Goldberg and Jarvis Fold;
And, The Real Meaning of ‘Fools Rush In’
I don’t take any pleasure in having been right about Iraq when they were wrong, or that they are they now are admitting it. I wish we could have avoided so much bloodshed and horror in Iraq, for our own troops and for the Iraqis. But I knew they weren’t right, three years ago. I wish the Bush administration had paid more attention to the costs of the war it planned in 2002, costs that I foresaw.
Jonah Goldberg now thinks the Iraq War was a mistake, even if a worthy one. He suggests that the Iraqis hold a referendum on whether they want US troops to stay or not. This suggestion displays a complete lack of confidence in the elected Iraqi parliament, which one would have thought was the appropriate body to represent their voters in making this call.
Ironically, Goldberg once insisted that he did not need to know anything about Iraq to judge whether the election of the Iraqi parliament was a success. Now he wants to bypass it with a referendum. Since there is no security in Iraq, of course, no fair referendum can be held. There could be no canvassing pro or con and no public meetings (they would be bombed). No political party or civic group could raise grass roots contributions for advertisements. The final vote could not even be held without the US military locking down the country for days and forbidding all vehicular traffic, and then standing with guns over the voters going to the polls. The fatwas of religious leaders would drown out civil debate.
In short, Iraq is such a mess that you could not even hold the sort of referendum Goldberg suggests as the way of determining what future policy should be. His proposal shows that he still does not understand the situation in Iraq, just as he did not when he could not grasp what I was saying about the Iraqi parliamentary elections being a “joke” given that candidates could not campaign and voters blindly voted for unknown candidates on the say-so of religious leaders’ fatwas. The parliament he so praised went on to fashion a constitution that stipulates that no legislation it passes may contravene Islamic law. And it allowed for provincial confederations that may well break up the country and plunge the oil-rich Persian Gulf region into decades of turbulence and war.
Goldberg wrote as a way of bringing to a close our debate nearly two years ago:
‘ Anyway, I do think my judgment is superior to his when it comes to the big picture. So, I have an idea: Since he doesn’t want to debate anything except his own brilliance, let’s make a bet. I predict that Iraq won’t have a civil war, that it will have a viable constitution, and that a majority of Iraqis and Americans will, in two years time, agree that the war was worth it. I’ll bet $1,000 (which I can hardly spare right now). This way neither of us can hide behind clever word play or CV reading.’
What was wrong with this is that you cannot, contrary to the canons of American punditry, actually separate out “judgment” and “knowledge.” Judgment comes out of knowledge and experience. Goldberg was sounding off on matters about which he just didn’t have much of either.
But note, too, that Goldberg has, since our debate, been hired by the Los Angeles Times to purvey his opinions regularly to the nation’s second largest city, while veteran reporter and Iraq War critic Bob Scheer was fired and is no longer at the Times. It doesn’t matter that Scheer was right and Goldberg was wrong. The important thing for the corporate media is that a pundit supports the status quo (whatever that is), not whether he or she makes epochal mistakes. The ability to produce and reproduce a narrow rhetoric in support of the projects of our plutocracy is what counts. No matter if those projects kill hundreds of thousands of people in the course of failing.
Then there is Jeff Jarvis. I first encountered him when he attacked me in the summer of 2003 for, he said, spending all day looking for bad news about Iraq. I wasn’t. I was just reading the Iraqi newspapers and paraphrasing what was on the front page. A budding guerrilla war was on them, which the US press was largely ignoring, and bloggers like Jarvis were ignoring, because they had swallowed Bush administration propaganda. (Rumsfeld actually denied that there was a guerrilla war. Imagine.) I was taken aback to be savaged by the former editor of TV Guide for my attempts to honestly report the situation in the Middle East. It is not that he was so utterly and laughably wrong (and ignorant) that I mind about Jarvis, but the viciousness with which he attacked the critics of the war and its execution. He marshalled all of his considerable credibility on the Web to act as a bulwark against an early recognition that things were going badly wrong and being “spun” to hide it.
Not Bush, not Rumsfeld, not Wolfowitz, not Goldberg, not Jarvis, knew anything serious about Iraqi history, religion or society. But they were going to “democratize” it with a foreign military occupation. I’ll wager none of them knew anything serious about French Algeria or British Egypt, the sort of experience Arabs had in the 20th century with the “liberty” of being occupied by Westerners.
Neither Jarvis nor Goldberg has any wisdom for us now in how to get out of this quagmire without the world coming down around our ears.
But it was never about Iraq. It was about the all-purpose punditocracy, the vicious jab, the smearing of those with whom one disagrees, in the service of the rich and powerful. It is about the cheapening of our democracy, the termite-like boring at the pillars of our republic. Goldberg began by attacking me for saying that the 1997 elections in Iran were more democratic than the January 2005 election in Iraq. He did not critique my reasoning in saying this. He just attacked me. It turns out that he didn’t even know anything about the 1997 elections in Iran. Likewise, Jarvis did not actually present any arguments about my coverage of Iraq, he just accused me of spinning it negatively. It is easy to make such an accusation, but hard to do the research and engage in the years of study it would require to address the substance of my weblog.
It isn’t about Iraq. It is about the way our discourse was debased by Bush administration triumphalism.
I’ll close with a fuller quotation of Alexander Pope’s famous phrase than is usually given. I apologize for the difficulty of the language, but hope readers will try to work through it and grasp what he is driving at. Because he was not just talking about ignorant fools, but also about learned ones. And what he was saying is that civil society is best served not by polemic but by urbane understanding. It is something we can strive for over here, even if we don’t have any good solutions for the Iraq catastrophe. And if we had more of what Pope recommends, maybe we wouldn’t have so many quagmires.
‘Nay, fly to Altars; there they’ll talk you dead;
For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.
Distrustful Sense with modest Caution speaks;
It still looks home, and short Excursions makes;
But ratling Nonsense in full Vollies breaks;
And never shock’d, and never turn’d aside,
Bursts out, resistless, with a thundering Tyde!
But where’s the Man, who Counsel can bestow,
Still pleas’d to teach, and not proud to know?
Unbiass’d, or by Favour or by Spite;
Not dully prepossest, nor blindly right;
Tho’ Learn’d well-bred; and tho’ well-bred, sincere;
Modestly bold, and Humanly severe?
Who to a Friend his Faults can freely show,
And gladly praise the Merit of a Foe?
Blest with a Taste exact, yet unconfin’d;
A Knowledge both of Books and Humankind;
Gen’rous Converse; a Soul exempt from Pride;
And Love to Praise, with Reason on his Side? ‘