by Michael Steinberg
A short time ago, Los Angeles Times columnist Joel Stein wrote a column starting, "I don't support our troops." It was a well-reasoned
piece by most standards, though Stein unthinkingly repeats the urban legend about "peaceniks" spitting on troops returning from Vietnam. For his honesty, he received
a hundred "hate e-mails" on his (unpublished) personal e-mail account in three hours, far-right columnist Michelle Malkin called him "one of the most loathsome people in America," and in two days the comments posted after the piece ran to 159 pages. Yet Stein never really answer the one question that you might have thought was most crucial: What does it mean to "support our troops"?
Does "I support our troops" mean "I support the war"? Does it mean "I want the soldiers home safely"? (To what extent would this be inconsistent with, "I want all Iraqi men, women, and children to be safe"?) Does it mean, "I
oppose the war but want American soldiers to face no more risks than are absolutely necessary"? Or, "I think the war in Iraq was a mistake but now it's better for our soldiers that they manage something that can be passed off as a victory so their psychological state after their return will be less troubled"?
You don't need to answer. Nobody's going to ask you what you mean by the phrase. The important thing is that you repeat it. It's an example of the performative use of language. Shouting it or sticking a yellow or red-white-and-blue magnetic ribbon on your car shows that you are regular folks, the way the ability to pronounce the word "shibboleth" distinguished the ancient Hebrews from their enemies. The phrase is its use as a mark of belonging, nothing more.
This is nothing extraordinary. Public language today resembles an exchange of greeting cards more than a discussion. It makes me think of the punch-out Valentine's cards I and all my elementary school classmates used to distribute. I wasn't allowed to pick which little girls were going to get the prettiest ones. I wasn't even allowed to choose girls over boys, or vice versa. Everyone had to get a valentine, even the bullies who had beaten me up in fourth grade for supporting Kennedy over Nixon. And anyone who actually read the cards and took their sugary wishes for a real statement of my feelings misunderstood the whole exercise.
Today's public life is a series of
greeting-card debates. What counts is that the responses sound
like responses. Their effectiveness is the same even if they turn out
to be meaningless. The greatest virtuoso of the greeting-card
response is the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. To take a
recent example: after two
different reports claimed that low reenlistment rates, shortfalls
in recruiting, and repeated deployments to the war zone in Iraq had
pushed the US Army to the breaking point, Rumsfeld
The world saw the United States military
go halfway around the world and in a matter of weeks throw the al
Qaeda and Taliban out of Afghanistan, in a landlocked country
thousands and thousands of miles away. They saw what the United
States military did in Iraq, and the message from that is not that
this armed force is broken, but that this armed force is enormously
Set aside the question of Rumsfeld's
accuracy. (Would any unbiased observer say that the Taliban has been
"thrown out" of Afghanistan?) His "response" was completely
unresponsive -- the events of 2001 and 2003 have absolutely nothing
to do with the condition of the US Army in 2006. But the Secretary
didn't leave it at that. He claimed that the reports "do not
reflect the current situation. They are either out of date or just
misdirected." This is the
triple-axel of non-responsiveness: rejecting present-day criticism as
"out of date" by bringing up events that were years in the past.
Bush himself is no slouch at this technique, however. Challenged
about his patently illegal program of domestic surveillance, one
of Bush's defenses was this:
what General Mike Hayden said -- he was the former director here at
NSA. He's now the Deputy Director of the National Intelligence --
Deputy Director of National Intelligence -- and here's what he
said earlier this week: "Had this program been in effect prior to
9/11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some
of the 9/11 al Qaeda operatives in the United States, and we would
have identified them as such."
The 9/11 Commission made clear, in this
era of new dangers we must be able to connect the dots before the
terrorists strike so we can stop new attacks.
That is, indeed, one of the Commission's key arguments. But it's
not an argument in favor of gathering more data. As
of the Commission report makes clear, what blinded intelligence
agencies to the impending attacks wasn't a lack of information but an
inability to assemble the information that they already had. (On
this, see pp. 266-277 of the report.) Nor is it a reason to evade the
legislative requirement that wiretaps be authorized by the secret
FISA court, since through
2001 that court modified only two out of more than 13,000 warrant
applications -- that's two, not two thousand -- and rejected none.
(In later years, the administration has had a less impressive batting
average, reportedly because they "couldn't
dream up" a justification for some of their requests.)
The defense does nothing but obscure the issue.
The Hamas landslide in the Palestinian
elections brought out the best in Bush, who simultaneously
praised the Palestinian people for expressing their wishes and
rejected the position they had embraced (that Israel is a colony
and thus illegitimate):
You see, when you give people the vote,
you give people a chance to express themselves at the polls . . . [but]
the United States does not support political parties that want to
destroy our ally Israel, and . . . people must renounce that part of
And so it was an interesting day
yesterday in the -- as we're watching liberty begin to spread across
the Middle East.
What does emerge clearly from the seesawing contradictions in this prime
example of Bushspeak is that "liberty" means not self-government
but giving "people the chance to express themselves." The
unspoken corollary to this rule is that one is only allowed to
express oneself in statements that will not be taken literally.
Thus, committee hearings are serial monologues. Each Senator gets
thirty minutes to posture, pronounce a few soundbites to be taped for
reelection commercials, and offer the nominee a chance to do some
posturing of her own. Congressional debates are no different.
Politicians no more engage each other than do contestants in a beauty
Then it's the turn of the pundits, who are untroubled by this lack
of substance. They are interested only in effects: how successful a
particular posture is likely to be with the electorate, what move it
suggests in the endless maneuvering for power, how clever or inept
the speaker is. Anyone so indecorous as to make a substantive point
is politely ignored, like a party guest who's had too much to drink.
And then another news cycle starts, and everything is forgotten
As the boosters for neoliberalism keep telling us, history is
over. The age of ideologies, of shared ideas that move people to
action, is gone. All that's left is the market, where each of us is
free to buy or think whatever we want, so long as it does not shake
the self-absorbed slumber of anyone else. You can show off your
lifestyle and your ideas, but why try to convince or dissuade anyone
else? You won't succeed; and you won't accomplish anything anyway.
So we get impersonations of public life instead of the real thing,
talking points instead of arguments, and greeting-card exchanges
instead of debates. Sham is our new reality, because nothing else
works so well at keeping everything in its place. Only the poor, the
inhabitants of the global South, religious Muslims, and other
backwards folk persist in thinking that human beings can really
change their lives.
Like it or not, they may be our only hope.
Michael Steinberg is the author of The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism published this year by Monthly Review Press and essays in professional journals in history, music, and law. He is a member of the literature collective Cat's out of the Bag. He and his wife Loret, a photographer and professor of documentary photography, live in Rochester, New York, under the supervision of two domestic medium-hair cats.
Michael Steinberg reads from his book at Robin's Book Store, Philadelphia (Photo by Loret Gnivecki Steinberg)