabic), the Hizballah Channel (scary), Sky News (shockingly up-to-date and thorough), Some Guy From the Pool (almost always on target. He accurately predicts locations and times of airstrikes and seems to know which countries’ citizens are getting out and when), Somebody’s Mom Back in the States (excellent source), and Mr. Wolfe’s printouts from the AOL News Web site (always discouraging). We’ve heard the Israeli prime minister talk of knocking back Lebanon 20 years. And we believe him. We hear of pleasure boats filled with European nationals being turned back by Israeli ships. We call the embassy day after day and get no response. Nothing. Officially — after days of war — the State Department advice is to visit its Web site. Which contains nothing of use.

We watch the city we’d barely begun to know — and yet already started to love — destroyed, seemingly (from where we’re sitting) without sense or reason. We watch Blackhawk helicopters fly in and out of the embassy and hear panicked rumors that they’re evacuating the ambassador (false) and “non-essential personnel” (true, I believe). Around the pool, the increasingly frustrated, mostly Lebanese Americans exchange rumors and information gleaned from never-ending cellphone conversations with we don’t know who: relatives in the south, friends back in America, people who’ve already made it out. Friends who’ve spoken to their congressman. Guys who work at CNN. The list goes on. The news maddening, incomplete, incorrect — alternately hopeful, terrifying and dismaying.

The hotel empties and fills and empties again. We hear:

“The Italians got out!”
“The fucking Romanians got out!”
“The French are gone!”

What is clear — as far as we’re concerned — from all sources is that there is no official, announced plan. No real advice, or information, or public exit strategy or timetable. The news clip of President Bush, chawing open-mouthed on a buttered roll, then grabbing at another while Tony Blair tries to get him to focus on Lebanon — plays over and over on the TV, crushing our spirits and dampening all hope with every glassy-eyed mouthful. He seems intent on enjoying his food; Lebanon a tiny, annoying blip on an otherwise blank screen. I can’t tell you how depressing that innocuous bit of footage is to watch. That one, innocent, momentary preoccupation with a roll has a devastating effect on us that is out of all proportion. We’re looking for signs. And this, sadly, is all we have.

In the end we are among the lucky ones. The privileged, the fortunate, the relatively untouched. Unlike the Lebanese Americans who make it out, we don’t leave homes and loved ones behind, we will get out and return to business as usual. To unbroken homes, intact families, friends and jobs.

On the flight deck of the USS Nashville they’ve set up a refugee camp… On the smoking deck, a Marine shows off a Reuter’s cover photo — taken only a few hours earlier — of himself, nuzzling two babies as he carries them through the surf to the landing craft. His buddies are razzing him, busting his balls for how intolerably big-headed he’s going to be — now that he’s “famous.” He looks at the picture and says, “You don’t know what it felt like, man.” His eyes well up.

A Lebanon I never got to know, a Beirut I didn’t get to show the world disappears slowly over the horizon — a beautiful dream turned nightmare. It’s not what I saw happen in Beirut that I feel like talking about, though that’s what I’m doing, isn’t it? It’s not about what happened to me that remains an unfinished show, a not fully fleshed out story, or even a particularly interesting one. It feels shameful even writing this. It’s the story I didn’t get to tell. The Beirut I saw for two short days. The possibilities. The hope. Now only a dream.”[emphases added]

I don’t think there’s a whole lot that I can add to Bourdain’s observations (for one, I wasn’t there; for a second, he’s just a better writer); others have far better and more complete takes on the machinations of the war itself.

One thing I will say (that Bourdain touches on), is that this conflict shows how the democratization of information (both push and pull) is changing the nature of propaganda. Israel has some understanding of this

From mass targeting of mobile phones with voice and text messages to old-fashioned radio broadcasts warning of imminent attacks, Israel is deploying a range of old and new technologies in Lebanon as part of the psychological operations (“psyops”) campaign supplementing its military attacks.”

– and so does Hezbollah, using its satellite television station al-Manar to keep its compatriots (and its supporters throughout the Arab and Muslim world) aware of their take on the hostilities. Indeed, the continued existenct of al-Manar was a powerful propaganda tool in itself, as Israel repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) tried to destroy their facilities.

I think that this post from John Robb is a good way to close:

“If there was just one Nasrallah in every Arab country — one person with his dedication, intelligence, courage, strength and commitment — Arabs would not have had to suffer stolen land and defeat at the hands of Israel for 50 years,” said an Arab celebrity, Kuwaiti actor Daoud Hussein on Al-Jazeera. (Faiza Saleh Ambah, Arab World Riveted by Coverage of the ‘Sixth War.” Washington Post. August 14, 2006.)

This quote reflects an increasingly common desire: that global guerrillas (non-state forces that use 4GW tactics) are the only way to provide protection against external foes (and potentially against the depredations of their own internationally impotent but domestically repressive governments). Hezbollah’s victory (locked in by the ceasefire that will, despite its language, allow the group to retain both its tactical and strategic capabilities) has engineered a sea change in perception.

But it’s not just the use of 4GW on a purely military level – it’s the ability of these non- (and in the case of Hezbollah, quasi-) state actors to effectively and broadly communicate their message to a local, regional and global polity that’s effected this sea change in perception.