20 January 2006

A Quick Follow Up

In the comments (which is where he always does his best work) tenaciousmcd makes an extremely sober (certainly in contrast to my hotheadedness), intelligent, and I think tenable case for why the US is justified in trying to blow up houses that contain top Al Qaeda operatives in areas where there really is very little order or rule of law. He also asks - again, reasonably enough - why I should get so upset about the 'Wild West' analogy, given that the wild west was populated by white europeans, i.e. there's no racism here. So, quick responses:

  1. I think when the 'wild west' metaphor is used to described the non-west, then it is hard for it not to link up, at least implicitly, with the discourse of Orientalism (I was going to throw in a wikipedia link there, but frankly I found the entry for Orientalism terribly thin). That is, it's hard (to my ears) for it not to sound as if Pakistan is filled with such unruly, uncivilised savages that the only way to proceed is the way we (civilised, rational westerners) see best. When 'wild west' is applied to the non-west, I don't think it can any longer be called simply (as TMcD does) an 'American example'.
  2. However, I want to make clear: my rant really was meant to focus, somewhat narrowly, on the media representation of this botched mission. I really wasn't intending to enter into the debate over whether the US is justified in sending missiles to blow up homes, when they have very good reasons to be certain that those homes are filled with terrorists. TMcD makes a good case for why that might be justified. On the other hand, when what we do instead is to kill innocent civilians (including many children) and not even get the Al Qaeda leader in the process, then our response ought to be, 'uh, oh, we really screwed up'. It shouldn't be, 'too bad we missed the bad guy, better luck next time'. It's the arrogance in the face of our mistakes, and the seeming disregard of the lives of others, AND the cooperation by the media with this arrogance and disregard, that gets my blood boiling.


tenaciousmcd said...

Yeah, I too get pretty pissed off at the American media on a regular basis. (Can we talk about how Jack Abramoff is a "bipartisan scandal"!?) But I don't necessarily trust foreign press either, especially on American foreign policy, although I expect them to be better on issues like Pakistan than on Israel/Palestine. More specifically, I generally expect a dovish bias, one often justified by our clusterfuck in Iraq but not necessarily elsewhere.

It will be interesting to see what the final word on that missile attack turns out to be. A day or so after I wrote my comment on your post, we got news reports that, based on Pakistani intel, we actually did get some high level Al Qaeda bad guys, even if we missed Zawahiri. Who knows at this point? Not me, at least, but I'm willing to cut Bush slack on this front that experience won't let me elsewhere.

As for the "wild west" comment, the more I think about it, the less offensive it seems to me. Bayh was speaking, and speaking quickly, for an American audience, and what other metaphor might you invoke in order to make that situation make sense? It's not like he can go into a grad student lecture on regional history and the differences between tribal traditional culture and frontier capitalism. He reached into his rhetorical toolbox for a cultural signifier that was "ready-at-hand," something we all do. For example, teaching Machiavelli yesterday, I made the point that Mach would see himself not as inventing brutal techniques but as merely describing reality, and illustrated by saying, "Don't hate the playa, hate the game!" Was that racist of me? A white man parroting black slang to justify violence? Maybe, but I don't think so (and, for what it is worth, I had one black student come up later and tell me how much he loved it). Everything depends on audience and context, a point that posties often like to make. And on that I think Bayh gets a pass.

Sam said...

Fair enough. I'll tell you what: I'll grant your reading of 'Wild West' as both charitable and plausible. Perhaps the orientalist reading is a projection or a stretch, and all he meant to suggest is that there is no order along the Pakistan border. I stand down on this point.

However, I don't think I can let Bayh off the hook. At the time he gave that quote it looked like the target had been missed and more than a dozen innocent civilians killed, and when asked about this situation he responded by asking rhetorically: 'what else are we supposed to do'? To me that response simply has to suggest a devaluing of the lives of others (non-Americans) that I just find ethically unacceptable.