The Autumning Empire

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Archive for the month “September, 2012”

Orwell, Romney, and Afghanistan: The Curse of Liberal Schadenfreude


This piece was written prior to the October 3 presidential debates which featured a decisive win for Mitt Romney against President Barack Obama. The liberal blogosphere has responded predictably: Romney the Fop has become Machiavellian Mitt, a Shakespearean arch-villain preying upon the exhausted nobility of our embattled liberal hero. Why did the president fare so poorly in this first debate? There are two possible explanations, both of which may be true. The first is that Obama was busy doing his job while Romney had the luxury to prepare. The second  is that the president began to believe the increasingly derisive press around Romney (reflected in the piece below) and seriously underestimated his Republican opponent. If that is true, then Barack Obama may himself be a casualty come November, an unwitting victim of  the shallowness of liberal Schadenfreude.





Mitt Romney has become our national Malvolio. It’s impossible to make a political joke without this man as the punchline. His ambition is naked, and his ivy league opportunism is so offensively noxious, that – well, it’s kind of hard not to make fun of him. And to be honest: if Romney loses the election (and the polls suggest he will) I’m sort of going to miss him. I suspect I’m not alone. If comedy is your business, Romney is a goldmine; the jokes pretty much write themselves. It’s not just that he’s an arrogant, over privileged, pretty boy millionaire. It’s that he seems to think that being an arrogant, over privileged, pretty boy millionaire is somehow normal. Stewart and Colbert barely need to write copy: they can just roll the tape, let Mitt talk, and let the Schadenfreude party commence. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have Eastwood thrust upon ‘em.

That said, I seriously hope that come November 7, we won’t have Mitt Romney to kick around anymore. Our national Twelfth Night must eventually come to an end. But when that happens, get ready for the hangover. It’ll be ugly. We will still be precipitously close to double-digit unemployment.  46 million Americans will still live in poverty.  Many of those Americans are, and still will be, children – one in five  kids, to be precise. We will still be at war with Afghanistan, the longest in American history. And the cash needed to deal with these problems will be in dangerously short supply: the United States government is currently in the red for close to $16 trillion, the largest deficit in American history.

If your politics are even moderately progressive, watching Romney self destruct is a liberal dream come true. But what are we going to do when this election is over? How will we regard the second term of Barack Obama? Will we continue to say that he’s inherited a big mess? That being president of the United States is really, really hard? Or will we hold him accountable? And if so, to what? What will the president feel that he owes the millions of Americans who will hopefully give him a second term?

The other day, I saw a posting on Facebook by a group that calls itself “Being Liberal”. I like these guys. Or that person. Or whoever it is that puts up the memes and the postings that preach to my chosen choir. This posting in particular caught my attention because the meme featured a picture of George Orwell, one of the most influential and important thinkers of any century. Here’s what the author of 1984 had to say:

War Against A Foreign Country Only Happens When the Moneyed Classes

Think They Are Going to Profit From It.

It’s a terrific quote. But Orwell’s words were not what caught my eye.

It was the explanation accompanying this clear and well-stated proposition, which appeared to need no help. (Seriously, if George Orwell can’t write clearly, then we’re all in serious trouble). Here’s how  “Being Liberal” makes the quote relevant:

George Orwell explains why Mitt Romney and people who pay for his campaign want to start a war with Iran.


…putting aside the fact that when Orwell died Mitt hadn’t celebrated his third birthday, there’s a great deal that this commentary ignores. Sure, Romney’s rhetoric towards Iran is bellicose, obnoxious, and irresponsible. There is no doubt that he would be a disastrous commander-in-chief, far worse than the man who currently holds the job.

But the United States is at war. Right now. Why criticize an imaginary, future conflict, when there’s plenty to say about the one that we’re in right now?

Well…that’s a little awkward. Because Afghanistan is Obama’s war. No, he didn’t start it. But he has certainly embraced it with a surge, throwing behind it the full and mighty weight of his presidency. Now there’s an inconvenient truth. I mean, wasn’t that our whole deal with W? Wasn’t he an ignorant, bellicose warmonger? Didn’t we need to get him out of office so we could save American lives? Shouldn’t we be bothered by the fact that the American casualty rate in Afghanistan is much higher under Obama than it ever was under Bush? Well? Shouldn’t we?

Oh, the price we’ll pay just to keep our guy in office. C’mon people, it’s hard being president. There’s just a lot that we don’t know, and it took years, years to get us into this mess that we’re in right now. You can’t expect these problems to be solved overnight. Or even in four years. Just give the man four more, and you’ll see how well it turns out.

Mine Injury Victim in Afghanistan

Ok. But if I’m going to make that leap of faith, I’d better be clear about the facts. 1,650 Americans have died in Afghanistan since Obama took office. Compare that with the 463 who died there under Bush. ABC News reports that 15,786 American soldiers have been wounded in Afghanistan – 4,341 of them after the death of Osama bin Laden. And as of May of this year, the United Nations reported 11,864 civilians in that country have died in Operation Enduring Freedom – and that’s only between 2007 and 2011. George W. Bush was president for only one of those years.

The carnage is not limited to Afghanistan. President Obama aggressively employs drone strikes against Pakistan. Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles. No American flyers means no American deaths. Perhaps that explains the no-American-outrage. Never the less, Stanford University and NYU School of Law just published a study titled Living Under Drones. For an academic analysis, it’s worded rather bluntly. Here’s how the report begins:

“In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling ‘targeted killing’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.

 “This narrative is false.”

While acknowledging “It is crucial that the US be able to protect itself from terrorist threats, and that the great harm caused by terrorists to Pakistani civilians be addressed,” the report calls the effects of current U.S. drone practices “damaging and counterproductive.”

A read of CNN’s September 25 report makes it easy to see why:

Obama has already authorized 283 strikes in Pakistan, six times more than the number during President George W. Bush’s eight years in office…As a result, the number of estimated deaths from the Obama administration’s drone strikes is more than four times what it was during the Bush administration — somewhere between 1,494 and 2,618.

Gee, I wonder why all these Arab Muslims are so upset with America? Why do they hate us so much? Do they really have to be demonstrating now? Right before an American election? Don’t they realize how much worse things would be under Mitt Romney?

It turns out that Democrats were right: having “Hussein” as a middle name doesn’t make a damn bit of difference if you want to be commander-in-chief. Obama has prosecuted the war Bush started with far greater efficiency and ruthlessness than his lazy, incompetent predecessor. And just in case anyone forgot, we have John Kerry to remind us: “Ask Osama bin-Laden if he’s better off now than he was four years ago.”


Yeah! Who’s your daddy, now, Republicans? You want some of this? You wanna take on Obama? C’mon! Just see what happens! Bush couldn’t kill bin Laden, but Barack Obama did. So eat it, you red state wussies. And don’t even think about taking our lunch money again!

And so we can add Barack Obama to a long and distinguished list: Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson – all United States presidents who have left us their legacies of war. So we should probably lay off Obama. Right? It’s part of the job, isn’t it? Besides, it’s an election year. The race is going to be tight. And for God’s sake, please, please, please give us anybody but Mitt Romney.

I guess that’s the way it is. But as my former teacher, Bill Bigelow, used to say, that’s not the way it has to be. The October 21, 1967 anti-Vietnam War demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial drew 100,000 people, including Dr. Benjamin Spock and poet Allen Ginsberg. The demonstration was one in countless; millions of Americans participated in the anti-war movement throughout a period that lasted almost a decade. And for the protesters of ’67, it did not matter that President Lyndon Johnson was a Democrat. They were not willing to give him a get out of jail free card, even though he had championed and signed the historic Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. No. These were Americans who believed that the war was wrong. And it was this issue, that commitment to the value of human life, that drove their political action. The anti-Vietnam War protesters certainly meant business: during the October 21 demonstration, 30,000 marched directly to the Pentagon; over 600, including Norman Mailer, were arrested.

Pardon my naïveté, but I don’t understand what makes this war better. Do you? And more importantly: if it were George W. Bush, or another Republican president, pursuing the same policies as Obama is now, how would you react? Would you support it? Ignore it? Wait for the election to be over and then do something? What does being liberal really mean?

One thing you can say about George Orwell: his commitment to democracy and freedom of expression went beyond partisan confines. The author of Animal Farm had no problem skewering Stalinism when many on the far left were giving it the “better than the alternative” argument. It’s impossible to guess what Orwell might say about the 2012 election. But it’s a pretty safe bet that he wouldn’t save all of his ire for the likes of Mitt Romney.

Oh, that Mitt Romney!  Here I’d forgotten all about him. Man, what a wanker! Can you believe the things that come out of his
mouth? Corporations are people! 47%! And the truth is, you sort of can’t help yourself. He’s like Malvolio: it’s like he’s inviting you to make fun of him. (An invitation which I’ve been all to happy to oblige.) And for those of us who lived through the nightmare Democratic campaigns of Mondale and Dukakis, there is something immeasurably satisfying about watching the likes of Clinton and Obama trounce upon the stewards of America’s far right.

And thus, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges.

But here’s the thing: if the goal is to just get Obama into office…if the president feels that he owes his “liberal” supporters nothing in the way of a commitment to worldwide peace and justice, then…who are we? And what have we become? And, more selfishly, how will the world’s grieving people react to America’s indifference to the wars we thrust upon them?

Let’s hope they won’t be revenged on the whole pack of us.

David Berkson

September 30, 2012

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