Jim Sleeper: The Roots of What Went Wrong at Abu Ghraib

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jim Sleeper, in the American Prospect (June 25, 2004):

... [C]onservatives who claimed Reagan's faith two weeks ago don't understand that faith themselves. In the run-up to the war last year, self-styled"grand strategists" in some universities and think tanks brandished the fifth-century Greek historian Thucydides' work to buttress claims that war in Iraq would be a necessary but sometimes ennobling hell. In close collaboration with them, neoconservative hit-men such as Daniel Pipes and his Campus Watch used college freshmen to target anti-war professors for"pinko-commie" treatment by right-wing pundits such as MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, the shouting ex-congressman from Florida, and Hugh Hewitt, The Weekly Standard's online tough guy.

That wasn't Reaganesque; it was Nixonian. Even pro-war centrists who objected to the neocons' tactics (in my case, in a column I wrote for The Yale Daily News) tasted the vilification by Scarborough and Hewitt and the hate mail and death threats that flow on every cue from enforcers lurking just beyond the radiance of the more genial conservative pundits' Cheshire Cat grins.

Conservatives' difficulty in winning the struggle in Iraq reflects more than the narrow presumptions of Thucydiots who see fundamental challenges to liberal democracy only in threats from abroad and forget Thucydides' warnings about the corrosive effects of foreign wars upon morals at home. It has something to do as well with how they've miscast the culture wars they declared here at home. The perversities of Abu Ghraib are not what goes on in every war. They reflect the spread of a nihilism in American popular culture and an incivility in our public discourse that aren't the doing of antiwar protesters, sexual exhibitionists, and ditzy po-mo profs who indulge or flirt with"transgressive" behaviors that are highly antisocial and highly marketable, and who conservatives love to expose. The Abu Ghraib abuses hold up a mirror not to any of these stock villains but to anomic, corporate hucksters of anything that titillates and degrades -- bottom-liners that, moving swiftly behind liberal and libertarian"rights" talk, are turning sexual feelings into business transactions, with tremendous conservative support.

Think not only of the worst of Hollywood or of"news" organizations like Rupert Murdoch's television and print outlets but of the"mainstream" media whose only purpose is to assemble the largest possible audience on any pretext and by any means. Think of DirectTV, the GM subsidiary that pumps hardcore, pay-TV porn into hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms. Think of the near–kiddie-porn Calvin Klein ads that appeared briefly on the sides of public buses in New York City a few years ago. The ads were designed by young urbanites like some of our friends or students only a few years out of college, people who enjoy David Brooks' paeans to Americans' zany consuming passions. But they became public"statements" thanks not to hip young Manhattanites or cultural leftists, but to private investors in free markets.

Sure, we're all complicit, as Brooks likes to tease. But what he cannot and never will say is that the corporate minions and shareholders who are busy hollowing out our children's sense of themselves as rational citizens and even as sexual beings are among the real traitors to our efforts to win hearts and minds in the Middle East -- and, more subtly, I think, the breakers of American hearts, civic habits, and loves here at home.

Sure, too, over the years the American left's pseudo-revolutionary, or ethno-racialist, or mindlessly"rights"-driven, or semiotic, cultural answers to national problems have been counterproductive because they are tone-deaf to most people's yearnings for a different kind of civic comity and responsibility. But the point to grasp right now about such maladroit, stupidly self-defeating reactions to national crises and trends is that they've almost always been reactive, not causal.

The cause of most of what's destructive in both our culture wars and our foreign ones lies in a consumer marketing that is ever more relentless, intimately titillating, and degrading, as well as demoralizing of the young. It drives the public deconstruction we've all been witnessing -- the deconstruction of essential republican decencies, privacies, and, yes, taboos, a supposed"liberation" devoid of public purpose. It is especially powerful in its de-formative influence on a new generation's sense of mutual trust and self-respect....

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