Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Patriotism as denial

The main, and mostly unexamined, subtext of the Newsweek flap is patriotism.

On the right, and I suspect across much of the middle swath of the American electorate, there is a strong sensitivity about our war effort. Men and women are overseas, doing hard work and often giving up their lives. People want to believe it’s for a good cause, even if they don’t really have a clear idea of why we’re over there. The rationale has changed several times already, and day-to-day the mission is frustratingly difficult and fuzzy.

A few months back I was driving and listening to talk radio in a southern state. The airwaves were then filled with confusion and anger over the mission and especially the limits placed on American troops – why couldn’t we attack mosques if our own people were in imminent danger, why couldn’t we just drop a nuke over there, that sort of thing.

When media outlets investigate mistreatment of inmates, they touch these sore spots. For many trying to process the conflicting signals out of Iraq, patriotism – and maybe staying sane – means not examining the contradictions too closely. This strain of patriotism is more of a vague feeling than something thought through: We should be able to drop a nuke if we want, dammit - even if that would blow up the whole mission as well.

News outlets that expose mistreatment of prisoners – whether in Iraq or Guantanamo – are doing necessary work policing a largely unaccountable military. The Newsweek blowup should not deter them. But they are treading on politically treacherous ground. Exposing wrongdoing of this kind is viewed as unpatriotic ostensibly because people think it undermines the war effort. What it actually undermines are the various rationalizations surrounding the war in Iraq, the broader war on terrorists. For some, that’s an intolerable burden. America. Can’t. Be. That. Way. So Newsweek must be sacrificed!

Here is a case study: Andrew Sullivan spends a lot of column space analyzing Instapundit’s reactions to the Newsweek story. Basically, Glenn Reynolds works himself into a huge lather about Newsweek’s errors and liberal media perfidy, while going into a defensive crouch about actual U.S. human rights abuses.