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When It Matters

Rudyard Kipling If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating

— From Rudyard Kipling’s "If"

The saying runs that you don’t really know your virtues or flaws until you’ve been tested by a crisis. Since we had Paul Krugman on today, a man who was tested and rose to the test, I want to talk about some people who met the test of 9/11 succesfully. Some came through unscathed, others paid a price, but none lost their head.

Let’s start with Krugman. Krugman met the test before it even occured. When Bush was first introducted as a "compassionate conservative" I, and many others, were willing to give him a chance. Say what you will about Bush Sr., but he wasn’t a wingnut. The man who coined "third chromosone conservative" and "voodoo economics" may have pandered occasionally, but he wasn’t crazy and he ran a basically excellent foreign policy. His domestic policy could best be called "benign neglect" — he just wasn’t all that interested.

Paul Krugman So many of us were willing to give Bush Jr a chance. That changed, for me, because I read Krugman’s columns regularly. And week after week during the campaign Krugman kept doing the arithmetic and saying, in essence, "Bush is promising to spend the surplus twice". The numbers didn’t add up, and Bush kept not fixing them. He was lying about something very basic and obvious.

And while the New York Times wouldn’t let Krugman call them "lies" or call Bush a "liar" the rising anger in Krugman at being continually lied to made the words almost superfluous. Bush was lying, Krugman knew it, and if you were reading Krugman you knew it too. And it was unambiguous lying, not shading of the truth. It was 2-4=1. Really!

Of course, despite Krugman pounding on the issue from the most read real estate in newspaper, other journalists mostly didn’t pick up on it. Truth was much less interesting than whether or not Al Gore was an alpha male and had invented the internet, and Bush was the sort of guy you wanted to have a drink with (if you like having drinks with the sort of guy who likes pulling the wings off insects, which I guess the media does) so they wanted to give "nice guy" Bush a pass. And they did.

When 9/11 came around, the media went from "mostly in the tank" to "completely in the tank". The few exceptions, like Krugman, definitely proved the rule. And for the better part of a year and a half or so, it seemed like the only two major columnists who were willing to state that the Emperor had no clothes, that Iraq hadn’t attacked the US, that 9/11 might have had something to do with US policy and so on, were Krugman and the late Molly Ivins. You’d open the newspaper and it would be jingoistic propaganda from the front page to the back, with a lone voice amongst the columnists crying out "it’s lies. They’re lying." And while Krugman came through that as popular as ever, he was subject to incessant attacks, including e-mailed threats. Indeed a cottage industry grew up which poured over every column trying to find flaws, however tiny, in his economic reasoning (and failing miserably, to the extent that one of my best friends stopped reading right wing blogs because they’d link to said crap and every time "I"d look into it, and they were wrong and Krugman was right.")

Russ FeingoldArguably the person who came through most spectacularly after 9/11 was Russ Feingold. When the entire Senate stampeded and voted for the Patriot Act, in an eerie precursor of the Bush-enabling behaviour and spinelessness we’ve all become so familiar with over the years, Russ voted against. It’s hard to know what to attribute this to other than bravery and personal integrity, because Feingold isn’t in a particularly liberal district. Unlike Barbara Boxer or Diane Feinstein, whose seats were 100% safe, Feingold isn’t in a deep blue state. From a pure political calculus point of view, he was a lot more "vulnerable" than most of his Senate colleagues.

But he still did the right thing.

I know there’s a lot of love out there in the blogosphere for Feingold. He’s almost always on the right side of every issue; he calls it like it is and he doesn’t seem scared of squat. Even on the rare occasion where I disagree with him I remember that he was the only Senator, the only one, who didn’t lose his head after 9/11 and let the administration stampede him.

In a sense Feingold is a living rebuke to every other Democratic Senator. When they say "we had no choice" he is living proof that they had a choice. When they say "we couldn’t have known, we didn’t have time to read the entire bill" he is living proof that they could have known, and should have known.

But he’s also a reminder to the rest of us that "keeping your head while all about you are losing theirs" is as uncommon today as it was in Kipling’s time and of just how deficient most of America’s leadership is in basic guts and integrity. Sure, people who can keep their head about them are rare, but 1 out of 100 of America’s greatest legislative body? The indictment against these people, who should be, at the least tough shrewd operators, is scathing.

Susan SontagThe last of the three I’d like to touch on (and there are certainly many more who deserve props, like Bill Maher) is the one that makes me saddest.

September 24th, 2001, just 13 days after 9/11, she wrote the following in the New Yorker:

"Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.

The Guardian wrote of the episode:

Sontag says: "I hope I’m not getting timid in my older years. I thought I was writing centrist, obvious mainstream commonsense. I was just saying, let’s grieve together, let’s not be stupid together." The reaction was ferocious; she received hate mail, death threats and calls to be stripped of her citizenship. For a few days she was part of the story. The New Republic ran an article asking what did Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Susan Sontag have in common. The answer: they all wish the destruction of America.

Sontag says: "I still think mine was the right response. But I was quite astonished. It all goes very, very deep. The American way of looking at themselves is that the US is an exception and doesn’t have a destiny like other nations. Anytime anything happens in the States, people are indignant. Americans are always talking about losing their innocence, but then they always get it back again. They say ‘Before, we were innocent; before, we were naive, trusting, gullible. But now we realise that it can happen here and we too are vulnerable.’ My deepest fear is that this time it’s true. The country does feel different. The forces of conformism and mindless acquiescence to authority have certainly been strengthened."

Indeed, what Sontag said was nothing but common sense. It was a common sense which today, nearly 6 years after 9/11, you still really aren’t allowed to say in polite discourse (though we’ve come somewhere when even a maverick Presidential candidate like Ron Paul can state it on stage, albeit to boos).

At the end of this day, this hysteria, this persistent myth that "we are the good guys, and no one could ever have a good reason to hate our guts" is what worries me most about Americans. The day of 9/11, which I experienced in the office, I turned to the co-worker next to me and I said "I hope to hell they don’t overreact and attack the wrong people".

That, of course, is exactly what happened. And it happened for the reasons that Sontag put so eloquently — because Americans were "stupid together".

And then, having attacked the wrong people (along, at least. with the right people in Afghanistan) Americans proceeded to, forgive the phrase, get their ass royally handed to them by a bunch of rabble. It’s the most pathetic thing imaginable, the nation that spends half the world’s military budget, getting whipped by forces which don’t have a budget equal to the rounding error of one pork-laden swill of an appropriations bill.

And the reason the US is losing was summed up very well by Sontag as well — because Americans won’t give thier enemies their virtues. The 9/11 bombers were not cowards. Bin Laden, on every piece of evidence, is a brave man — far, far braver than the "leader of the free world" George Bush, who ran away from military service. Bin Laden, by contrast, led troops from the front line. Nor are they stupid and they are far more committed to winning than the US. The reason the US is losing; the reasons that Israel got whipped by Hezbollah, are simple – they want to win more than the US does, they have out-thought US strategists repeatedly, and they are willing to pay the price for victory.

Or, as Sontag said, more briefly, Those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.

Not cowards. Not stupid. More committed to do what it takes to win than Americans.

Sontag told a truth most Americans weren’t able to hear. But it’s such truths — the ones we can’t hear, because they tell us a truth abour ourselves we don’t want to know, that we most need to hear. And for that, I remember her. Didn’t think much of her fiction, but as my uncles used to say "more guts than a slaughterhouse." And to that morally neutral virtue, she added the ability to see and tell the truth. (As for example when she said "Communism is fascism with a human face", a statement which was very controversial when she made it.)

All three, however, Krugman; Feingold; and Sontag, passed their test. They didn’t give into group think. They didn’t let fear or grief cloud their minds. They said and did what needed to be said and done, and in return they were viciously attacked for it. They deserve to be honored for having the guts to stick to their guns and each of us, in turn, should think on whether we would follow in their steps — or in those of the vast majority who lost their heads while all around them everyone else lost theirs. For while it may be human to lose your head, in the end the cost for the human desire to wallow in grief and rally around with the tribe in self-serving group-think, has been the death of thousands of American soldiers, the maiming of many more, the death of probably a million Iraqis, and the gutting of the American constitution.

That’s an awfully high price to pay, but when you lose your head, you may cause others to literally lose theirs. Such self-indulgence can never, ever, be acceptable in those who occupy either the highest places of power or the most influential places in the media.

Feingold, Sontag and Krugman lived up to the responsibility their positions and prestige inherently demanded.

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Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh was the Managing Editor of FireDogLake and the Agonist. His work has also appeared at Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout, as well as the now defunct Blogging of the President (BOPNews). In Canada his work has appeared in and BlogsCanada. He is also a social media strategy consultant and currently lives in Toronto.

His homeblog is at