Tuesday, August 09, 2005

... But Words Will Never Hurt Me? -- Part II

OK. Having established in the previous post that we are all bastards for speaking out against the war, let's see if there are any other "free-expressers" amongst us worthy of derision. Fair is fair, after all.

Because, this is the real problem for those who would criticize our dissent. If there is a valid argument to be made against critics of the war, that argument must have some objective basis. Moreover, the application of that argument cannot be limited to the voices one hopes to silence. Everyone has to play by the same rules. Anything less is rank hypocrisy.

Now, there are literally hundreds of examples from pro-war conservatives that I could choose to analyze here -- it's a real target rich environment, if you know what I mean. But, I don't want to be here all day (and, I'm sure, neither do you). So, let's just focus on one of the rhetorical themes in heavy rotation over at the "Excellence in Broadcasting" network.

Club G'itmo.

For those of you who are blessedly unaware of this particular Limbaugh monstrosity, Rush has for months been portraying the Guantánamo Bay internment experience as a sort of Caribbean vacation getaway. In the Limbaugh universe, the allegations of prisoner mistreatment are to be cast aside and ridiculed -- a source of humor rather than a fountain of shame. And lest you be under the impression that this particular piece of humor was a fleeting moment of distastefulness, be sure to head over to the Club G'itmo gift shop where you can pick up a "What Happens in G'itmo Stays in G'itmo" T-shirt, among many, many other things.

So -- what is the result of such free expression?

First, let's begin as we did before -- by examining the intended audience. Some, like the pre-converted base, those potentially won over, and the policymakers, are no different than the intended targets of liberal dissent. They may not be represented entirely by the same individuals, and they are certainly being pushed in the opposite direction, but they are completely analogous in their relationship to the speaker. Nothing too interesting there.

However, Rush (and those like him) are clearly speaking to others as well. Whereas soldiers were ancillary recipients of the liberal message, they are most certainly a direct target of such conservative sentiments. Whether or not they will hear the intended message is an interesting question. Some will appreciate the dehumanization of the enemy and/or the nationalistic zeal being expressed. Others, who are all too aware that they, too, might someday be a prisoner of war, may find such discussion distasteful. On balance, it's hard to say whether or not this audience perceives the Club G'itmo meme as a net positive. Probably yes, but I could see it going either way.

Also off the list of unintended liberal message recipients is the insurgent/terrorist. And here, the message is crystal clear: F*ck you! But, again, I'm not sure if anything is gained from getting this point across. Perhaps this is heard as a statement of solidarity against the enemy, but, then again, perhaps not (or not to any significant degree). In the end, the jury is out on this crowd.

And then, there are the unintended listeners. Here we find, perhaps unsurprisingly, people that liberals were speaking to directly: our European allies and the Muslim community in general. Since the message is crafted for domestic consumption, it should not come as a shock to learn that the international reception is somewhat cold. Rush couches this rhetoric in a veil of humor, but he is kidding on the square and no one, least of all this international audience, is fooled. In fact, "the square" is almost certainly the primary takeaway for this group.

That such a large portion of the international audience would be the recipient of so negative a message is of no small consequence. If we ever wish to have international support for other overseas military adventures, it serves us to be seen as serious, rational, and respectful of international norms. If we ever wish to win over the Muslim "street", humor predicated upon a cavalier dismissal of abuse allegations -- allegations that center around Islamic taboos perpetrated against individuals who are, at times, innocent of any real crime -- could not be more toxic.

On the other hand, if you are interested in producing the next generation of terrorists, humor like this is just the ticket.

Clearly, as with liberal dissent, there is a problem with rhetoric of this nature. There is some bang, but plenty of blowback. And it is the existence of this blowback in nearly any public communication that makes such criticism so hollow. Liberals may be undermining the war effort, but conservatives are fanning the flames of Islamic discontent. Which is worse?

Of course, both liberals and conservatives would have their own answers to that last question. I'm sure that would be an interesting discussion, as each side tried to explain why their rhetoric was a net positive. But, the important thing is that it would be a complicated issue to resolve. Simply identifying the existence of a negative -- as conservative critics tend to do -- ignores the reality that negatives always exist. If that were the only standard, none of us would ever get to speak.

As a final note, I want to promote an idea that commenter Avedis shared with us in the comment thread from Part I of this post.
…bad foreign policy hurts more than dissent ever could AND…bad foreign policy is self evident to all parties; Ultimately, no amount of silencing of domestic criticism can hide it. Nor can any amount of domestic dissent further elucidate it.

Furthermore, perhaps most important,***dissent generally reaches critical mass only as a result of bad policy***.
Which is to say that perhaps -- just perhaps -- all this talk about the negative consequences of dissent (or of any public communication) is just a distraction from real issues. It might be a good indicator of what the real issues are, but it certainly isn't the problem itself. Trying to find a clear rationale for squelching free expression based upon directly generated bad outcomes is (as I hope this post demonstrates) a fool's errand.

I, for one, have better things to do with my time.

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