Monday, July 24, 2006

The Abyss Gazing Back

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146
German philosopher (1844 - 1900)

Possibly because I was in an ornery mood, I chose, on Friday afternoon, to visit a rightwing political site with the goal of getting a true measure of conservative thought on the Israel/Hezbollah conflict. I am chock full of opinions on what motivates American conservatives, and I wanted to see if my biases were simply too great or if conservatism really has warped into something awful. The blog was Ace of Spades (Google it if you're interested) and it's somewhat of a poor man's Free Republic. There was much name-calling and ad hominem attacks on my political affiliations (Yes, I am a "Draft Gore 'moonbat'") but some of the commenters actually rose up and attempted to have a somewhat reasonable discussion. It's that discussion that left me feeling particularly bleak about the prospects of living in conservative America.

See, I can deal with the name calling and the "I hate you 'cause yer not on my team" crowd-following that occurs at any large blog. What I have a hard time wrapping my head around is the realization that, in the debate between liberals and conservatives over the Middle East, we're not even close to arguing the same thing. A common myth about political discourse in the U.S. is that both liberals and conservatives are working towards the common goal of a better America and only differ on the particulars of how to create that America. While being complete garbage, this myth persists largely because it's comforting to us liberals. We generally like to believe the best of everyone and it confirms our worldview to believe that our opponents on the Right are acting with good intentions. Sadly, that's not the case.

Every debate I've had about the Israel/Hezbollah conflict and every discussion I've read about it on progressive blogs has been premised on one goal: end the violence. Progressives are busy discussing how to bring the conflict back under control and have been outraged at our government's lack of a response. We see the lives being lost on each side and we wonder how to stem the tide of bloodshed that threatens to flood the whole region. We want the Israeli and Lebanese people out of danger and in a position to put their lives back together, just as we'd want if we were caught up in a similar conflict. We want all the relevant parties to sit down together and work out solutions that bring at least a modicum of stability to the two countries' borders and that establish a way forward for greater security. And many of us, myself included, actually believed that conservatives wanted at least some of that. I no longer believe that.

After reading and/or debating at many conservative blogs, reading conservative pundits and conservative think-tank treatises, I finally think I understand the conservative point of view on the conflict. And it ain't pretty...

First, conservatives view the world in very stark black and white, "good guys vs. bad guys" terms. This view frames every debate they have about foreign policy. In the sphere of conservative thought the U.S. and Israel are always, ALWAYS the "good guys". Criticism of either is not welcome, unless it is set in this black and white framework. Thus, a discussion of the current Middle East conflict is almost a non-starter for conservatives. Since Israel must be the "good guy", anyone Israel opposes is, by default, the "bad guy" and thus is deserving of whatever actions Israel takes.

Second, conservatives have no moral problem with the concept of collective punishment. There have been precious few cries for moderation in the Israeli response to Hezbollah's kidnapping raid and most of those have been transparent attempts by the Bush administration to curry favor with our few Arab allies. Conservative ideology holds that there is simply no such thing as an "innocent civilian" in Lebanon these days; since Hezbollah is entrenched in the country, the people must somehow be tacitly approving Hezbollah's presence. There is no talk about mitigating circumstances, about Hezbollah terrorists forcing their presence and their goals on people too economically poor and politcally powerless to resist. For a great example illustrating this line of thought, just read this gut-wrencher from Alan Dershowitz (via Digby):

The Israeli army has given well-publicized notice to civilians to leave those areas of southern Lebanon that have been turned into war zones. Those who voluntarily remain behind have become complicit. Some — those who cannot leave on their own — should be counted among the innocent victims.

If the media were to adopt this "continuum," it would be informative to learn how many of the "civilian casualties" fall closer to the line of complicity and how many fall closer to the line of innocence.

Which brings me to a third facet of conservative thought on this war: dehumanization. Conservatives seem to have little care for the human costs of what Israel is doing in Lebanon. I have no desire to follow the ideological spiral downward that lets conservatives justify the bombing of civilian targets or, worse, leads them to make the "Middle East as a huge plate of radioactive glass" argument. That argument certainly exists and it shows an anti-social lack of empathy that is almost psychopathic in its nature. Under the "good guys vs. bad guys" framing, no amount of death and destruction is too little to vanquish the "bad guy".

All three of these lead me to my final point about the conservative response to this conflict, and it is the most telling reason why no debate between liberals and conservatives is fruitful on this issue. At the bottom line, conservatives do not consider peace a good outcome. They actually embrace war as the better option. Conservatives believe that war, and the flexing of military might, is the greatest show of strength in which a given state can engage. To them, diplomacy and statecraft are essentially the tools of those too weak (in reality, too principled) to use force indiscriminately. They see war as the ultimate shaping event in human history, equating all wars as having the possibility of vanquishing evil from the world in the way conservatives believe WWII did. Aside from being a gross misunderstanding of history, this view also fails to recognize that the problems being experienced today in much of the world are descended directly from that post-war era. War has never been a good fix for human problems, only an expedient one and even then only for the victorious.

We progressives have no "flip side of the coin" to work with towards common goals today; if, indeed, we ever did. Conservatives don't want peace and prosperity in the Middle East. They want a war that leaves our "enemies" crippled for all time, destitute and powerless. Where progressives see the potential for a global community, conservatives retreat behind nativist isolationism, cheering wars they don't see fit to fight and which will never yield the outcomes conservatives desire anyway. It's a terrible combination of fear and loathing, wrapped up in a violent belligerence against those deemed "foreign". A useless waste of philosophy and easily manipulated, as the Bush administration has shown time and time again.

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