Syria: There's no need to be logical or consistent

Michael Kinsley is a Syria hypocrite. You should be, too.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com

Logical consistency is undervalued in Washington. It’s really a form of intellectual honesty. I’ve never understood F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It seems to me that if your words contradict your actions—or if they contradict other words you’ve spoken—then you haven’t thought it through, or you’re too cynical to care. (If your words contradict the facts, that’s simple dishonesty, or ignorance. Lying is not nice either, but it lacks the insidious character of intellectual dishonesty, which can be factually true and yet essentially false.)

For example, when George W. Bush started running up huge annual deficits (after Bill Clinton achieved Ronald Reagan’s alleged goal of balancing the budget), many Republicans—notably Vice President Dick Cheney—started saying that deficits don’t matter.

Ordinarily, I'm a big fan of logical consistency in government policies. Sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. It should not depend on whose ox is gored (to mix my animal metaphors). But when it comes to these repeated exercises in short-term, or would-be short-term, military intervention that seem to be the dominant U.S. military activity of the 21st century, the quest for logical consistency (I reluctantly conclude) can be unhelpful.

Maybe honesty and consistency are overrated, at least in foreign affairs. Maybe hypocrisy isn't the worst thing in the world. I don't mean the everyday hypocrisy of diplomats (yes, yes, in the famous definition: sent abroad to lie for their country). I mean in the most important decisions nations—good, well-meaning nations, like the United States—make about when to (let's be blunt) start killing a lot of people.

If we bombed Libya because a cruel dictator was murdering large numbers of his own people, how can we justify sitting on our hands while the same thing is going on in Syria? What’s the difference? Well, you can turn that same question around: Why should we do anything about Syria when we sat on our hands during the massacre in Rwanda? This argument goes back at least to World War II and the controversy about bombing the Nazi death camps.

To be sure, every situation is different. Some of these differences are strategic or military. Some may result from deep reflection on the moral issues. But many of these differences are historical accidents. They have nothing to do with strategic or moral issues. How is the president’s standing in the polls? How soon is the next U.S. election? Was the most recent previous intervention successful? What else is on the political agenda? What did the president have for dinner last night? How strong is the economy? What’s the unemployment rate? What does the president’s spouse think? This is another good reason why President Barack Obama was right to demand backing from Congress before acting.

It’s not logically inconsistent to allow moral or military considerations to affect your view about whether to intervene in Syria. But it is logically inconsistent to allow unrelated factors to affect that decision. However, all decisions like this are affected by unrelated factors.

The laws of war themselves are logically inconsistent. Syria has broken the anathema on use of chemical weapons that survived every conflict (with a few relatively small exceptions) since World War I. Conventional weapons have killed far more Syrians than chemical weapons, just as the conventional firebombing of Tokyo killed more people than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. And we were fully prepared to let Bashar al-Assad keep slaughtering people until he crossed the “red line” into chemical weapons. It’s not logical. But it works.

It was President Clinton who freed America, for better or worse, from the chains of logical consistency. The Clinton doctrine (my label, not his) was that it’s OK to be inconsistent. Sometimes you intervene for strictly humanitarian reasons, sometimes you require a self-defense rationale and sometimes you stay out. There is no consistent pattern. The demand for consistency will lead to paralysis. In a way, the Clinton approach replaced the Powell Doctrine, a string of conditions for intervention which, in practice, would lead to the answer: never.

On the Syria issue, the hawks are an odd mixture of left-wing human rights enthusiasts like UN Ambassador Samantha Powers and Obama-hating Republicans eager to paint him as weak, along with some neoconservatives who always seem up for a bit of war. The doves are most of the traditional anti-war left, the growing constituency of right-wing libertarians such as Senator Ron Paul, plus—it seems—an overwhelming majority of the citizenry. Many of the politicians in both groups have had Road-to-Damascus-like dramatic conversions in the past couple of years. They favored the Iraq war under Bush but adamantly oppose the Syrian adventure under Obama, or vice-versa.

Neither of these teams has a coherent answer to the Syria-versus-Libya question, or similar questions about all of America's military adventures—those we engaged in and those we avoided—since Vietnam. Is there a pattern? Is there a consistent rule that can be applied to all of them?

A front-page article by Charlie Savage in The New York Times on Monday made the case that an attack on Syria would be unique—and not in a good way.

“On another level, the proposed strike is unlike anything that has come before—an attack inside the territory of a sovereign country, without its consent, without a self-defense rationale and without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council or even the participation of a multilateral treaty alliance like NATO, and for the purpose of punishing an alleged war crime that has already occurred rather than preventing an imminent disaster.”

Still, we can only reason by analogy, and the record suggests that these 21st-century-style interventions are almost always messier, more costly (especially to the innocent civilians of the countries whose governments we wish to punish or decapitate), and less effective than the planners expect. So I tend to put a thumb on the scale in favor of staying out, and hope that the president and Congress do the same.

Michael Kinsley is editor-at-large of The New Republic

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com

Rebel fighters fire from a tank captured from the Syrian army during a battle with Syrian government forces in the rebel-held northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era