'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, February 18, 2005

A Fake Leftist vs. a Paper Tiger 

So Howard Dean debated Richard Perle in Portland, and the most newsworthy moment in the exchange seems to be some guy throwing a shoe at Richard Perle -- no, it wasn't me. Local media coverage of the content of the event is rather vapid, but one can't really blame the journalists -- it was probably a pretty vapid debate.

The problem is that the contestants agree on major points and can only squabble about details. Howard Dean is a moderate, as Krugman, perhaps the most honest person currently at the Times, recently wrote

It was always absurd to call Mr. Dean a left-winger. Just ask the real left-wingers. During his presidential campaign, an article in the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch denounced him as a "Clintonesque Republicrat," someone who, as governor, tried "to balance the budget, even though Vermont is a state in which a balanced budget is not required."

and confrontations between moderates and rightwingers are pretty boring affairs because the parties involved both accept the same framing of the debate.

Both Howard Dean and Richard Perle believe that American foreign policy is fundamentally benign, that the goal of American foreign policy is to spread freedom and democracy, to protect America from external threats, to combat tyranny and so forth, that the United States may occasionally make bad decisions but that it means well. Howard Dean may believe that various actions were mistakes tactically or strategically given this frame, but he doesn't believe said actions were immoral, illegal, or carried out in order to enforce and strengthen America's domination over areas of the world that policy planners deem strategically important. When you put him in a room with someone like Perle you end up with a conversation about whether or not policy decisions were successful within the context of the shared frame, the big nice picture of smiley America, but you don't don't get a discussion about whether the big nice picture of smiley America corresponds much with reality.

To get that discussion you have to put Richard Perle in a room with a leftist. When such interactions take place they are quite amusing to watch. If Perle is compelled to do more than just defend the details of American foreign policy from the critiques of armchair generals and Monday morning quarterbacks, he has almost nothing to say.

Several months ago, Stan Goff, writing for Counterpunch in a piece called "Debating a Neocon", described this phenomenon from personal experience. He was sick, jet-lagged, and obligated to debate a well-connected foreign-policy-PhD'ed bigtime neoconservative who knows Dick Cheney personally. He worried that he would be torn apart but discovered bigtime neoconservatives turn out to be paper tigers when confronted with accurate characterizations of recent history:

I was second to present my opening remarks. While I was pretty nervous before he started to talk, by the time he'd taken his 15 minutes to open, I grew more and more relaxed. We were not being treated to either subtlety or erudition. His pitch was barely above the level of a carnival barker ­ a rehash of what you might hear at any Centcom briefing. The gist of it was and this was telling well, we made some mistakes, at least the 'intelligence community' did, but now we are there, and it would be a disservice to the Iraqi people for us to leave the place and allow the 'terrorists' to take over.

That was it!?!?

This guy had boarded a plane from DC to the Land of Strom to debate a burned-out commie vet emaciated with an amoeba, and the best he could come up with in front of around 300 people was "stay the course?"

That's when it occurred to me, there's no there there. These people have no arguments they can state. His opening remarks were a rehash of why John F. Kerry was less fit to run Iraq than George W. Bush. Once anyone refuses to engage in this speciousness, the neoconservatives flounder like beached mullets.

We don't need the heavy artillery of superbly crafted argument to face them down. The simplest facts that were excluded from the presidential debates out of political expediency (dare I call it opportunism) can shoot these guys down like sparrows lined up on a fence.

Oh, yeah, and for what it's worth, if you're really interested in seeing Richard Perle torn apart in a debate and not just have a shoe hurled at him, here's a site where you can download MP3's of Chomsky debating Perle in 1988.

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