Politics

Toward Afghanistan, Part 1

In September 2010, the New York Times illustrated an article about the complex interrelationships among corruption, education, custom, and gender in Afghanistan with a bruising anecdote:

Hundreds of children would gather on the iconic Nader Khan Hill in the capital, Kabul, on a gorgeous Friday in September and fly kites emblazoned with slogans lauding the rule of law and equality for women. The kites, along with copies of the Afghan Constitution and justice-themed comic books, would be gifts of the United States, part of a $35 million effort “to promote the use of Afghanistan’s formal justice system.”

Afghan policemen hijacked the event, stealing dozens of kites for themselves and beating children with sticks when they crowded too close to the kite distribution tent.

Most bore messages about the importance of gender equality, but there was hardly a girl with a kite, although plenty of girls were around. One DPK staff member pushed through the crowd to give 10-year-old Shaqila Nabi a kite; her sister Farzana, 8, had wanted one, too, but a policeman had just swung at her with a stick and she had darted out of harm’s way, and out of sight.

Shaqila raced back to her father, Gul Nabi, a horse wrangler peddling rides. He promptly took the kite and gave it to a boy.

“He is my son and he should get the kite,” he said.

It’s intended to come across as painful, I’m sure, and that’s why the author led with it: the anecdote is full of abject rhetorical appeals to pathos carefully chosen to communicate the challenges the author sees as facing Afghanistan. Still, those appeals to pathos don’t make the article’s representations any less true, and as I’ve processed through the various stations of this CONUS Replacement Center in preparation to go over there, they’ve been on my mind.

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Good Things

Today seems like a good day to again acknowledge that I feel tension about the institution for which I worked as a soldier, from 1992 to 1996, and again work for as a professor, since 2006. When I was a soldier, the Army was the best group of people I’d ever worked with, and after a couple years — first as Corporal Edwards, and then as Sergeant Edwards — the job was the first time I’d ever been genuinely good at something that challenged me. It was also the first time I felt I was doing something important; something bigger than me. I feel the same way now: after graduate study and a few years as a professor, I’m again feeling like I’m getting good at what I do, and again welcoming the feeling that I’m doing something important, serving something bigger than me.

I know the Army does good things sometimes. (Sometimes it doesn’t. We know that. It’s important to acknowledge.) I know it’s full of people who are enormously committed to doing good things, and to doing things that they believe are good. Like the American culture from which it draws its soldiers, it has its share of stupid and vicious people as well — Steven Green, Lynndie England, William Calley, the helicopter pilot identified as Crazy Horse 18 of the 227th Aviation Regiment — but they are the exception to the rule constituted by men and women I served with in the 24th Infantry and the men and women I work with now; people who are good-hearted, caring, massively and intimidatingly competent, and committed to an ideal of voluntary service that many folks can’t imagine.

But I’ve been strongly opposed to the second war in Iraq since its inception, and agree with the argument that basing a decision to go to war in which humans will die upon pretenses that one knows are false can only be characterized as evil. The fact that over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in that war is an after-the-fact measure of the magnitude of the effects of that evil. Some American soldiers, like Steven Green, Lynndie England, and Crazy Horse 18, bear willing and active complicity in that evil. Worse to me, it seems, is the way that such evil contaminates even those who try to do the right thing: those who serve well in Iraq, who do good deeds, build schools, protect innocents, and even those at home who allowed or promoted the election of a President who made that decision to go to war on premises he knew were false — we’re all brushed by that evil.

I try to do the right thing. I talk to my students about what might and might not constitute the right thing to do when they become officers. The Orientalist gives up lunch hours each month to facilitate discussions among those officers-to-be about ethics in the military. And as wrong as I feel Iraq was (and as strongly as I support those over there trying to put together the pieces so we don’t leave the place even worse than when we went in), I want to believe that we’re doing the right thing in Afghanistan. I’ve just finished Amin Saikal’s Modern Afghanistan, and have begun Neil Moran’s Kipling and Afghanistan and Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, with Sarah Chayes’s The Punishment of Virtue and Margaret Mills’s Rhetoric and Politics in Afghan Traditional Storytelling on deck. The Taliban’s corrupt medieval thuggery and support of al Qaeda’s vicious tactics, its brutal and hideous misogyny, and its opposition to education, enlightenment, and fundamental human rights seem to me to entirely merit (and, in fact, morally require) the presence of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Afghanistan is a place where 14% of the population is literate, and where soldiers — and civilians — have begun to do good things.

That’s a project to which I hope to contribute. Next year, I deploy to Afghanistan for six months, to help with language and literacy education. I’ll be in tension about it then, perhaps much as I am now. But I’m hopeful.

I think we can do good things.

As with all material on this blog, the opinions in this post are my own, and do not represent those of any institution with which I am associated.

The Teleology of Capitalism

Does capitalism have a particular teleology? If those who believe strongly in the virtues of unfettered free-market capitalism were to think teleologically, what ideal end-state would they imagine, and for whom?

Popular critiques of vulgar or orthodox Marxism understand its ideal goal to consist of class struggle leading to socialist revolution followed by a worker’s utopia wherein “after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Critique of the Gotha Program). Critiques of various forms of Marxism that admit a more sophisticated understanding still often find a solid target in teleologies that imagine some remedy to the appropriation of unpaid labor and a loosening of the bourgeoisie’s private ownership of the means of production: so, yes, Marxisms by definition often imagine some future circumstance toward which they work.

Do the advocates of free-market competition similarly imagine some ideal future circumstance — and if so, what does it look like?

Kitchen Tables

This year, the Henry Ossian Flipper dinner was open to faculty, and I went. It was a fine event. The dinner celebrates the first black American cadet to graduate from West Point, and celebrates as well a cadet who graduated under the most challenging of circumstances, and who served his country and lived his life, quotidian, under those same circumstances.

Henry O. Flipper as a cadet

There’s a lesson to be had not only from Lieutenant Flipper, but from the cadets: a lesson that challenge, that difficulty, is quotidian, for some more than others. (Lieutenant Flipper’s account of his time as a cadet is genuinely remarkable, and well worth reading.) In 1877, Henry O. Flipper became the first African-American to graduate from the United States Military Academy, and in 1881 he was court-martialed for embezzlement and for conduct unbecoming an officer, and was dismissed from the Army in 1882 upon conviction on the latter charge.

Henry O. Flipper as an officer

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Academic Category Error

People in my academic discipline sometimes conflate “military” and “war.” From what I’ve seen of the broader scape of academe, that’s not uncommon. In listserv discussions, interactions at conferences, calls for proposals, and hallway conversations, there’s a common assumption that any association with the military must commit one to a monolithic and intolerant ideology supporting all war, always, in all contexts.

Two nights ago, on Monday, Eugene Jarecki showed up on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart promoting his new book. (Jarecki wrote and directed the award-winning 2005 documentary Why We Fight, which — while voluminously researched and attempting to provide the appearance of scrupulous fairness — mostly did a very good job for 99 minutes of proving that Jarecki agreed with the cautions offered in Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” speech: to paraphrase a number of critics, the movie was an op-ed piece, not investigative reporting.) He had some good things to say about today’s links between the defense industry and American foreign policy, and with Stewart’s prompting and assistance, he made a number of solid points fully and clearly in the nine minutes or so that he had.

Stewart’s a breezy interviewer, and I think Jarecki would have fared better with a more deliberate pace, perhaps even with being asked to read a passage from the book out loud, NPR-style, though that seldom plays well on television. (Would that it did.) I say this because Jarecki was invited here to West Point to talk to people — cadets and faculty — about his movie after its release, and accounts of those conversations have traveled, some of them making their way into his new book, and some of them making their way into our Dean’s annual address to faculty — all faculty, military and civilian — where I first heard them two months ago. I quote here from Jarecki’s book, The American Way of War, published ten days ago:

Located in wooded isolation some 50 miles north of New York City, West Point is very much in its own intellectual orbit, not entirely removed from the workings of the American defense establishment, yet not entirely in sync with them either. On my first drive there, I recall the incredulity with which friends and family reacted when I called from the road to tell them where I was going. They were surprised that a military academy would even show a film like Why We Fight, let alone invite a self-acknowledged critic of U.S. defense policy, to address its best and brightest.

As it turns out, this incredulity reflects a prejudice that sweepingly and mistakenly equates bad foreign policy with those entrusted to implement it. While soldiers come in all types and no single generalization can be made, one finds inspiring abundance on West Point’s faculty of responsible thinkers who feel a responsibility not only to train their cadets in the military arts but to educate them more broadly about the strengths and weaknesses of the nation’s foreign policy system.

Jarecki’s words are a careful and instructive counter to the myopic conflation I describe above. When our Dean read those words, and conveyed them to the faculty with an argument about their importance, they helped me see something more about teaching at this place, and about why I’m teaching here and want to continue to teach here. The engagement with diverse and critical perspectives that Jarecki describes is something I’ve seen here far more than at any other college or university I’ve attended or taught at, and seen especially with a remarkable openness in the classroom.

It’s remarkable the things cadets are unafraid to say and the criticisms they’re unafraid to make, reasonably and professionally, and how calmly and precisely they’re able to disagree with one another on loaded issues, and then think nothing of it and move on to celebrate and support one another. (Mostly.) In my class, they’ve just finished a unit on multi-modal argument, with more than a few of them giving presentations on similar or identical topics in rapid succession, and the kaleidoscope of perspectives has been refreshingly more wide-ranging than some of the homogeneous arrays of ideological and rhetorical commonplaces I’ve seen elsewhere. And in many ways more liberally accepting; more embracing of what Benjamin Franklin called “all these scatter’d counsels.” That ideological diversity and tolerance strikes me as one of the most valuable assets that a democratic nation might promote in its military, and one that I wish I might see more of in academe’s broader scape.

Palin’s Resemblance

Slate culture editor Meghan O’Rourke nails it, in as apt an analogy as I’ve seen: Sarah Palin is a character from a George Saunders short story. If you’ve read Saunders’ fiction, you know exactly what O’Rourke’s talking about; if you haven’t, Saunders writes a world shaped by the brand-name overconsumption, with its inhabitants tragicomically resigned and adapted to the dictatorial regime of consumerism. In O’Rourke’s words, Palin “buys into a whole vocabulary of signifiers that often don’t signify very much, and she scaffolds that lexicon with winks, smiles, and carefully mimed gestural reinforcement.”

It’s an attractive, pleasant, carefully calibrated empty clockwork face. That’s what I’d say I saw last night.

Dream Team

I’m not sure how enthusiastic I am about Obama’s choice of Joe Biden as a running mate — I remember the ways he embarrassed himself in past candidacies — but I think Obama, if he and his team are smart, can use Biden’s past criticisms of Obama with some rhetorical savvy to show how an Obama administration might value diverse perspectives, in contrast to the Bush administration’s echo chamber of the last eight years. But it got me thinking: who else would I like to see contributing their perspectives to a possible Obama administration?

Secretary of State: Hillary Clinton
Secretary of the Treasury: Warren Buffett
Secretary of Defense: Wesley Clark
Attorney General: Lawrence Lessig
Secretary of the Interior: Al Gore
Secretary of Agriculture: Carolyn Mugar
Secretary of Commerce: Joseph Stiglitz
Secretary of Education: Kathleen Blake Yancey

Well, sure, some of them are reaches, but it’s a wish list, a dream team. An assertion of hope about the direction in which we might go. And, yes, I’ve left off Labor, HHS, Transportation, Energy, VA, and Homeland Security. So I’ll ask: what would your choices be, reader? Who would you change or add?

Patriots

I voted on Tuesday, and felt good. It’s a satisfying thing to do, isn’t it? There’s a small emotional high afterwards; a hopefulness, especially with primaries. A pleasant feeling about democratic processes.

My lesson plans for the two courses I’m teaching intersected with that pleasant feeling in interesting ways. I hadn’t figured the primaries into my syllabi, but in a nice bit of synchronicity, one course was responding to Ernest Renan’s “What Is a Nation?”, and the other course was responding to our Declaration of Independence and the documents Jefferson drew from in composing it.

But nobody in either course raised the question — despite that Super Bowl defeat — of what “patriot” might mean, and I’m curious about that silence. It’s a gendered term, of course, and so carries certain difficulties, but its semi-synonyms — “nationalist,” perhaps, for one — are even more troublesome to some.

Certainly, the students I teach can’t not be patriots, in the service they’ve volunteered to their country: one reason it doesn’t come up in discussion is that it’s beyond argument for them.

But I bet, readers, that some of you might not want to be labeled as patriots. So I’m curious: how has our sense of what it means to be a nation, or to be a patriot, or to declare allegiance to Renan’s patrie — how has that changed from 1776 to 1882 to today? On November 4, will you think of yourself as a patriot — and if so, or if not — why?

Still Lazy After All These Years

On March 31, 2006, John Schilb referred to Mark Bauerlein as “lazy and paranoid” in response to Bauerlein’s uninformed attack in a blog post at The Valve on that year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication, with the evidentiary basis of Bauerlein’s attack being a few presentation titles.

In what one might see as a generous attempt on Bauerlein’s part to confirm Schilb’s assessment, he’s recycled his 2006 blog post at The Valve into a 2008 blog post at The Chronicle Review, with exactly the same method (cherry-picking presentation titles) and exactly the same evidence (the 2006 conference program).