2005 04 02
Speaking of Zimbabwe . . .
Shortly after writing that last snarky post about Zimbabwe’s elections, I met a Zimbabwean at my wife’s show last night. An interesting woman. She works as a reporter for the U.N. here in NYC, in which capacity she interviewed Mugabe herself a few years ago. She told me that he emphatically declared in the interview that he wouldn’t run again. She laughed, a bit bitterly, at how that declaration turned out.
The conversation had an interesting dynamic. When I first mentioned the election, she seemed defensive, and a bit reluctant to criticize Mugabe. Most of her ire seemed directed at the opposition, whom she characterized as feckless and unwilling to address any of the structural problems that had brought Zimbabwe to its current crisis. But it became clear that her reluctance to bash away at Mugabe was a response to the function that Mugabe-bashing often seems to play in the Western media, and certainly not a reflection of any admiration for the man. She felt – and I think there’s something to it – that Mugabe-bashing can be entirely truthful and yet still play an objectionable role: that of whitewashing both the deep inequities in landholding in the country and, more importantly, the historical role of the British in the current crisis. It needn’t be that way, of course. But it often seems to be. (See this interesting post on Crooked Timber for an interesting take on the matter.) Once it was clear that I had no objection in principle to a view which casts blame more broadly, her reservations about Mugabe-bashing seemed to fall away, and she was quite frank about the terrible damage that he had inflicted on the country without any help from the British or anyone else.
A lot of political discourse seems to work this way. Facts that are uncontroversial, or ought to be uncontroversial, become politicized. When that happens we (often reasonably) end up paying as much attention to the role that citing them plays in our political discourse as to their truth. The most obvious recent example of this is surely the way that many of us have argued over how to understand and represent the depredations of the Ba’ath regime in Iraq. Opponents of the war are often accused to wanting to pass over this awful history in silence, since opposing the war meant, among other things, opposing a war that would finish off the regime responsible for the horrors.
Well, perhaps in some cases. It’s a big world, and there are a lot of consciences I can’t even hazard a guess about. But in a lot of cases, it seems to me that reluctance to dwell on the sordid history of the Ba’ath regime is more a response to the role that that history has come to play in the political debate about the Iraq War than a reflection of a guilty conscience. Often citing that history really means: Let’s not dwell on Western complicity in these or similar horrors. It means: Let’s not dwell on what this Western complicity in past horrors suggests for future involvement in the region. So I think I can understand the impatience that some people feel when the conversation is turned, yet again, to selected aspects of the history of Iraq, since the rhetorical force of the move is to push us away from an examination of other facts which are just as relevant to the debate. You can short-circuit a debate with the truth, as well as with lies.
For my part, I prefer another rhetoric about Iraq altogether. I prefer a rhetoric about Iraq and the Iraq War that puts the barbarity of the Ba’ath regime right up front. I think it’s a more truthful rhetoric, and also a more effective one. It’s more effective in large part because it helps to make the point that you can be perfectly frank about Iraq’s awful history and still have opposed the removal of the regime that did so much to make it awful. Skirting over that point can come to seem like an implicit concession that dwelling too much on the character of the Ba’athist regime would lead you to support it’s removal. And that’s not a concession that I’m willing to make, and not one I would ever want to imply.
Thinking about things this way leads me to wonder if the “other side” downplays certain facts (say, about the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East) not because they refuse to accept them (as I often assume), but because they object to the role that citing these facts plays in our political discourse about the U.S.’s role in international affairs. Some of our interlocutors might turn out to be more reasonable, and less dishonest, than they seem, if that is the reason for some of the selectivity and silence we see in their rhetoric. It isn’t the way I would go myself, but the motive here is less rotten than the one that I typically project on my interlocutors.
Howls of outrage (2)