The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What's off limits?

Is there anyone out there who bridges the following divide?

There are those (generally on the right) who believe that the fall of Saddam Huessein was a stabilizing influence in the world: removing a Bad Guy, bringing democracy to the region, and so forth.

Then there are others (myself included) who thinks it was horrible, that North Korea and/or Iran's urge to acquire nukes was accelerated by us invading a sovereign country (for non-existent WMD's), dragging Saddam out of a hole and hanging him. Anyone out there believe we would have been as eager to do that if he'd had nukes? Seems to me that the only response a "strong man" dictator can take is to arm himself with the very weapons we claimed Saddam had. I certainly know I would--the only other option would be to grab my ankles and let America or the U.N. or whatever search my entire country, informing every opponent I had that I'm too weak to stop it.

Is there anyone who kinda holds both positions at the same time? Just interested.


I would certainly prefer that all political discourse be civilized. To my knowledge, it has never been so, not really. The only remaining question is: what is fighting fair? What is below the belt? I doubt any two people would agree on all the rules. But:

1) Are families out of play? Spouses? I'd prefer so, but considering that politicians parade their families out in public, I suppose I understand why some think them fair play.

2) Religion? If the subject of morality comes into it, or a person's religious beliefs will affect public policy, why not?

3) Sexual orientation. I'd say no, but we're in a culture war over the subject. Not likely to be off the table.

4) Race. Dicey. I'd say race is less protected if the person is a member of the majority group. This is obviously affected by my own emotional filters, so I can' t claim to impartiality. However, I don't think it's as bad for a 1st grader to hit a 6th grader than the other way around. Racial stereotypes are always in bad taste. It's probably impossible to completely remove from discourse, because there will always be people willing to believe that so-and-so didn't know watermelons are associated with negative racial images. And others willing to lie about it. So comments about tar babies and so forth will always be question marks: was the person racist, exploiting racism, or just ignorant?

5) Gender. Probably belongs on the table, to the degree that questions of social roles, biological determinism and so forth are important social topics. But gender stereotypes don't. But try to take that card off the table, and you'll probably get your fingers bitten off.


I am perfectly aware that I'm going to be more defensive about a racist comment than a sexist one. Probably because it affects me more personally, although I can present "reasons" why it's all right for me to have that reaction, it's probably most honestly construed as self-serving bullshit.


Would I react more strongly to an assassination joke about Obama than I did to Bush? Yes. The reason I enjoyed "The Death of a President," the Canadian film about the assassination of Bush, while I would be horrified by an identical film about Obama is that I never, not for a moment, believed there was any exceptional threat toward Bush. That in my lifetime, I watched several leaders on the left actually murdered, while those on the Right got wounded (Reagan, Wallace) but survived. Either the Left can't shoot, or the Right is just more violent. I don't know, really I don't. But that, combined with the obvious risk (the secret service has NEVER seen the volume of threat against a president as they do against Obama. As they did against Colin Powell) means that like millions of other people, I completely expect some kind of attempt. In addition, I've never seen television networks joking about a president's death, or calling him a terrorist, or any of the other things that I've seen.

If I had ever believed there was such a threat against Bush, I wouldn't have been able to enjoy the film. But I still would have been MORE horrified about a film about Obama because of the personal significance. What if I lived in the "Lion's Blood" universe, had my current rough political/social beliefs, and Bush had been the first WHITE president? Then I'd probably be almost as horrified by a movie about his death, and I would pray for his success.

Of course, I wouldn't have exactly the same beliefs, in all likelihood. I can only hope that, were I the one imbued with privilege, I wouldn't delude myself into thinking I deserved it because of my skin color. But I can't say for sure, can I?


Daniel Keys Moran said...

I think the Iraq war may end up being a net benefit to the Iraqi people. I'm not convinced yet, but I'm hopeful; and if that happens, Bush and Rumsfeld and that crowd will get a tiny piece of credit from me. Not much -- not as much as Reagan gets from me for opposing the Evil Empire -- but some.

I think it's been an utter disaster for the American people. I think it's damaged our standing in the world, strengthened our enemies, and cost us far too much in lives and money for any conceivable benefit that might accrue to us.

This isn't quite what you asked, but the truth is that there's good and bad in all circumstances, and the potential for long-term good is there in Iraq.

Mike R said...

> while those on the Right got wounded (Reagan, Wallace) but survived. Either the Left can't shoot,<

Beware the danger of small sample sizes. If Reagan's bullet had been an inch or two different he would have been dead before he hit the floor. If I flip a penny two times and both times it comes up heads, should I just assume that pennies have a natural tendency to turn up heads?

> means that like millions of other people, I completely expect some kind of attempt.<

I do agree with you that Obama's race means that a certain % of people will make the attempt who would not ordinarily do so but it's a dangerous job, period. Of the 43 men who have been President of the US, four of them were assassinated. How many non-criminal jobs have a murder rate of 1 in 11?

It should be expected that their will be assassination attempts against _any_ President.

There are 300 million Americans, and probably at least 3 Billion other people who have some thoughts or opinions on the American President. Even if the % of people who beleive that President X should be assassinated, and are willing to try to do it is a very small %, that is still a very large number to draw from.

>If I had ever believed there was such a threat against Bush, I wouldn't have been able to enjoy the film<

President Bush had a man fire shots into the White House within weeks of taking office (President Obama has not had anything comparable happen yet), and had a live grenade thrown at him (and his wife, and the President and First Lady of Georgia) in 2005 that only didn't go off thanks to pure dumb luck. There was a real threat Bush would be assassinated, as there was/is for any President.

I would be appalled at a film about the assassination of President Obama, but I was appalled at the film about the assassination of Bush and I would be appalled at a film about the assassination of any sitting US President. I view it as tasteless in a way I don't the goriest horror movie. And I think less of you for enjoying such a film.

Unknown said...

Are families out of play? Spouses?

Ideally, I think children should be out of play - including adult children who haven't chosen to involve themselves in politics. There could be a few exceptions: Gaffes by adult children campaigning on behalf of their parents should be subject to criticism the same as gaffes by any other campaign spokesperson, and abuse of office to benefit family members is of course fair game. But those cases are pretty much hypothetical; I can't recall an actual case where a child got brought up that I thought was appropriate. Generally, children should be left alone.

Spouses are more complicated, because they're often political partners, and fair game in that role (e.g. Bill Clinton making speeches on behalf of Hillary Clinton). At the same time, probably more than half of what actually gets said about spouses in campaigns involves more heat than light.

Christian H. said...

Steven - Do you watch Bill Maher? If not, you should. I don't agree with him on a lot of issues, mainly the Creation, but he makes very valid points about both parties and the gender and race issues.

It was a dumb idea to invade Iraq but it was one of those political moves designed to invoke a feeling of power without having the knowledge to do something else.

The world has not changed without Saddam and the Iraqis are in a period of turmoil that hearkens back to old times.

As far as socio-political "arguments" or competition amongst "groups" the problem is that there are "groups." The more divisive things are the less you can get "aggregate effort."

That's a MAJOR problem with our economy. And to make it worse, people are leaving the sciences in record numbers, so there won't be many people with the ability to have a "non-violent disagreement."

It's amazing how supremacists act when you outdo them. Perhaps that is an indication of why the neos are outraged at Obama's easy victory over the good old boy - no slight against McCain. It's just unfortunate that some people can't see beyond themselves. I voted for Hillary though for my own reasons (read: I seem to like women more).

redbeardsghost said...

I'll stand up to bridge the gap. I see your point that a leader of a country might feel a need to protect him- or herself from a president like Bush by growing a weapons program like Hussein was accused of having, in order to not suffer the fate that Hussein suffered. However, I believe that has little to do with the weapon programs in Iran and PRK. Kim and Iran's leader (I'm not even going to try to spell his name) are driven by motives of personal aggrandizement that have more to do with insanity than they do with personal or national security.

So if we set these two leaders aside, what do we find actually happening? the only other countries actually at near threat of invasion by the US for security or financial reasons are Afghanistan (invaded before Iraq, but we're still there) Pakistan(we have technically invaded, for certain definitions of the word invade) and Somalia(It is tempting to think that we could stop the piracy by attacking them on land). Hawks might have others that they are droolong over, but those are the ones that are obvious from the center. Of the three, only Pakistan is in a position to do anything, and they were responding much as you suggest, by reminding the world that they are in fact a nuclear power, and by sticking their fingers in their ears whenever the Americans say anything. Of course, that has not been working well for them, because they have a very real problem that can only be solved cooperatively, so maybe they can be wise enough to work with us, even though we have a stamp in our record that says "does not play well with others".

Algonquin J. Calhoun said...

I would tend to go along with your assessment of North Korea's possible motivation in the nuke race but for the fact that there's not much there that I can see the USA would want to justify an invasion which one would most definitely be required if the idea wasn't to kill everybody there and to hell with the land. Too many people and not enough resources, natural or otherwise, to start a real live shooting war. What I mean is who needs it and what pray tell for?

I take a kind of solace in China keeping NK more or less in reasonable line. Any war in earnest in NK is most CERTAINLY going to involve China to degrees I'm fairly sure they'd like to avoid at ALL costs up to and including sending something quite nasty in NK's direction be it 5 million armed, pissed off, and dangerous Chinese soldiers or a missile with multiple warheads on a day when the prevailing winds are blowing out into The Sea of Japan. Way out and fast at that.

Personally I think NK's aim is to get whatever bargaining chips they can with nukes in a move not unlike that which was the subject of an early Peter Sellers film, The Mouse That Roared. A kind of we have nukes give us want we want move and then see what comes out of it, if anything.

Marty S said...

I don't think that N. Korea and Iran's nuclear policy is a defensive one driven by Bush's invasion of Iraq. I do think that are inability to control the situation in Iraq quickly has made us look ineffective and encouraged them to defy us. Among the many reasons it was wrong for Bush to invade Iran was he forgot the that old saying the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Sadem's Iraq and Iran were contender's for power in the mid-east. To that extent each was a friend to the U.S. The Iraq invasion created a power vacuum which Iran has leaped into to fill.

I don't think family members are fair play period. Two wrongs don't make a right. To say, that what Letterman did is okay because Palin was wrong, is saying that one wrong justifies another.

On religion, I remember the complaints during the campaign about bringing up his Muslim heritage(which he has whether he himself is Muslim or not) and I agree with those complaints, but remember that outrage when you are tempted to bring somebody else religious background.

I'd say thinking that reverse racism is less vile than any other racism is very racist. Creating an alternate history in which the roles are reversed is a perfectly valid way of trying to get people to see the evils of racism. But its not okay to give even the slightest nod to such a reality.

On gender I would say there are differences between the genders and those differences should not be off the table. But, asserting the inferiority of one sex over the other should be.

Finally with respect to Obama. Today I received an email with six cartoons making fun of Obama. I found one pretty funny, one mildly funny, and four fell completely flat. I don't think any of them were racist in the sense they all could have been drawn about a White President with Obama's policies. However, I suspect that at least some Obama supporters would have been outraged by one or more of the cartoons.

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem you people are having is always seeing the world through "American Eyes" and that your interests are always aligned with right. I'm not saying this to be disrespectful or antagonistic but it is extremely difficult to see other people's perspective whether it be on a personal or cultural level. Moral arguments will come up but we rarely give a rats ass unless it involves oil and stategic territory.

Anonymous said...


Moammar Gadhafi claimed that the invasion of Iraq led to his decision to end Libya's WMD programs. Like North Korea and Iran, Libya already had well-established WMD programs before the Iraq War. If the Iraq War inspired one national leader who has had unfriendly relations with the U.S. to end WMD development, then accelerating such programs is hardy the only option for North Korea and Iran.


Daniel Keys Moran said...

Apropos of not much --

Leftists who were shot:

Jan. 30, 1948: Gandhi
Nov. 22, 1963: JFK
Feb. 21, 1965: Malcolm X
Apr. 4, 1968: MLK
Jun. 6, 1968: RFK
Aug 13, 2008: Bill Gwatney, Arkansas state Democratic Party Chairman

Leftists whose planes crashed
Oct. 16, 1972: Thomas Boggs, Majority Leader House of Representatives
Congressman Nick Begich
Jul. 16, 1999: JFK Jr.
Oct. 16, 2000: Mel Carnahan
Oct. 24, 2002: Paul Wellstone

Steven Barnes said...

1) I never said that accelerating a weapons program was the only reaction to the American invasion. I said that I would want nukes, given what happened to Saddam, if I were a dictator.
2) For what it's worth, Mike, what I liked about the movie wasn't watching Bush die. It was seeing what commentary they made about the way the world reacted. A dangerous subject, to be sure, but "close calls" aren't like watching MLK and Malcolm and Bobby and John actually die. There've been lots of close calls on both sides--but actual decimation only on one. If those numbers had been reversed, I would have been horrified even if I disagreed with his politics. I can't think of the most prominent American Right-Winger or Republican assassinated in my lifetime. I think it's perfectly reasonable not to consider it as much a threat. In assessing threats, actual deeds always count more than "attempts".
3) I don't think it's racist to consider reverse racism as less dangerous than racism. It's "powerist" or something: the group with more power to directly hurt (due to numbers, resources or physical size has less risk of actual damage. I've applied the same standard looking at women insulting men, children insulting adults, gays insulting straights, smaller people insulting larger people. Throwing rocks downhill is more effective than throwing them uphill, and I factor that in to judgments of appropriateness. On a desert island half populated by whites, half by blacks, such a standard would not apply. We ain't on an island.

Pagan Topologist said...

Dan, if you are going to include plane crashes (quite reasonable, I think) then John Tower is one on the right. I did not check the date. But he is the ONLY one I can think of.

Scott Masterton said...

Steve -

I have a problem with the term "reverse racism"; to me it's either racist or it's not. It's either okay to pick and choose based on race or it isn't.

I also agree with Mike on the movie about the mythical assassination of President Bush. I find the whole thing disturbing; just as disturbing as a movie about the assassination of President Obama.

Marty S said...

Steve: When a company decides that it doesn't need a function and transfers to other groups the four female employees and one male Latino employee while giving two weeks severance pay to the three white male employees this is okay because white males are the majority.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Pagan, it also leaves off Ron Brown, who died in a plane crash. I forgot about him, which is amusing -- I gave a speech back in the mid-90s to an internet group in DC; Ron Brown was the opening speaker, and I was the closing speaker. I was pretty proud of this and I called my dad up to brag -- he said, "Don't stand too close to that guy."

Died in a plane crash April 3, 1996.

Travis said...

I think there is some inherehnt bias creeping into the Iraq war question.

The pro-war side is challenged to show that it was 'stabilizing' while the anti war opinion is broadly drawn as 'horrible'. This would frame the arguement very narrowly for the pro-war side while allowing very broad arguments against.

I'm sure that wasn't your intent Steve, both from past reading and from the stuff that appears after the colon on the 'pro-war challenge'. Just an observation before I launch into my explaination of why both sides are valid and why I hold both views.

Simply put, Saddam Hussein was evil. Arguably the most dangerous combination of willingly evil and having opportunity to implement it on a wide scale who was alive at the time. In case anyone has forgotten were talking about a country were people were routinely beaten and tortured to death. Routine, government sanctioned, sometimes directly ordered by Sadaam.

On the other hand, the war has become a prime recruiting tool for anti-american groups. Clearly abuses have occurred and that has hurt the US standing both in Iraq and throughout the world. While it may have been possible to coduct the post-war occupation in a way that didn't yield the current results that's not what we have.

So I say, yeah, getting rid of Saddam was good, one of the best things the US has done in recent years. The end result though is less then satisfactory.

I'm not convinced though that a reult of the war was speeding up Iran/ Korea's nuclear programs. Looks to me like they would be doing it anyway. Maybe they just figure we're too preoccupied with occupying Iraq to do anything.

I also realize that most people aren't going to be persuaded that the war was justified by Saddam's evil. They'll say " well there are other bad people/countries and were not stopping them", "the US used to support him" or "it's their country".

As far as I'm concerned these are excuses. What they mean to say is "I don't care about other people enough to risk myself to help them".

And maybe that's okay. Nothing wrong per se with looking out for your and yours. Just be honest about it.

Travis said...

Oh yeah- I forgot to mention Michael Scott Speicher. As far as I'm concerned that alone was enough justification to bring hell down on Sadaam and it should have been done much sooner by a previous administration.

Pagan Topologist said...

Marty, there is another possible reason for what you describe. The white men may have been the highest paid employees, and the employer figured that the work could be done by the lowest paid employees, and saved the most money that way. I have a friend who was laid off back in the 1970's precisely because he was the highest paid person in his department, and it was either lay him off or lay off two other people. His boss told him this explicitly at the time.

Dan, are you including Ron Brown as someone on the left or someone on the right? He seemed to me to be a centrist who may have died solely for being black. But it has been a long time, and I don't recall much about his views and actions.

David Bellamy

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Ron Brown was chairman of the Democratic National Party, and Clinton's Commerce Secretary. He also ran one of Jesse Jackson's campaigns for President. For a black Democrat he was fairly moderate, but I think he'd qualify as a lefty from the standards of anyone on the right, to be sure.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Oh, and there's this; not a liberal, but a conservative who was making trouble:

A tipster close to the McCain campaign disclosed to VR in July that Mr. Connell's life was in jeopardy and that Karl Rove had threatened him and his wife, Heather. VR's attorney, Cliff Arnebeck, notified the United States Attorney General , Ohio law enforcement and the federal court about these threats and insisted that Mr. Connell be placed in protective custody. VR also told a close associate of Mr. Connell's not to fly his plane because of another tip that the plane could be sabotaged. Mr. Connell, a very experienced pilot, has had to abandon at least two flights in the past two months because of suspicious problems with his plane. On December 18, 2008, Mr. Connell flew to a small airport outside of Washington DC to meet some people. It was on his return flight the next day that he crashed.

Marty S said...

Pagan Topologist: As one of t6he three white males laid off I can tell you it had nothing to do with pay and everything to do with the company's affirmative action program. By the way the function was created so they could hire a Black executive to run it and no longer needed because the Black manager was transferred to head up another function.
And yes having to sell my house and move my family to take another job has something to do with my current attitude towards affirmative action.

Steven Barnes said...

And so it should, Marty. I'm terribly sorry for your loss--that has to hurt, no two ways about it. No matter what we do, someone is going to be hurt, dammit. That's just the truth.