Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Just Cause, or Just 'Cause?

Last night, my pal Eli asked me to take a stab at deconstructing this column by the ever-appalling Richard Cohen, and I can't help but comply.

Cohen kicks things off with this charming anecdote:

Back behind my high school one day, we all assembled to watch a fistfight. To my immense pleasure, a bully was being bested by his victim. Then the bully's friend stepped in and ended matters with a swift kick to the other guy's midsection. It was an unfair ending to what was supposed to be a fair fight, but it taught me a valuable lesson: You treat your friends differently than you do your enemies.
I bet Cohen would find this wisdom-tale less satisfying if he knew just how much it reveals about him, and the industry in which he works. This story about a naive little boy who, in the course of getting a vicarious thrill from violence, suddenly realizes that might makes right, is the closest thing to honesty I've ever seen from him.

"We all assembled to watch a fistfight," Cohen says. Did this group—in which our young hero felt the initial, quasi-sexual stirrings of the abject toadyism that would define his adult life—enforce the "code of the schoolyard" by chasing the interloper away, or beating him up? Apparently not. As Cohen tells it, they did nothing to help the kid who was standing up to a bully—fighting for them, in a sense, against a shared enemy. In fact, at least one of them—initials R.C.—took away the lesson that standing up to bullies can be dangerous, and seemingly vowed never to run the risk of getting a boot in his own midsection.

Not surprisingly, Cohen insists that the accommodation his own defective nature has made to brutality comprises some self-evident spiritual axiom for the rest of us.
This elemental principle of life, love and other matters seems utterly lost on so many critics of George Bush's agreement to provide India with civilian nuclear technology. In doing so, we are told, he has done something truly awful -- established a double standard. Well, duh -- yes. India is our friend and Iran, just to pick an example, is not.
Wittingly or not, he's basically espousing a dumbed-down version of Carl Schmitt's "friend/enemy distinction." Here's Schmitt:
The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transaction. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are always possible.
The problem with that is...well, there are lots of problems with that. For one thing, the belief that a given group of people is "existentially something different and alien" is not necessarily rational, let alone accurate. Worse, it's often predicated not on outward difference, but on inward similarity (e.g., in the case of conservative closet cases who oppose gay rights).

Also, Schmitt dismisses religious injunctions like "love thy enemies" as inapplicable to the sphere of politics, while allowing findings of "existential difference" to be based on irrational religious hatreds that rely just as obviously on some ineffable world beyond the political.

But even in this daft, morally bankrupt formulation, Schmitt understands something Cohen doesn't: Conflicts are always possible between "friends," and the potential for conflict "can neither be decided by a previously determined general norm nor by the judgment of a disinterested and therefore neutral third party." By contrast, Cohen simply makes empty pronouncements like "No one worries about India or Israel making the technology available to terrorists." For Cohen, friends and enemies are immutable, despite the ease with which people like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega have traveled from one category to the other.
Why should the United States look the other way at Israel's bomb and go nuts over Iran's effort to get one? The answer ought to be clear: Because Israel has not threatened to blow Iran off the map....
I guess Cohen has never heard the phrase Samson Option. Or stumbled upon Haaretz defense editor Zeev Schiff's 1998 complaint that "too many senior Israeli officials have taken to issuing threatening statements vis-a-vis Iraq and Iran."

But never mind all that. It's time to climb into our protective gear, and approach the poisonous core of Cohen's argument:
The "double standard" accusation has a schoolyard quality to it. Why a boycott of Cuba and not of China? Because you can with one and not with the other. Why attack Saddam Hussein and not all the other vile dictators? Because you do what you can.
It seems to me that Cohen's responses have as much of the "schoolyard quality" as the accusations that provoked them. Come to think of it, they have a good deal more. His response to these perfectly legitimate questions is just 'cause. Why boycott Cuba? Just 'cause! Why attack Saddam? Just 'cause! Why invade Panama? Just 'cause!

The real lesson of the schoolyard fight Cohen watched so avidly is that public passivity and cowardice let injustice and corruption thrive. For five years, Cohen and his ilk have straddled the fence, nodding knowingly as every single person who challenged BushCo's abuse of power got "a swift kick to the midsection." Why should they care? After all, the victims of the administration's bullying brought their troubles on themselves. They chose to be the administration's enemies, instead of its friends. They chose to feel a boot in the gut, rather than on the tongue. What can you do with people like that? They're just not rational.


Eli said...

Thanks, Phila! I knew you were the right man for the job, and it needed doing.

Bravo, as always. Cohen is a despicable amoral worm, and his self-serving rationalizations are transparently just that.

Interrobang said...

Who's this "nobody" Cohen's talking about? I don't know as much about Indian politics as I do about Israeli politics (although I know there's a hell of a lot of sectarian violence going on in India that few people in North America ever notice), but yeah, if the Israeli nuclear climate can produce a Vanunnu, or sweaty-fingered generals who'd really like the excuse to turn various targets of opportunity or other into sheets of glass, it could certainly produce someone who'd be more than happy to sell Israeli nuclear technology to terrorists, whether homegrown or imported.

And conservatives think liberals are naive and optimistic.

roger said...

i'm surprised cohen didn't brag about kicking the kid on the ground, to curry favor with the bullies. he thinks he's safe, because he didn't stand up against brutality. the bullies will turn on him sooner or later.

there may be a case for treating friends differently than enemies. he most certainly didn't make it.

dan mcenroe said...

so is cohen hoping israel will kick iran in the gut for us? i'm so confused...

also glossed over in cohen's penetrating analysis is the chilling effect this will have on the usa's relationship with india's deadly enemy pakistan, who, last time i checked, were nominally our allies in the war on terror.