When a problem is too troubling (and the response unbearably light)
I’ve been trying to write about this observation for a while, but haven’t found the means to express it. So I am just going to state it, in what I admit is speculative form. Here’s what I said on Twitter Sunday: “We tend to think: big revelations mean big reactions. But if the story is too big and crashes too many illusions, the exact opposite occurs.” My fear is that this will happen with the Afghanistan logs. Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect— not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget. [emphasis added.]
That’s from a post by Jay Rosen that I think gets at the heart of the Wikileaks war logs and the Afghanistan war in general, but also points to a larger malaise suffocating the country right now. As Krugman warns of an American Lost Decade characterized by unnecessarily high unemployment and stagnation, Scahill reports that even after combat troops withdraw from Iraq an ever-expanding army of mercenaries will remain for “the foreseeable future.”
Nobody can pretend anymore that Afghanistan is going well or is even “winnable” (a loathsome word in that context if ever there was one), after the newly published war logs. And for anyone who would like a front seat view to a kill in that country, watch Restrepo, a new documentary that follows a platoon of soldiers deployed in the Korengal Valley for a year in what is known as “The Valley of Death.”
Chris Hayes predicts that those calling for austerity measures in Europe — which may very well deepen the recession — will continue to be treated as the only Serious Experts in town no matter how disastrous their policies turn out to be, just as we saw in the run-up and aftermath of Iraq. When it comes to calling for war or sacrifices from the poor, it is impossible to be too far to the right.
Forgive these broad strokes, which are in fact the hobgoblin of a successful blog post, but after reading Rosen’s quote above I can’t help myself. The problems facing the country right now are too troubling to face head on, made more so by this country’s lackluster response to them. It’s not just that the economy is failing, it’s that the Obama administration wasn’t able (or couldn’t, if you prefer) to enact a large enough stimulus to restart the economy. As a result, we’ll see sluggish growth and a serious risk of deflation.
It’s not just that the war in Afghanistan is expensive and unwinnable, it’s that we know those truths, yet we will be an occupying power there in some capacity for years. We acknowledge the futility of the endeavor, yet nothing changes. This has resulted in a show of mental acrobatics from the establishment, whose response to the leaks has been a confused contradiction of: this is a serious crime/these papers say nothing new. But this country is not a poem, and that contradiction will not open up a new mode of knowledge. So we’re compelled to ask this absurd question: Can anyone imagine this country suddenly turning dovish, even though “everyone knows” the war is a complete mess?
It’s not just that the national security apparatus has spiraled out of control since 9/11 to the extent that no one knows how big it is or how much money it devours, it’s that the revelation two weeks ago by the Washington Post went virtually unnoticed.
In all of these cases and more — like the environment! — there are people who have waved the warning flags but have been ignored. Many of those same people continue to offer suggestions to fix things: increase stimulus spending, draw down the occupations, decrease military spending, restore habeus corpus rights, close Guantanamo, and the list goes on. Those voices exist in this country, yet they continue to go unheeded despite a Democratic president and large majorities in both chambers.
On some level, the explanation is the same as always: there’s money to be had in war, in tax cuts for the rich, in an ever-increasing privatization of this country’s military and intelligence forces. And in denying climate change. And in ensuring the health care bill wouldn’t have a public option.
But I can’t shake the feeling that we as a country are unable to see what we are because it’s too unpleasant. The problems too overwhelming; the inequalities too embedded. The foul promise of American Exceptionalism has dehydrated this country like a long walk in the desert, like the fourth shot of gutter whiskey a gambler needs to go all in yet again.
The problems this country faces are troubling, yes, but what’s truly horrifying to watch is our country turn away from clear solutions in favor of Established Wisdom.