Proud member of the Robert Scheer fanclub

The former journalist (I have no idea what he’s supposed to be these days) has handed us a wonderful, wonderful putdown in his latest scribbling for Salon.

Writes Scheer: “Sometimes the truth can be so banal it hurts.” Replace “the truth” with “I” and you have the perfect summation of Robert Scheer circa 2002. On an average day he runs circles around Michael Kelly for the coveted title of Worst Columnist in the English Language (Living).

As a fan of Andrew Sullivan, I’m often irritated when his detractors claim his latest piece is “drivel” or “incoherent.” I’ve been following Sullivan’s weblog for about 18 months now and I have seldom been disappointed with his command of language. But Scheer? His handling of English would embarass Ike after his first stroke. The man molests the lexicon.

Here we go:

Cut through the hogwash of a year’s worth of lofty Sept. 11 postmortems and dire warnings that the world is out to get us, and one is left with the reality that the day of infamy could easily have been avoided.

Bad usage. A postmortem is almost always a medical term, or at least an analytical term. It is not a synonym for “elegy.” Scheer might as well be criticising a “lofty autopsy” – in other words, he’s writing gibberish. “Cut through the hogwash” is a mixed metaphor, but not an unforgivable one. It suffers in the context of this sentence. The usage of “hogwash” as a cloak over “reality” is peculiar … it makes sense, but it reads poorly. I don’t understand why he uses the blank article “the” for “day of infamy” – it sort of neuters the last clause.

The uniquely clear and overt terrorist threat of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization to the United States, its bloody track record in attacking U.S. targets overseas, and even the exact location of its base of operations were all known by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

This is a stunningly poor use of the term “uniquely.” Of course there have been equally overt terrorist threats. In the last 50-odd years, Mossad has acted to neutralize them, to give a well-known example. I don’t think anyone can say that bin Laden had the best (worst?) PR of any terrorist – others have made it more clear when they were the force behind an attack. And no, we didn’t know the exact locus of al-Qaida. It is a network with multiple cells. It has been since its formation.

Tragically, however, for embarrassingly petty bureaucratic and political reasons, both presidents were unwilling or unable to take the monster out.

One of the reasons U.S. forces did not marshal an attack against al-Qaida a few years ago was the regime change – coup, if you will – in Pakistan. I am eager to know how Scheer suggests U.S. intelligence could have changed this. “Unwilling or unable” is an obvious slander.

The lavish budgets of our intelligence agencies allowed us to read the license plates of vehicles in al-Qaida’s training camps from space and even caught snapshots of the bearded one from cameras mounted on CIA Predator drones. Our contacts on the ground knew all about bin Laden’s terror operation because his Afghanistan and Pakistan government sponsors were originally organized, financed and trained by the CIA to wage the first U.S.-sponsored Islamic “holy war” against the Soviets.

Thought experiment: If these terrible presidents had been “willing” to take out Osama, would price have been an object? Would it matter if a budget were “lavish”? Scheer’s comments about the CIA-bin Laden link are growing tiresome. If his point is that the U.S. should be ashamed to fight any force related to a force it once supported, he is a fool. History would turn on its head if that were the way things worked.

It was bad enough that through our Cold War actions in the Muslim world we helped create the “Islamic threat” — an epithet now commonly employed to slander one of the world’s great religions. But even worse, the CIA ignored the boomerang effect until that infamous day when it turned into our worst nightmare.

Ah, there it is – the strawman. Who is the Big Brother figure pitting us against the “Islamic threat”? There isn’t one. The actual U.S. government, as opposed to the boogeyman Scheer wants to believe in, is careful to clarify that de facto Islam is not the threat. Scheer used to know this: last year he wrote that “President Bush is right in declaring that Islam is not our enemy.” And a short review of the last decade of covert operations will show that the CIA never “ignored” the actions of al-Qaeda. Scheer said as much in his last paragraph. Does anyone edit this guy?

At home, FBI honchos dismissed field operatives’ warnings of an amateurish invasion of U.S. flight schools by bin Laden’s operatives. The FBI has claimed that it had insufficient manpower to track down these terrifying leads. Yet during that same period, the bureau squandered tens of thousands of agent hours obsessively shadowing and interrogating Wen Ho Lee, a Los Alamos scientist who was never charged with spying.

This is a little meatier. It assumes that the FBI is run like a stratego game where every piece can be moved at a moment’s notice to do anything, but, still, it’s a valid complaint.

Speaking of obsessions, Saddam Hussein, dead or alive, had nothing to do with Sept. 11, much as we’d like to find an excuse for going to war with Iraq.

Is this even a sentence? Reading this quickly, one could imply that we didn’t know whether Saddam Hussein was dead or alive a year ago.

No, bin Laden was the enemy, with links to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, not Baghdad. We knew where he lived and did nothing about it. After the murder of hundreds of civilians at U.S. embassies in Africa and the killings of U.S. service personnel in Saudi Arabia and on the USS Cole, the United States’ response was lethargic, distracted and ineffective.

I hear a broken record. Go back a few paragraphs to when this argument was still fresh.

Clinton did order a missile attack on bin Laden’s infamous training camp in 1998, but having barely missed the target, he shunned further direct action, partly deterred by outraged Republicans who accused him of “wagging the dog” to distract us all from the all-important Monica Lewinsky scandal.

What the hell does Scheer have against coherence? What does Monica Lewinsky have to do with anything? Can Scheer prove that Clinton’s decisions were at all connected to the media rumblings about his motivations? If he can prove that, whose fault was the resultant inactivity?

In any case, Clinton failed to complete the job, his administration contenting itself to give the incoming Bush team some alarming briefings on the bin Laden operation.

Did Clinton content himself, or did the several thousand employees that made up the Clinton administration? To read Scheer, I have no idea.

However, Bush, who in debates with Al Gore had lambasted foreign intervention as “nation building,” was building his foreign policy around the drug war, diplomatic isolationism and the elimination of the landmark Antiballistic Missile Treaty, so we could pursue our quixotic attempt to build a missile shield over North America.

If Scheer is jonesing for the curator’s job at the National Cliche Museum, he’s on track. To start, I quote George W. Bush:

“I would take the use of force very seriously. I would be guarded in my approach. I don’t think we can be all things to all people in the world. I think we’ve got to be very careful when we commit our troops. The vice president and I have a disagreement about the use of troops. He believes in nation building. I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders.”

Does that sound like a lambasting of foreign intervention? No. It sounds like a criticism of too much intervention. There is a difference. Scheer doesn’t stop to notice. The rest of the graf is composed of shopworn cliches that aren’t worth my attention.

Further, neither administration seemed to grasp that bin Laden and the Taliban had become one and the same. Both administrations ignored such evidence as a comment that came out of the U.S.-supported talks between a Saudi prince and the Taliban leader Mohammed Omar in September 1998. Omar definitively rejected betraying the Taliban’s “hero” — bin Laden — and told the Saudi prince that bin Laden would never be expelled from Afghanistan.

Soon after these talks, 17 U.S. service personnel died on the Cole while it was docked in Yemen, an al-Qaida redoubt.

Stunningly, five weeks after the Bush administration expressed gratitude to the Taliban for eradicating Afghanistan’s poppy crop and simultaneously announced that it was funneling new aid to the country through the United Nations, the president’s reading-to-kids photo op was interrupted by the Sept. 11 devastation.


Some have suggested that the Bush administration was starting to wake up to the threat of al-Qaida, but we’ll never know now. What we do know is that in the last year the deaths of Sept. 11 have been used over and over again as a rationale for eroding the Constitution, reorganizing the federal government and launching a preemptive, unilateral strike against a nation not implicated in the attacks.

Bad tense. This makes it sound like we have already invaded Iraq (the “nation” Scheer is referring to).

Far more effective in preventing terrorism, however, and engendering far fewer risks, would be for our leaders and intelligence agencies to simply do their jobs, and do them well.

This would be an excellent closing graf if the preceding column was based on facts. Too bad it’s based on jargon.


Big Brother won’t like this …

Josh Marshall is leading a blogger boomlet protesting Dick Cheney’s appearence on the Rush Limbaugh show. Media Whores Online, that slanderer of slanderers, is accusing the Veep of “defiling 9/11”.

Yawn. This would all be more compelling if some of these pundits weren’t yammering about the “right to dissent”. Is there a list of approved media that Limbaugh isn’t on? No? Then drop it.


Busy today

I’m writing up election results for C&E. Hey, it’s better than watching Katie Couric call “the events of 9/11” a “disaster”, treating it like some kind of Mississippi flash flood. Pardon my idleness in weblogging.


At risk of belaboring a point …

I ran over this yesterday, but today’s Susan Sontag op-ed in the New York Times got me going again. Since I’m on vacation, I have time to critique the entire argument of this has-been.

Since last Sept. 11, the Bush administration has told the American people that America is at war.

Ah-hah. The Bush administration did this! How could we the people have been so easily led? Could we have … agreed? Been angry? Something like that.

But this war is of a peculiar nature. It seems to be, given the nature of the enemy, a war with no foreseeable end. What kind of war is that?

Obviously it is Orwell’s 1984 given cruel life. Just come out and say it, hon’.

There are precedents. Wars on such enemies as cancer, poverty and drugs are understood to be endless wars. There will always be cancer, poverty and drugs.

And Susan said to the apostles: You will always have the poor, but you won’t always have me.

And there will always be despicable terrorists, mass murderers like those who perpetrated the attack a year ago tomorrow � as well as freedom fighters (like the French Resistance and the African National Congress) who were once called terrorists by those they opposed but were relabeled by history.

Speaking of always having poverty, the ANC has done a wonderful job of promulgating that in South Africa. But Susan is preaching to the choir. Obviously, she is changing the way we think about terror.

When a president of the United States declares war on cancer or poverty or drugs, we know that “war” is a metaphor. Does anyone think that this war � the war that America has declared on terrorism � is a metaphor?

Um … no?

But it is, and one with powerful consequences. War has been disclosed, not actually declared, since the threat is deemed to be self-evident.

Someone buy this woman a subscription to the Congressional Record. It might hurt her ability to make a point with sophistry, but she could use it.

Real wars are not metaphors.

“And the award for distinguished commentary in military history goes to …”

And real wars have a beginning and an end. Even the horrendous, intractable conflict between Israel and Palestine will end one day.

And it won’t be any thanks to thinkers like Sontag.

But this antiterror war can never end. That is one sign that it is not a war but, rather, a mandate for expanding the use of American power.

Very clever argument, this. Sontag has said the war will go on for ever. Next she figures out the real mission of the war. How does she know? Because the war will go on forever.

If I handed this into a freshman seminar I’d be expelled. And I’d deserve to be.

When the government declares war on cancer or poverty or drugs it means the government is asking that new forces be mobilized to address the problem.

Or in the case of the war on drugs, it means we use the military. Oh, sorry. Go on, Susan.

It also means that the government cannot do a whole lot to solve it.

Even poverty? Where was Susan when LBJ needed her?

When the government declares war on terrorism � terrorism being a multinational, largely clandestine network of enemies � it means that the government is giving itself permission to do what it wants.

I’m sorry – does this make sense to anyone? What kind of government of government does not do what it wants? Throw me a bone, here.

When it wants to intervene somewhere, it will. It will brook no limits on its power.

Again, Sontag reverts to assigning big, nasty Orwellian teeth to her subject in lieu of actual proof or a point.

The American suspicion of foreign “entanglements” is very old.

“And the award for distinguished analysis of history goes to …”

But this administration has taken the radical position that all international treaties are potentially inimical to the interests of the United States � since by signing a treaty on anything (whether environmental issues or the conduct of war and the treatment of prisoners) the United States is binding itself to obey conventions that might one day be invoked to limit America’s freedom of action to do whatever the government thinks is in the country’s interests.

This is radical? Has Sontag ever heard of “the history of U.S. foreign policy between 1789 and 1941”? And that Kyoto accord reference is a low blow. By mentioning it in such a la-de-da way, Sontag makes the Kyoyo accord look like a just, workable policy that we were foolish not to sign onto. This must be news to the 95 Senators who voted against it in 1997. Do they count as members of the Bush administration?

Indeed, that’s what a treaty is: it limits the right of its signatories to complete freedom of action on the subject of the treaty.

“And the award for distinguished commentary in political science goes to …”

Up to now, it has not been the avowed position of any respectable nation-state that this is a reason for eschewing treaties.

Examples, please. This smells like a strawman.

Describing America’s new foreign policy as actions undertaken in wartime is a powerful disincentive to having a mainstream debate about what is actually happening.

Hello? Mainstream? You’re in the New York Times! This couldn’t be a more “mainstream debate”!

This reluctance to ask questions was already apparent in the immediate aftermath of the attacks last Sept. 11. Those who objected to the jihad language used by the American government (good versus evil, civilization versus barbarism) were accused of condoning the attacks, or at least the legitimacy of the grievances behind the attacks.

Ah, here we go. Obviously, Sontag is grousing about the way her September 24 New Yorker piece was kicked around by pundits of the right and left. To Sontag, oppression is when people disagree with you.

Under the slogan United We Stand, the call to reflectiveness was equated with dissent, dissent with lack of patriotism. The indignation suited those who have taken charge of the Bush administration’s foreign policy.

Boo, hoo, hoo. Poor Susan. To read this you’d think the government repossessed her swanky New York home and her writings – excuse me, texts – were burned en masse. At least you’d think she’d be unable to get her author photo taken by Annie Liebovitz. No such luck. Sontag is moneyed, renowned, and not lacking a steady stream of work and exposure. Oh, and her semi-coherent conspiracy theory is the most e-mailed and discussed article in America’s paper of record.

Wow. If this is how President Bush supresses dissent, he really is a moron.

The aversion to debate among the principal figures in the two parties continues to be apparent in the run-up to the commemorative ceremonies on the anniversary of the attacks � ceremonies that are viewed as part of the continuing affirmation of American solidarity against the enemy.

And this is wrong because … ? National politics aren’t like a high school debating club. Tom Daschle isn’t legally bound to take up Osama bin Laden’s side when the president beats up on him. Of course, the closest Susan Sontag gets to the real world is when one of her “texts” makes it on the shelf of a Barnes and Noble.

The comparison between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 7, 1941, has never been far from mind.

“And the award for distinguished commentary in military history is – a tie!”

Once again, America was the object of a lethal surprise attack that cost many � in this case, civilian � lives, more than the number of soldiers and sailors who died at Pearl Harbor. However, I doubt that great commemorative ceremonies were felt to be needed to keep up morale and unite the country on Dec. 7, 1942.

Yeah. This is the sort of thing you check on before you write a nationally reproduced op-ed.

That was a real war, and one year later it was very much still going on.

As opposed to this war? Is this the same piece, or did Sontag mix up her “Asinine Op-Eds” file?

This is a phantom war and therefore in need of an anniversary.

Yes, therefore. Obviously.

Such an anniversary serves a number of purposes. It is a day of mourning. It is an affirmation of national solidarity. But of one thing we can be sure. It is not a day of national reflection. Reflection, it has been said, might impair our “moral clarity.”

Oh, yeah. I remember hearing this. It was from the loudspeaker next to the Big Brother poster, wasn’t it? That was a good Two Minutes Hate.

It is necessary to be simple, clear, united. Hence, there will be borrowed words, like the Gettysburg Address, from that bygone era when great rhetoric was possible.

Where in this moronic age can we find someone who knows good rhetoric? Hey, what about that brilliant cultural critic Susan Sontag?

Abraham Lincoln’s speeches were not just inspirational prose. They were bold statements of new national goals in a time of real, terrible war.

How the hell would she know what a “goal” is?

The Second Inaugural Address dared to herald the reconciliation that must follow Northern victory in the Civil War. The primacy of the commitment to end slavery was the point of Lincoln’s exaltation of freedom in the Gettysburg Address. But when the great Lincoln speeches are ritually cited, or recycled for commemoration, they have become completely emptied of meaning. They are now gestures of nobility, of greatness of spirit. The reasons for their greatness are irrelevant.

Um … they are? Just because a speech is popular doesn’t mean the great unwashed don’t understand it. “We cannot consecrate this ground” has a pretty long shelf-life.

Such an anachronistic borrowing of eloquence is in the grand tradition of American anti-intellectualism: the suspicion of thought, of words.

Oh, thank you Susan. Thank you for rescuing us from this … anti-intellectualism!

Hiding behind the humbug that the attack of last Sept. 11 was too horrible, too devastating, too painful, too tragic for words, that words could not possibly express our grief and indignation, our leaders have a perfect excuse to drape themselves in others’ words, now voided of content. To say something might be controversial. It might actually drift into some kind of statement and therefore invite rebuttal. Not saying anything is best.

Hey … Sontag is saying something controversial! Can we infer that she’s a hero? I think we can!

I do not question that we have a vicious, abhorrent enemy that opposes most of what I cherish � including democracy, pluralism, secularism, the equality of the sexes, beardless men, dancing (all kinds), skimpy clothing and, well, fun.

You … don’t? We … have an enemy? What ever happened to those terrorists-cum-freedom fighters?

And not for a moment do I question the obligation of the American government to protect the lives of its citizens.

Except when it has to avoid signing a treaty to do so.

What I do question is the pseudo-declaration of pseudo-war. These necessary actions should not be called a “war.” There are no endless wars; but there are declarations of the extension of power by a state that believes it cannot be challenged.

Who besides Sontag is saying this war is endless? She’d have done well to read the Sept. 20 speech she’s probably writing about. The White House has said people should be ready for a long war, but it’s misrepresentative to say it will be “endless.” Read the speech.

America has every right to hunt down the perpetrators of these crimes and their accomplices.

Oh, can we, please?

But this determination is not necessarily a war. Limited, focused military engagements do not translate into “wartime” at home.

Who started this conflict, exactly? How much of the national feeling that makes Sontag so antsy comes from a few speeches, and how much comes from the fact that thousands of Americans were murdered?

There are better ways to check America’s enemies, less destructive of constitutional rights and of international agreements that serve the public interest of all, than continuing to invoke the dangerous, lobotomizing notion of endless war.

Sontag and her Blame America First cohorts have had a year to come up with a “better” solution to Islamic fascism. We’re still waiting for it.


Radical Muslims vs. civilization

There’s plenty to say about this radical Muslim (and that’s an important distinction to make) conference on the joys of September 11.

I’ll concentrate on just one tidbit.

That flyer, “A Towering Day in History,” is meant to be sardonic. It portrays US Airways flight 175 flying into the South tower as the North tower burns. I estimate this photograph captures the death of over 1,000 people. If we were to zoom in, odds are we could see men and women jumping out of the North tower’s top floors. I wonder: did the sly prankster who designed this flyer realize this? Or did he (probably “he” – do radical Muslims let their women use photoshop?) not stop to consider that the photo contained more dead bodies than your average wall in the Washington D.C. Holocaust Museum?

At the risk of overgeneralization, this reprehensible flyer, to say nothing of the conference, says all that needs to be said about the ethos that attacked the United States last year. They do not see us as individual people. They see us as cogs in a Satanic, materialist superpower. And, all year, we have been told by the liberial guardians of our culture that we need to cry bitter tears over each death, self-inflicted or otherwise, in the Muslim world.

I don’t give two shits about the death of a Muslim extremist, but I’m grateful for that liberal mindset for encapsulating why Western civilization is so baldly superior to the civilization of the lunatics we’re fighting. There is no liberal tradition for the London conference’s attendees. As Osama bin Laden (has?) made clear, they don’t care how many of us need to die in order to restore the Caliphate.

Do we need another reason to prove why we’re right?