MD Understanding Quality And Power

From: Mark Steven Heyman (
Date: Thu Dec 09 2004 - 03:59:22 GMT

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    Hi Sam,

    Note subject change. Maybe we can use this thread to discuss the
    Iraq situation, as well as other power and quality issues. I'd very
    much like to bring the MOQ into this when appropriate, with the
    understanding that both of us find it inadequate, in some respects.

    On 3 Dec 2004 at 10:58, Sam Norton wrote:

    Picked up a copy of Understanding Power yesterday, I'll let you know
    how I get on with it.

    msh says:
    Great. I look forward to discussing it with you. One of the things
    I like about that book is that you can jump around in it, focusing on
    topics of interest, without having to read from cover to cover.

    It's very difficult to find someone with whom to discuss Chomsky's
    ideas in a thoroughly critical yet respectful manner. People haven't
    read him, but revile him because of what others have told them he
    says. Then there are those who read him as if he were some kind of
    superhuman force of nature, never wrong, and just plain saintly in
    all regards. He's a genius, that's for sure, and since he's focused
    a lot of that brain power on international affairs for 60 years, he's
    worth listening to, IMO. His lifetime dedication to revealing
    entrenched Power's assaults on human freedom and dignity certainly
    deserves our respect; but in other ways he's as imperfect as the rest
    of us, and he's the first to say so.

    > sam:
    > I used to subscribe to Norman Solomon's regular
    > e-mails, until after 9/11, when I got fed up with him.
    > msh asks:
    > Why?

    <snip> I shifted 'rightwards' after 9/11, through following the
    discussions that that provoked about the value(s) of the US system.
    There seemed to be a sense of moral equivalence between the US system
    and other regimes (specifically the Taliban in that case) which, in
    the end, I found that I profoundly rejected.

    msh says:
    This idea of "moral equivalence," though it's frequently tossed
    about, seems to me to be rather ill-defined. Can you tell me what
    you mean by it? And did you find that Solomon advocated this idea?
    Or was this something you sensed just from reading the MOQer posts.
    If Solomon, can you remember a specific column or two? Or maybe
    another example of the moral equivalence argument in action, and who
    made it?

    That is, I am comfortable with the notion that the US system is, in
    an absolute sense, qualitatively superior to many of the alternatives
    on offer - and, with caveats, it needs to be defended as such. I'll
    look at him again now.

    msh says:
    Well sure. But this brings up the whole issue of viable threat
    assessment and rational response. When the Oklahoma City terrorist
    bombing occurred, US authorities behaved more or less rationally,
    using normal criminal procedures in apprehending and trying and
    convicting the terrorist. If McVeigh had escaped back to Idaho or
    wherever, and authorities suspected he was there, they wouldn't have
    bombed Idaho (or Montana or Texas). Any sort of rational concept of
    justice would have precluded this: you want to apprehend and punish
    the criminal, not everyone and anyone within a thousand miles of
    where he once lived. After 9/11, when the US bombed Afghanistan on
    the pretext of trying to apprehend SBL, we were murdering his and the
    Taliban's VICTIMS. When we invaded Iraq under the serially
    discredited pretexts of revenge for and protection against other
    9/11s, disarming Hussein, or democratizing Iraq, we were consciously
    murdering the Bathist regime's VICTIMS.

    My most consistent source of news and comment, since I became
    interested in current affairs as a teenager, has been the Economist.

    msh says:
    I've scanned The Economist on the web, but will now take a closer
    look. My experience has been that financial journals (Wall Street
    Journal, The Financial Times) are often excellent mainstream sources
    of information, discounting the editorial pages, of course. The
    reason is that their readers demand accurate information in order to
    make the best business decisions.

    I think it's a mistake to conflate the 'corporate' agenda with the
    'conservative' agenda, especially on values questions. The thing I
    like about the Economist is that it's own attitude and bias is
    remarkably consistent and obvious, which makes it easier to weigh
    things in the balance.

    msh says:
    I agree completely. The corporate media are concerned with
    maximization of profits, as well as centralization of power. They
    will appear conservative only to the extent that conservatism
    supports this agenda. It's just that there is an obvious connection
    between conservative values and corporate values, so, more often
    than not, the folks in control of corporations will be conservative.

    msh earlier:
    What's clear to me is that any human being who seeks for himself
    immense power over others (and all the perks that go with it), is
    going to be somewhat corrupt to start with. Once power is achieved,
    the unwillingness to relinquish it often leads to exponentially
    greater levels of corruption. I believe that this outcome is
    unavoidable as long as we retain within our societies hierarchies of
    unaccountable power and authority, of any kind.

    I have sympathy with that, but I think we need to be careful to
    distinguish between the 'systematic' corruption, and the individual
    corruption of particular people within the system. That is, you can
    be a very nice person, kind to your children etc, and still commit
    abominable acts because the nature of the system dictates it.

    msh says:
    Sure. But such people have either internalized the values of the
    system so that they've convinced themselves that the abominable acts
    are necessary; or they are truly suffering from some sort of
    psychological disconnect. And, as you suggest, there are also people
    who absolutely will not commit or contribute to abominable acts
    dictated by the system. It's just that such people are usually
    weeded out long before they can take a public stand. There are great
    exceptions of course: William Blum (US State Department), Philip
    Agee (CIA), Scott Ritter, Dennis Halliday, Ramsey Clark, Richard
    Clarke. And my personal favorite: Hugh Thompson, the US helicopter
    pilot who set his chopper down between My Lai villagers and American
    soldiers who were trying to kill them. He ordered his door gunner
    and crew chief to "cover him" as he went to confront the American
    forces and subsequently coax civilians out of a bunker to enable
    their evacuation. This guy trained his guns on his own troops and
    stopped them cold, saving many innocent lives. (I believe this
    incident is documented in the notes to Understanding Power. But you
    can find plenty of confirmation on the Internet.)

    msh earlier:
    But I also understand your reluctance to reject the idea that OUR
    leaders are somehow different in nature from THEIR leaders. This is
    the expected result of being told from the cradle, every day in a
    hundred ways, that our country is great and good, our leaders
    beneficent and wise; though they may make a mistake here or there,
    our leaders are diligently and selflessly striving to make the world
    a better place for all. But the educational and mass media
    apparatus of EVERY state is dedicated to inculcating these exact
    notions. This fact alone should make us suspicious of our own
    beliefs along this line.

    Yes, but even after viewing comparative political systems through the
    hermeneutic of suspicion I remain of the view that the "Western"
    system (I'm thinking specifically of: the rule of law; individual
    autonomy; democracy; free speech etc) is indeed better than the

    msh says:
    Sure. Better than the alternatives, in some ways. And it's
    interesting that the values you mention are intellectual not social,
    in terms of the MOQs moral hierarchy.

    But there are many other so-called American or Western values that
    are not so clearly worth defending: capital punishment, privitization
    of vital public services, regressive taxation policies, union
    busting, uncompensated transfer of public resources into private
    hands. We also need to make a distinction between how a government
    treats its own people, and how that same government acts in foreign
    affairs. See the example I gave above regarding the difference in
    response to domestic versus international terrorist attacks. Or, as
    I've mentioned elsewhere, think of ancient Greece which treated its
    citizens wonderfully (except for women and slaves, of course), but
    was absolutely brutal in it's conquest of non-Greeks. It's just pure
    confusion to point to some admirable domestic policies as
    justification for contributing to international terrorism in the
    process of conquering other nations.

    The problem is that the way the system functions means
    that it falls seriously short of where it should be (and where it
    claims to be). But pointing out the flaws should not, I believe,
    blind us to the benefits that obtain under it.

    msh says:
    I agree completely. And I'm sure that you'd agree such benefits
    cannot be used to justify aggression against sovereign nations,
    unless in response to direct or imminent attack.

    sam before:
    Thing is, I was also having this argument with a friend, and saying
    that Bush wasn't quite as immoral as my friend was alleging. And
    then my friend pointed out that Bush was happy to execute minors and
    the mentally retarded, and I was silenced, because (as my friend
    well knew) I think capital punishment is indefensible.

    msh replied:
    As do I. And how different, really, is this from sending a Cruise
    missile screaming into an apartment building full of sleeping
    Iraqis? In fact, it's obvious to me that the latter is far worse.

    Hmm. That there are specific 'war crimes' of which the US/UK etc
    should repent is, I think, clear - but I'm more worried by things
    like cluster bombs, napalm and phosphorous etc than the cruise
    missile attacks (unless there is a mistake in targeting - Chinese
    embassy anyone?)

    msh says:
    Of course I agree with you on the use of cluster bombs, napalm, and
    would add DU munitions and boring old landmines, all of which were
    and are being used in the invasion and continued occupation of Iraq.

    I still think that our munitions are greatly more targeted than they
    have ever been before, and we take much more care to avoid civilian
    casualties than other cultures.

    msh says:
    Well when I hear about "precision bombing" I can't help but think
    about that wry description of Organized Crime: it's not all that
    organized. Here's how I see it. If someone drives a bus at high
    speed through a crowded neighborhood and kills a dozen people, ok
    that's an accident. But if the same guy does the same thing the next
    day and the next day and the next, in what sense can we claim that
    the deaths he causes are unintentional?

    It's clear to me that governments use aerial assaults rather than
    direct infantry attacks because such assaults, especially when we are
    talking unmanned missiles and stealth aircraft against primitive or
    non-existent anti-aircraft activity, are essentially risk-free to the
    aggressor. But massive bombing of civilian areas ALWAYS results in
    the indiscriminate killing of civilians. What follows from this is
    obvious: the lives of the aggressor's fighting men are considered of
    greater value than the lives of innocent civilians living in the
    nation under attack. This, to me, is morally indefensible. Again,
    for emphasis, think back to the USG's response to OK City bombing
    versus the WTC attacks.

    sam earlier:
    I think it has been well established that Blair, for example,
    strongly distorted the evidence re WMD to drum up support for going
    to war. What I am not so convinced about is that this distortion
    makes the overall decision worthless.

    msh earlier:
    And my point would be that the distortion is evidence of his
    corruption and, therefore, the overall decision should be regarded
    as HIGHLY suspicious, if not worthless. His argument is very

    1) We want to invade and occupy Iraq.
    2) We need to persuade people this is necessary for their safety.
    3) There is evidence that this isn't necessary for their safety.
    4) Therefore, we must distort the evidence.

    I think his reasoning was more: the present situation cannot
    continue; the choice is therefore "military action or retreat?";

    msh asks:
    What was unbearably different about the "present situation" that
    forced a choice between military action or diplomatic retreat? If
    anything, UN inspections had revealed that Hussein was weaker and
    less dangerous than ever before. How all of a sudden did this brutal
    thug's behavior become intolerable? Especially in light of the fact
    that his most brutal behavior was carried out under the watchful eye
    and with the tacit support of the US and UK, which were now so
    desperate to topple him.

    sam continues:
    he chose military action (on liberal internationalist/humanitarian
    grounds, I believe);

    msh says:
    The liberal internationalist/humanitarian grounds for his choice are
    certainly open to question. But this isn't necessary here because I
    think premise one is invalid.

    sam continues:
    we must maximise political support for this;

    msh says:

    sam continues:
    the argument about WMD is a useful one; let's push it as far as it
    can go.

    msh says:
    If he had any inkling of the evidentiary weakness of the argument,
    then pushing it becomes dishonest. Besides it smacks of using an
    ogre story to scare children into obedience. Why focus on that
    argument if there were stronger ones to be made?

    Anyway... enough for now...

    Talk later,
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