May 10, 2004

The undeath of cynicism

When irony, cynicism and critical sense were declared dead after 9/11, I assumed that that it was just an ironic and cyncial attempt to stiffle criticism and that it might last 'til Christmas. I assumed that by the time the Iraq war started, irony and cynicism were back to their full fighting weight and critical sense was well on its way to its formerr glory.

Which is why this post over at Abu Aardvark came as something of a surprise to me. I haven't posted anything about this muck at Abu Ghraib because, well, I've been busy with my real life, especially exams, but also because I just couldn't think of anything to say. The discovery that people in uniform - men and women alike - could so quickly and easily turn into monsters, and that given the conditions of this war they were so far from adequate oversight that this could happen without consequences... None of this surprises me. That the private contractors and CIA people aren't any better surprises me even less.

I've been waiting for someone to make the link to the infamous Zimbardo experiment. Even middle class college students who knew that they were just playing a game quickly became utterly vile beings when they were left unsupervised with control over other people's lives. Everyone in America knows that US prisions are horrifying places. Why should anyone be shocked when American soldiers are no more disciplined than American prision guards or American college students, especially when the prisioners are of a different race and suspected of being enemy sympathisers? The US military does not have a reputation for recruiting or promoting on the basis of maturity or mercy.

I'm not so shocked to see mock surprise on the pages of the New York Times or in the words of the administration. I am shocked to see surprise from Abu Aardvark. I mean, here's a guy who watches Buffy, reads Cerebus the Aardvark and lives in academia and probably works in area studies - all behaviours I can readily identify with and that I would have thought likely signs of a productive sense of cynicism. As little excuse as it is, America did not bring torture to a peaceful Iraq where such things had never happened before. Few if any parts of the world can claim to be free of this sort of abuse, or can claim that it's genuinely unusual. Certainly America can't. This provides no excuse, but it does weigh against claims of utter shock.

But, despite a common devotion to Buffy and Cerebus, perhaps this points towards what is different between us:

I've been deeply shocked - though not surprised - by the morally bankrupt response of much (but hopefully not all) of the right. "We aren't as bad as Saddam"... my god, is that really supposed to make it okay? To my ears, this is one of the most anti-American sentiments I've ever heard - being satisfied with being a little better than Saddam says that these people expect nothing better from America, nothing better from this society, nothing better from us.

But being just a little better than Saddam was the best I could hope from this war, and I'm still not too optimistic about that. Given US history in Latin America, I thought I had some grounds for that cynicism.

Perhaps what surprises me here is not so much discovering that others earnestly believed America didn't do such things, but wondering whether I am far more cynical about America than other folks. I try not to be unwarrantedly anti-American. If there is a single theme to my treatment of America, it is that it is just a country. Nations have no souls nor consciences. America is not distinguished from the rest of the world by moral superiority, just by wealth, power and security. When those things are threatened, America decends as far down the moral scale as any other nation on earth. It is not inherently worse than other nations, although it sometimes does worse things than some other nations; but it is also not inherently better, even when it sometimes does better things than some other nations. It is more powerful than other nations, and while that sometimes magnifies America's virtues, unrestrained power does even more to magnify America's flaws.

I had not thought these thoughts to be radical. They are ill-received in America, but then the last time I came to blows with someone was for calling Coors "chilled horse piss". If people can't take it when you call their beer crap, you can't expect them to behave rationally towards their country. Still, I'm surprised by how rarely such sentiments are echoed and I'm begining to wonder what it says about me.

Posted 2004/05/10 21:07 (Mon) | TrackBack

A failure of cynicism... probably. But it probably isn't terminal. Abu Ghraib really got to me, more than I would have expected. Not because of any illusions I had about American virtue, but because of the sheer depth of the depravity involved. And maybe because I know how this is going to shape Arab and Muslim views of us for a long time. And definitely because of the emerging response of the right. But don't worry, cynicism will be alive and well after a good night's sleep.

- the aardvark

Posted by: the aardvark at May 10, 2004 21:45

In my irrationally optimistic moments I hope that this makes Americans view Arabs and Muslims slightly better. If it's so easy for Americans to run torture centres, maybe what's wrong with Middle East isn't some fundamental moral flaw, just being at the wrong end of a lot of history.

But no. Somehow I suspect the pages of the National Review will not be entertaining this notion.

Posted by: Scott Martens at May 10, 2004 22:19

There is a nice post about the Zimbardo Experiment and Abu Ghraib, over at Respectful of Otters.

Posted by: Kerim Friedman at May 11, 2004 0:14

When cynicism is undead, only zombies will be cynical.

How are your qualia?

Posted by: des at May 11, 2004 13:53

Irony as institutionalized in American twenty-something / thirty-something culture is aggressively apolitical. I wouldn't regret its passing. The idea is that the world is shit but so are all the alternatives and it doesn't really affect me personally much and in any case nothing can be done. It's sort of like libertarianism and the deadheads in being vaguely disaffected in a meaningless way.

Posted by: Zizka at May 11, 2004 15:17

It's not what was done that shocks me. It's what's being said about what was done. And maybe that's because we're finding out about it in depth now and not twenty years later in a newspaper that wins a Pulitzer Prize for unearthing the past we couldn't openly face at the time. But that so many people could say so many shockingly, horribly, awfully wrong things and not get called on it. Be pelted with tomatoes and rotten lettuce. Be howled and booed off the national stage. Be struck by lightning from a God too sick to bother hiding His divinity anymore. (I am descending into hyperbole again. I'll stop.) Maybe my cynicism is dead, but it isn't what we did and what we've been doing for years here and there and elsewhere that killed it. It's what we're saying openly and apologetically now about what we're doing. We used to be better at hiding it? But maybe that's just damning with foul praise.

Somebody somewhere in an interview recently when asked about "irony" said, "The defense at the next Nuremberg trials will be: 'I was just being ironic.'"

Posted by: Kip Manley at May 12, 2004 2:52

"unapologetically." Sigh.

Posted by: Kip again-- at May 12, 2004 2:52

Kip - I guess I really am finally totally out of touch with what's going on in the States. I only know what's going on in the States from wha I see on European TV and read in the few American papers I read regularly. CNN International is sanitised like CCTV9, and the rest don't report on the state of American media.

Has an entire industry really started saying stupid things? I mean, beyond the usual suspects? The impression I get in Europe is that Bush is willing to see people fry for this - everyone who's not Rumsfeld of course. This seems remarkably positive in comparison to My Lai.

Posted by: Scott Martens at May 13, 2004 1:01

Yeah, it's a bit hard to be 'surprised' when the School of the Americas is still in existence. I'm also not surprised by the 'plausible denials' trotted out by all officers and higher level managers.

Posted by: dj at May 13, 2004 5:15

I'm sort of committed to communicating with mainstream liberals, but I can't figure them out sometimes. For someone who followed the dirty war in El Salvador around 1980, Abu Ghraib was hardly a surprise or a shock. It's really much, much milder. There's never really been a priuncipled renunciation of that kind of policy -- it just became unnecessary there, in the minds of the perps, with the fall of the USSR. A lot of the bad guys were rehired by Bush II.

Matt Yglesias, the mad dog centrist wunderkind, boggled me when he went ballistic on Negroponte. Isn't Negroponte what you're talking about when you support the realistic projection of American power, etc., etc., the way Dem centrists do?

And then people who look sadly naive to me think of me as a deluded fanatic..... I joke about it, but it's no fun.

Posted by: zizka at May 13, 2004 16:54

Yes, that's the kind of position that makes all of the puffery about 'centrism' being balanced, neutral and fluffy absolutely laughable.

Posted by: dj at May 14, 2004 4:52

Here is an even better post about Zimbardo.

Posted by: Kerim Friedman at May 15, 2004 5:01
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