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Court Circular: Richard Cohen and the Apologists of Power

If you would like to know how a ruling clique really works, with its vast army of retainers and courtiers scurrying Osric-like to serve the needs of power, you need look no further than Richard Cohen's latest column in the Washington Post. The good folks at Sadly, No! picked out the choice passage below for special notice, and although they rightly focus on its display of Cohen's general cluelessness, it is also highly instructive in the art of serviceable ignorance. Here's the quote:

When politicians and commentators detail all that the Bush administration did wrong, I wonder whether any of it really matters. Would things have turned out differently if we had done everything right? Was Iraq so “broken” we never could have fixed it? Was Hussein’s despotism an avoidable tragedy, or was it, instead, a tragic necessity? I wonder about all these things. I tend to think now we never could have made it work.

Now, of course, everyone looks like an idiot. Bremer was an idiot and Garner was an idiot and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and Cheney and all the generals, with the exception of Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, who called for lots and lots of troops and was sidelined. But these men are not really idiots. They were merely wrong, sometimes on account of arrogance, but they were doing what they thought was the right thing. They simply didn’t know what they didn’t know. They didn’t know a damned thing about Iraq.

As with most fiercely middlebrow ruminators, Cohen's lumpy prose provides a remarkably pliable template that can be used to regurgitate the "conventional wisdom" in any number of historical situations. For example:

When politicians and commentators detail all that the Reich government did wrong, I wonder whether any of it really matters? Would things have turned out differently if we had done everything right? Was Europe so "broken" we never could have fixed it? Was Stalin's despotism an unavoidable tragedy, or was it, instead, a tragic necessity? I wonder about all these things. I tend to think now we never could have made it work.

Now, of course, everyone looks like an idiot. Von Ribbentrop was an idiot and Goebbels was an idiot and Goering and Himmler and Bormann and all the generals, with the exception of Gen. Erwin Rommel, who said the Allies would land at Normandy, not Calais, and was ignored. But these men are not really idiots. They were merely wrong, sometimes on account of arrogance, but they were doing what they thought was the right thing. They simply didn't know what they didn't know. They didn't know a damned thing about Russia, or England, or the United States.
"They were doing what they thought was the right thing." Has there ever been any faction in power anywhere in the world, in any state, at any time, who didn't think their policies -- however harsh, brutal and stupid -- were "the right thing" to do? And has there ever been any such clique or elite or Establishment that didn't have well-paid, well-wadded, comfortably ensconced courtiers and apologists ever eager to assert the essential goodness of the high and mighty, whatever unfortunate mistakes the great ones might make as they carry out their sacred duties?

Cohen is a brilliant exemplar of this ubiquitous human phenomenon. The entire column radiates a self-satisfied yet self-abasing obeisance to the powerful. All tastefully done, of course: your middlebrow maven is not a base bootlicker like, say, Hugh Hewitt or Michelle Malkin or all the other frothing wretches on down the radical Rightist media food chain. No, your middlebrow -- especially those who actually sup on occasion at the tables of the great (or at least scoff weenies at the same parties) -- never licks the boots of power; he or she just...brushes the lint from power's collar, helps power adjust its tie, fetches coffee when power wants it, picks up power's laundry and brings it by the house on the way home from work. Oh, they'll allow themselves -- and be allowed -- a slight, bemused, affectionate criticism now and then, like a faithful valet to his lord: "A bit too much of the bubbly last night, eh sir?" "I think the plaid is not really appropriate for the museum do, sir." Or to the housemaid: "Well, his lordship does tend to smash the crockery at bit now and then, but his heart's in the right place, the dear fellow."

Throughout the column, Cohen dribbles out unconsidered, uninformed cud from his years-long chewing of Bush Faction spin. He says the war has dragged on because "we" don't understand such a place as Iraq -- with its vicious, violent internal conflicts and its wild fanatics willing to embrace any extreme to vanquish their enemies. (It's obvious that Cohen is sweetly ignorant of American history -- except, of course, the history you get from nice, middlebrow, deluxe-package sets of PBS videos and their printed equivalents. He should perhaps peek into, say, the bloody insurgency, counter-insurgency, guerrilla terror and state terror in Missouri during the Civil War, or any number of the ethnic cleansing operations carried out against the Indians (and the horrific reprisals these provoked), or the Phoenix program in Vietnam, etc. etc.) To illustrate this woeful -- but entirely forgivable, perhaps even endearing -- ignorance of Iraq on the part of good-hearted Americans, Cohen gives us: "For instance, an Iraqi government that reacts lethargically to American proposals moved with surprising alacrity to hang Saddam Hussein. Even late in the game, we didn't see it coming."

It would take a whole book -- or perhaps even a deluxe-package set of PBS videos -- to unpack the horseshit in this passage, but briefly, it shows that Cohen has not bestirred himself to read even the articles that appear in his own paper. Anyone with the merest nodding acquaintance with the facts knows that the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq "reacts lethargically to American proposals" that it feels go against its own best interests -- and moves with alacrity on actions that it feels serves those interests. There is nothing "surprising" or mysterious about this at all. It is ordinary human behavior found in every kind of human grouping.

As for what the Shiite factions believe is their best interest, and what kind of policies they feel are the "right thing to do," this information is also readily ascertained, even by reading the most, yes, middlebrow journals, papers and websites that you would expect a Washington Post columnist to be familiar with. Yet Cohen is shocked by the Iraqi government's actions, especially in executing Saddam Hussein so hastily. "We didn't see it coming," he writes -- evidently ignorant of the fact that the release of Hussein to the execution squad was specifically approved by the United States Secretary of State. But power tells Cohen over cocktail weenies that Iraq is a sovereign state that could somehow execute a man in U.S. custody on its own volition; and Cohen, the dutiful courtier, believes it.

More horseshit -- if we may riot in the vernacular -- follows: "Similarly, we did not notice that in all the hoopla just before Hussein's statue in Baghdad's Firdaus Square came down in 2003, the crowd went silent after an American flag was draped over it. The crowd came to life only when the Iraqi flag replaced it. Had we noticed that, we might have learned something about Iraqi nationalism and the fleeting gratitude awarded to liberators. One minute you're a liberator, the next an occupier."

Within days of that "historic" event, it was revealed to be a well-orchestrated publicity stunt. The "crowd" -- many of whom were members of Ahmad Chalabi's exile group, which had been flown into the country by the Bush Faction -- was a small gathering artfully photographed by a compliant media to give the appearance of a spontaneous outpouring of the grateful Baghdad masses. There was nothing particularly telling, one way or another, about such a manufactured event. It could not possibly have gauged the genuine feelings of resistance or gratitude felt by the Iraqi people. (As if "the Iraqi people" were an undifferentiated mass, instead of a multitude of human beings with the full range of often contradictory emotions, reactions, thoughts and beliefs that seethe inside us all.) But it is telling that with his reference to "gratitude," Cohen has immediately picked up -- unconsciously, no doubt -- on the signals recently sent by the highest and mightiest of all in his cozy world: George W. Bush's pathetic whining about the Iraqi people's ingratitude about their liberation. Your successful courtier has an exquisitely sensitive antenna that picks up the prevailing attitudes of the elite and absorbs them into his own thought processes, to be spun out again as his own original "insights."

Cohen frets about "our" ignorance of Iraq -- and of those strange denizens of the mysterious East, the Vietnamese, who subjected themselves to great privations (they even lived in tunnels!) in order to rid their country of foreign invaders and domestic foes. He says it is "unimaginable" that Americans would go to such lengths, and that's why we can't understand all these ornery foreign critters who resist the boundless altruism of our leaders. Sure, they kill thousands upon thousands of the critters in the process, but hey -- they're just "doing what they think is the right thing." So that makes it all OK.

Of course, the ignorance and lack of imagination that Cohen decries is entirely his own, not "ours." He knows nothing of America's own history and very little of human nature in general. For example, does he think that American "insurgents" wouldn't live in tunnels to fight off, say, a Chinese occupation of the country? Does he think that such an American resistance wouldn't engage in "terrorist" reprisals against perceived collaborators with the occupiers? But then again, this kind of carefully cultivated, wilful -- even cheerful -- ignorance of reality is the sine qua non of the courtier.
From Expathos - Beeldtaal - Dyslexie, Ik leer anders, Beelddenken, Beelddenkers, ADHD
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