Monday, May 7, 2007

Beyond the Paradigm of Winning and Losing

On Bill Maher, Friday night, Garry Shandling said something very perceptive. He didn't flesh it out, and I don't recall the wording, but it essentially came down to this: we need to get past the paradigm of "winning" and "losing." This struck me, because I've known educators who believe that children should not partake in competitive sports. I know socialists who believe capitalism undermines social comity by encouraging an alienating greed and selfishness rather than a sense of community and compassion. Both of those subjects are worthy of their own diaries, but Shandling's comment came in a discussion about Iraq and politics, and that's where I will focus.

To the right wing and their media lapdogs, we who want to end the war are "defeatists." Many on our side point out that the Bush Administration keeps redefining what it is to "win." Some even say we should simply "declare victory" and go home. I agree with anyone and anything that might expeditiously get us out of Iraq, but I also think Shandling has an important point. There's a larger issue at play. The need to somehow spin our defeat in Iraq as a victory has become part of the problem. The war is lost. I wrote one of my first diaries to that effect in August, 2005. Senator Harry Reid recently suffered an attack of High Broderism for suggesting the same. Apparently, our post-Vietnam national psyche is too fragile to admit that, once again, we have lost a war that, once again, never should have been fought. Of course, the ability of Broder and his ilk to distract the national dialogue with such outrage over semantics helps prevent us from engaging in the conversations we need be having about the lies that got us into the war, and how we can now best get out of it. Admitting defeat is actually enormously important, because it introduces a hitherto largely absent measure of honesty into the discussion, and it also makes plain that we are long past the point of new strategies being anything other than further wastes of time, money, and lives.

We need to stop pretending. We need to get past the reflexive desire for victory. From the moment "President" Bush did his photo op at Ground Zero, our nation has been obsessed with victory and revenge. It wasn't enough to simply catch and bring to justice the criminals responsible for the September 11 attacks, we had to beat them, to prove that they can't beat us, and to somehow assert that we are the winners and they are the losers. Of course, our effort to "beat" them resulted in an overkill bombardment that did kill a lot of people, but not the actual people who perpetrated the September 11 attacks; and we all know that the only way to have actually caught those perpetrators would have been to send in ground troops, probably in small numbers, and very much in secrecy. It wouldn't have made for great television, but it would have brought mass murderers to justice; and it might have satisfied just enough of that lust for vengeance, the festering of which played such a large role in the successful selling of the lies that took us into Iraq. In other words, our desire to win big played a role in costing us any chance to actually win at all. That desire has also continually defined the propaganda of the Iraq disaster.

From "Shock 'n' Awe," to the Saddam statue, to "Mission Accomplished," to Uday and Qusay, to Saddam in his hidey-hole, to all the various stagings of democracy and justice breaking out, to Saddam's execution, we have seen nothing but propaganda propagating an illusion that is supposed to satisfy our seemingly innate passion for victory. Of course, we cannot even begin to honestly discuss what's happening in Iraq, because what's happening has nothing to do with winning and losing. Wars do not have happy endings. Those who live through them are not winners, they are survivors. The best way to help them survive is to not turn their homes into war zones, in the first place; and however much we might want to deny it, this war was always about politics. We like to talk about oil, war profiteers, and neocon imperialists, but even such a grand Coalition of the Killing could not have prevailed, had the politics of winning and losing not predominated.

We all knew that Saddam was contained, that inspections and no-fly zones were working, that he didn't constitute anything close to an imminent threat, and that he had been almost as much an enemy of theofascist terrorists as had we; so, our politicians who now claim they were deceived by the Administration simply aren't telling the truth. We need to come to grips with that, not as a means of condemning politicians who are mostly on our side, but as a further means of understanding the destructiveness of the paradigm of winning and losing! Too many politicians who knew better failed to vote their consciences because they were too worried about the potential political consequences of opposing what they thought might turn out to be a popular war. They remembered the Gulf War. Some knew they would be running for President. They made political calculations, and failed themselves, us, this country, and the world. They are not bad people. They are human, and imperfect, and too caught up in a failed paradigm.

I'm an ideological purist, but a political pragmatist, and I supported Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 primaries, right from the start, even though I believed he had made exactly such a failed political calculation on Iraq. I still believed he was the best of all our 2004 presidential options. I still do. So, I'm not writing this to condemn Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. John Edwards, and I'm neither praising nor condemning Sen. Barack Obama, who openly opposed the war, but was not then in the political position of having to face those political calculations, but who has certainly not shown himself to be pure in facing the political calculations of how to now end the war. All of our top tier candidates (and a couple of our second tier candidates) have much to suggest themselves as potentially terrific presidents. Really. But they are all entangled in the game of politics, and they are all too obsessed with winning.

The politics of "winning" and "losing" is just as ugly as the policies. If every candidate truly cared about doing what's right for the country and the world, rather than about winning and earning their places in the history books, they would calculate and posture immeasurably less. They would be less concerned with tearing down their opponents than with explaining, in detail, how they are going to solve our many problems; and they would work together more towards that end! The fact that we're already diarying polls about 2008, that we consider it important that one candidate raised more money than another, and that we even know the names of presidential campaign advisors demeans the process of democracy. Horse races are fun, but politics should be less about fun and more about nuts, bolts, and compassion.

There's an old comparison, and I don't know to whom to credit it, about political advertising and airline advertising. Imagine if the airlines used the same tactics politicians use, and instead of simply promoting themselves, spent much of their time trying to destroy their competitors. Imagine if you saw television ads wherein different airlines told us that their competitors crash more often, have bumpier flights, or are more prone to misplace our bags. After a while, no one would want to fly. Is it any wonder so few eligible voters exercise their franchise? In politics, negative advertising works; but it would be nice if politicians cared more about good governance than effective campaigning. I would love, just once, to hear a candidate listen to another candidate's proposals, and admit to having been convinced that the other candidate actually had the better ideas. I'm sure the convincing happens fairly often, but how often does a candidate have the honesty and courage to admit it?

Granted, this is all pie-in-the-sky, but it's worth thinking about. At what cost, our obsession with winning? Wouldn't it help if our national dialogue attended less to issues of winning and losing in Iraq, and more to the terrible reality that innocent people are being killed and maimed every single day? Wouldn't the outcome of the 2000 election have been more valid and beneficial if the media had been less obsessed with the horse race, and more with ensuring there was an honest discussion of the issues, and an honest result to the vote count? And the scandalous firings of the U.S. Attorneys only underscores that the Mayberry Macchiavellian Bush Administration never cares about anything other than political victory. They have taken the obsession with political victory to its logical and catastrophic end. Rolling back their abuses are only a small step. Never has it been more clear that we need a new paradigm.

I don't yet care about the 2008 polls. I don't care which candidates' supporters get their candidates' names on the Recommended List most often. I don't care who is right about the most expeditious way to get us out of Iraq- defund, deauthorize, regime change, whatever; it's absurd to argue about- try them all, again and again!- and support each other for simply trying! It shouldn't be about ego. It shouldn't be about proving who's right, it should be about actually being right. In politics, it shouldn't be about winning or losing, it should be about making this world and this nation better places for all.

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