Myths that kill
How does the US media fabricate conventional wisdom that contradicts all the facts? Steve Breyman*
If you're like me, you can barely make it through an article by New York Times columnist David Brooks. Should you arrive at the bitter end, your face is screwed up, as if you had been sucking lemons or whiffing a fetid odour, in a painful mix of disbelief, consternation and sadness at the waste of prime op-ed real estate. Most days you quickly move on to whatever's next, and your face slowly relaxes to normal.
I no longer watch television, so I haven't had to suffer through Brooks's banal performances on US chatshow host Jim Lehrer's show for a couple of years. My recollection is of someone unable to master the obvious. I've never had the courage to read one of Brooks's regular exchanges with his Times colleague Gail Collins in what the paper modestly calls "the Conversation".
Brooks affects a cloying meta-analytical air in his columns, taking on big questions about culture and civilisation. The opening anecdote (typically obscure) is loosely connected to a midsection where that day's character flaw of one or some or most or all American(s) is on display. The moral comes in the form of a rueful lesson about a classical virtue in short supply in modern life.
A recent column ("A Case of Mental Courage," published on 23 August) is more or less true to form. Brooks begins with the horrific story of 18th/19th-century English diarist, novelist and playwright Fanny Burney's mastectomy, conducted without anesthesia. Burney survived to write an account of the procedure, which Brooks fancifully appropriates for this week's lesson in character: "she seems to have regarded the exercise as a sort of mental boot camp -- an arduous but necessary ordeal if she hoped to be a person of character and courage."
Pardon me? Burney, a careful editor, didn't even re-read her own essay before sending it to her sister, the experience was so painful. "Mental boot camp"? Can you imagine? (Disclosure: I too lost a prized piece of my anatomy to cancer surgery, but was blissfully unconscious thanks to an anesthesiologist. And I also survived an especially gruelling boot camp. I recommend neither should you aspire to be "a person of character and courage").
But Brooks's imagination is fired, and he's off: Burney's struggle reminds one that character is not only moral, it is also mental. Heroism exists not only on the battlefield or in public but also inside the head, in the ability to face unpleasant thoughts. She lived at a time when people were more conscious of the fallen nature of men and women. People were held to be inherently sinful, and to be a decent person one had to struggle against one's weakness.
In the mental sphere, this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self- approval by staring straight at what was painful.
This emphasis on mental character lasted for a time, but it has abated. There's less talk of sin and frailty these days. I know: the excerpt has your face bunching up again, but bear with me. Paraphrasing just doesn't do the man justice. Did you catch the moral-in-the-making? I trust you were not fooled by the zealous supporting cast of inherent sin, arduous lessons, earnest sermons, or conquered self-approval. It's right there: "the ability to face unpleasant thoughts."
"Unpleasant thoughts?" Even the world-class denialists of the Tea Party factions in the US and the climate change know-nothings "face unpleasant thoughts" (US President Barack Obama is a socialist, climate change is a global conspiracy to advance One World Government, etc.). Anyone paying the slightest attention to the human condition is awash in "unpleasant thoughts" each and every day.
Understand again that this denialism or moral cowardice is also a form of "mental feebleness" or "flabbiness". We're "all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be sceptical of our own opinions" these days (post-19th century). There are, according to Brooks, American exceptions to mental laziness, like economist Larry Summers. (Yes, you read that right: one of the three or four guys most responsible for the bungled bailouts, insufficient stimulus, and jobless "recovery" in the US).
But enough about Larry Summers. Brooks is really serious about mental flab: "Of the problems that afflict the country, this is the underlying one." He finds it "most evident in politics." Here's your chance to watch myth propagation in action: Many conservatives declare that Barack Obama is a Muslim because it feels so good to say so. Many liberals would never ask themselves why they were so wrong about the surge in Iraq while George Bush was so right. The question is too uncomfortable.
Just throwaway examples of bipartisan politico-mental laziness? I think not. The example of conservative mental feebleness (and myth circulation) is priceless. But, come on Brooks, dig deeper: the conservative controversy is from right now, 2010, the liberal from 2007-08. If that's the best you have for liberal denial, then we're all in better shape than I thought.
I understand that some considerable portion of American conservatives (a quarter? half?) consists of viciously bigoted Islam-haters. They've emerged en masse from beneath their rocks during the shameful if telling spectacle over the Muslim cultural centre proposed for a Burlington Coat Factory outlet in Lower Manhattan. But how can it "feel so good" to hate your own president? I can understand anger, disappointment, dismay -- but "feels so good"? As a conservative, Brooks seems to appreciate the sentiment (it's his example), but he doesn't translate for the rest of us.
Let's try another tack: I am what some conservatives call a Bush-hater. I readily admit to an aversion bordering on the unhealthy. But it arises directly from my deep, sustained, heart-felt and above all rational opposition to the man's policies, not because he's a Methodist. The Bush-Cheney era was eight years of soul crushing pain, rage, shame and disgust for tens of millions of Americans. You were fortunate to connect with like-minded others, to find solidarity with those beside you in the meetings and at the demos. But exposing Bush-Cheney, resisting Bush-Cheney -- the "era", its enablers, what it did and stood for -- never felt "good", not for a second. We resisted while holding our noses, and gritting our teeth.
Looking back, the resistance was necessary, if mostly futile. We environmentalists, peaceniks, feminists, racial and social justice activists, LGBT advocates didn't win many during an era that historians may someday call the Great Wasteland, or the Great Blood Thirst. It was a punishingly long detour from the urgent, positive work needed to transform society.
With the liberal-surge example, Brooks again plays his essential role as myth conveyor. Consciously constructed fables are the intellectual essence of post-war American conservatism. Communists control the US State Department. Vietnam was lost by meddling politicians and insufficient application of brute force. Corporate capitalism has been good for America. Trickle-down economics benefits all Americans. The US won the Cold War. Saddam was behind 9/11. And today's winner: the Iraq surge that George Bush was "so right" about.
People like me were "so wrong" about the surge. Yet we're unable to ask whether Bush was right and we were wrong because "the question is too uncomfortable." The risk is that were we to come to grips with the "fact" that Bush was right, our ideological edifice would crumble. Partisan bankruptcy would suddenly supplant mental laziness. Everything we believed about the evils of war in general and the Iraq war in particular might be proved false. The war could have been worth it after all.
There are two problems with Brooks' surge myth, one perceptual, the other factual. Brooks instinctively but lazily assumes that all of us want to be right all the time and that we'll engage in denial to avoid being wrong. It's not that simple. If you're some sort of professional wonk, or policy (meta-)analyst paid to think, teach, or write about scenarios, wonder about the future, follow trend lines, examine statistics, or a reader of the New York magazine The Nation, or simply a well-informed citizen trying to keep up on things, being "right" is a good news/bad news situation. Being right doesn't stop the world from going to hell in a hand basket, or keep you from teetering on the precipice of despair.
And should you assess humanity's long-term prospects for a bright and abundant future as slim-to-none, you may fiercely defend the painstaking analysis, but you want to be wrong about the conclusion. Not just a little off, but dead wrong. You don't need, at this point, "to step back and think about the weakness in [your] own thinking." Think rather about all the thinking -- scary, honest, let the chips fall where they may thinking -- necessary to arrive at such a finding in the first place. No mental flabbiness evident here. Indeed, who wouldn't opt for one or the other of the most popular varieties of mental feebleness -- belief in the Rapture, or in a happy techno-cornucopia -- saving us in the final reel if they honestly could?
The second problem with Brooks's surge myth concerns a large and unfortunately growing set of inconvenient facts (there's that bad news again). Brooks provides but a silent brief for the surge, a sign that the myth has matured to the point that it no longer requires explanation or defence. When myths get to this insidiously effective stage, they're just floating about the culture like big shiny balloons without strings. They pick up subscribers with static electricity provided by the corporate media, pushed this way and that by and at the convenience of their authors and co-authors, with little opportunity for the anti-fabulist to poke them with a pin. Let's assume a maximal version of the myth as it strengthens Brooks's claim regarding liberal denial: the surge ended or prevented an Iraqi civil war, paving the way for Iraqi self-government, and made possible the eventual victorious return of US combat forces from Iraq.
A quick review of some of the war's milestones: shock and awe began on 19 March 2003. Baghdad fell on 9 April. President George Bush's infamous "mission accomplished" flight took place on 1 May (138 dead Americans thus far). Saddam was nabbed on 13 December 2003. On 22 February 2006, the bombing of a Shia shrine in Samaraa escalated the vicious sectarian bloodletting ravaging the country. The surge involved the deployment of five US Army brigades starting in February 2007, with 30,000 men and women in place by mid-June 2007.
From April to June 2007, 331 US service members were killed, the deadliest quarter of the war for the US military. On 10 September 2007, General Petraeus suggested reducing the US troop presence by 20,000 the following June. Come 22 July 2008, the surge officially ended with the return of the last of the five brigades to the US. All told, nearly 1,000 American service members died during the surge period. Four months later, on 17 November, the US and Iraq agreed that all US forces would be gone by the end of 2011. On 27 February 2009, President Obama announced the end of US combat operations by 31 August 2010 but the retention of some 50,000 troops in the country.
If the surge "worked", then it has born some strange fruit (collated by the leading US anti-war organisations). For example, the Iraqi healthcare and education systems, once the envy of the Arab world, were decimated. Life expectancy fell from 71 years in 1996 to 67 years in 2007. The routine use of depleted uranium munitions led to a cancer rate in Falluja worse than that in Hiroshima. Severe mental health problems are now ubiquitous with virtually no mental health professionals left in the country. Many teachers and professors have fled their looted schools and universities.
The war unleashed a tsunami of violence that led to wholesale sectarian killings, insurgency and counter-insurgency, terrorism and counter-terrorism. The ongoing violence has so far claimed one million Iraqi lives, wounded millions more, and displaced four million. Many of the refugees live in desperate conditions abroad.
Iraq lacks a national government in anything more than name. Approximately 300 civilians per month have died since the inconclusive 7 March 2010 elections. Unemployment ranges somewhere between 25 per cent and 50 per cent. The percentage of Iraqi slum dwellers has nearly tripled since 2003 according to the United Nations.
Over one million American service members rotated back and forth during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Over 4,400 US service personnel have been killed and tens of thousands maimed for life. More than one in four US troops has come home with post-traumatic stress disorder or some other condition requiring ongoing care. More active duty military personnel committed suicide in 2009 than ever before in US history.
The war's price tag is astronomical. American taxpayers have spent over $750 billion as of this month. Throw in the cost of lifetime care for wounded veterans and the debt service on the borrowed money, and the total heads for the trillions.
Any student of the war knows that I have left out far more than I have included. Brooks, however, might still object that this short parade of horrors does not discount the "effectiveness" of the surge. It came late in the game and can't be blamed for all that; and he'd likely still complain that I remain unable to think "unpleasant thoughts" about my own certitude.
Let me roll out four more facts from an analysis by US investigative journalist Robert Parry: much of the sectarian cleansing in Baghdad neighbourhoods was complete before the surge, and the city was effectively compartmentalised by tall concrete walls that reduced death squad attacks; the US started paying Sunni insurgents in Anbar province who rejected Al-Qaeda in 2006, a year before the surge; Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army declared a unilateral ceasefire from August 2007 through March 2008 unrelated to and during surge primetime; and if you believe journalist Bob Woodward, the employment of innovative and secret US intelligence tactics enabled the swift pinpointing and killing of insurgent leaders.
Might the surge have nonetheless contributed to a decline in violence? Of course, it might have. But for Brooks, my grey matter likely still has love handles as I don't believe the evidence justifies the conclusion that the surge "worked" or that I was "so wrong".
Who cares about any of this now, several years later? Probably not Barack Obama. Parry reports that when (candidate) Obama argued that the reasons for the dip in violence were more complicated than simply "the surge worked", he was hectored by... CBS television anchor Katie Couric and ABC's George Stephanopoulos, demanding to know why he wouldn't just admit that Senator John McCain had been "right" about the surge. Obama chose to retreat in the face of this Washington conventional wisdom, regardless of how misguided it was. Finally, he admitted to US TV network Fox News' Bill O'Reilly that the surge "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams".
Obama's surrender has not been merely tactical, as we have seen on issue after issue, and that's why we should care about the myth of the surge that worked. This myth can kill, and get you killed. Inside a month of his inauguration, the new president dispatched 17,000 additional troops to the "war of necessity" in Afghanistan. Before the year was out, a second surge of 30,000 was on its way to Operation Enduring Freedom.
Perhaps the misery and terror Afghans suffer will magically lift because of or despite the Obama surges. I don't think so, but I hope I'm wrong.
* The writer teaches peace, environmental and media studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the US.