Sep 3, 2010

Beck and King, pt. 3: What the Grizzly Said

So.  Palin addressed the crowd at Glenn Beck's 'Restoring Honor' rally.  A poor choice for a rally on such an auspicious anniversary, but there you are.  Here is what she said.
Just a movie.  Sadly.

Considered in isolation--devoid of the context of the day and the right in general--it's actually not that bad.  Of course, it is Palin, so there is a fair bit of what can only be described as ... well, stupid.  "You know, say what you want to say about me, but I raised a combat vet, and you can’t take that away from me."  Sarah honey, the rest of us already know that Terminator is just a movie.

More amusingly, she talks about "patriots ... [who know] to never retreat", and praises "the American spirit of never retreating, no matter the odds."  We could talk about this in the context of military strategy or even history*, but we don't have to: the three American soldiers whose stories she told all either retreated or surrendered to avoid getting killed.  Doing so was the right decision granted the circumstances, but it rather undercuts the point she was making.

Unfortunately nothing really exists in isolation.  The idea of 'honoring the troops' is a basically good idea.  But like so many good (or at least defensible) ideas, it has been co-opted as a dog whistle.  A belief in "states' rights" technically refers to an opinion on the nature of federalism, specifically that states should be granted more rather than less autonomy--a legitimate position with pros and cons.  But it came, by repeated usage, to be a code-word for keeping the black man down.  Likewise 'support the troops' and 'honor the troops' would technically mean to praise and take care of those who join the military and fight for their country.  But they came, by repeated usage, to mean two things: "stop criticizing the leaders whose hare-brained schemes got 4000 of said troops killed" and "our political opponents don't honor the troops and therefore hate America."

The second notion needs some explanation.  It essentially refers to the Right's adoption of the dolchstoss myth.  In terms of Vietnam, it is the belief that we lost, not because we were fighting an enemy on his home turf from thousands of miles away, not because we were propping up a dictator, not because we were no closer to winning after killing three million people than we were when we started, not for any other of the innumerable reasons why a guerrilla war in the jungles of Southeast Asia might be unwinnable**, but because the US public wasn't sufficiently enthusiastic in its support of the war.

Put so starkly, the notion is ludicrous, which is why the code-words are needed.  No one who accepts American Exceptionalism wishes to believe that we took on a task that was beyond us, or even that such tasks exist.  More comforting to believe that we would have succeeded if only the smelly hippie peaceniks or the gawd-damned liburals hadn't pulled us out.  Why would they do that?  Because they hate the soldiers, just like in Vietnam where they spat on returning vets***.

In a way, Iraq may be seen as an attempt to expurgate the cultural ghosts of Vietnam, and so the dolchstoss is revived in reference to its critics, the new "nattering nabobs of negativity" who seek to doom us again this time around.  But you can't just say that out loud because it's really, REALLY stupid, so you use code words like 'sending the wrong signal' and 'not supporting the troops' which evoke the subconscious myth without accusing the Left of treason (or having to add 'DERP!' to the end of every sentence), and if anyone calls you out on it then it's "All I said was that we should support the troops!"

All you said?  Yes.  All you meant?  No.  So much of the rhetoric that was used in the event generally falls into this category: words--like "honor the troops"--that I would pretty much agree with were it not for the nagging suspicion that the speaker means far different things by those words than I would if I said them.

As for what this has to do with Martin Luther King Jr. ... well, nothing.  She mentioned his name a couple of times along with Washington and Lincoln, mentioned his faith, mentioned his "moral courage", gave passing mention to "liberty and justice for all" as an ideal for which troops had sacrificed ... but nothing else.  Her speech was an exercise in flag-and-troop worship that had nothing whatsoever to do with Civil Rights, reclaiming it or otherwise.  It might as well have been on any other day, at any other place.  And while it's certainly irritating to see the place and anniversary of the 'I Have a Dream' speech co-opted into flag-and-troop worship (especially granted the dog-whistle involved), her speech is certainly not as bad as it could have been.  One gets the distinct impression that she believes herself to be sincerely praising the men and women of our armed forces, and standing in spiritual union with Washington, Lincoln, and King in so doing.

She touched upon the other large themes of the rally--'restoration', 'honor', 'crossroads'--only briefly.  What King thought of those themes (and troops), as well as what Beck himself had to say, we'll get to soon.

*The Revolutionary War, for example, is one retreat after another, mostly because Washington understood the basic strategic principle that it's better to live to fight another day than to throw away lives on a lost cause.  The idea that Palin does not would go a long way to explaining her support for our current military misadventures.

**This history says:
The rediscovery of the Vietnam War suggests that its most important legacy may be the lesson that unique historical, political, cultural, and social factors always impinge on the military. Strategic and tactical success rests not only on military progress but on correctly analyzing the nature of the particular conflict, understanding the enemy's strategy, and realistically assessing the strengths and weaknesses of allies.
***The story of spitting on returning vets has achieved urban-legend status by now, and much like the girl who was peeing on skis and started moving, everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone that it happened to.  At least one book has been written arguing that it never happened.  'Never' is a big word, especially considering that both the anti-war movement and the Army consisted of several million people--it goes without saying that there were confrontational bad apples in both groups.  However, I find the notion that returning troops were spat upon as a routine practice to be highly unlikely.

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