The overexcitable among you, especially those unfamiliar with Pinker, should refrain from yelling “Because he’s a damned liberal, that’s why! That’s what they do!” (That may turn out to be the case, but let’s not start there, okay?)
I offer the following quotes from the lead-up to his Did Bush Lie argument. I have italicized words and injected parenthetical comments. If I seem picky, remember that Pinker’s entire point rests on his unpacking of a single word. This, in contrast, is an entire paragraph mostly irrelevant to his main argument.
The aftermath of 9/11 spawned another semantic debate, one with consequences even weightier than the billions of dollars at stake in how to count the events on that day. This one involves a war that has cost far more money and lives than 9/11 itself (human cost is important. But why is “more than 9/11” relevant?) and may affect the course of history for the rest of the century. The debate hinges on the meaning of another set of words – sixteen of them, to be exact:The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.This sentence appeared in George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2003. It referred to intelligence reports suggesting that Saddam Hussein may have tried to buy five hundred tons of a kind of uranium ore called yellowcake from sources in Niger in West Africa (No, it referred to that intelligence plus a hundred other things, some of which were definite, some of which were suggestive). For many Americans and Britons the possibility that Saddam was assembling nuclear weapons was the only defensible reason to invade Iraq and depose Saddam. (What percentage of Americans? Possibility? Assembling? Only defensible? I contend that the number of people at that time who said this was relatively small. Either way, the sentiment is extraneous to the debate of whether Bush lied. Pinker tips his hand). The United States led the invasion in the spring of that year, the most despised American foreign policy initiative since the war in Vietnam. During the occupation it became clear that Saddam had had no facilities in place to manufacture nuclear weapons and probably had never explored the possibility (? Are you kidding me?) of buying yellowcake from Niger…
Lying is an impeachable offense for a president (no it’s not), especially when it comes to the casus belli of a terrible war.
What jumped out at me is the superlative statement. The foreign policy decision to go into Iraq is not merely despised, but the most despised. It is also, again, not relevant to the discussion at hand, though it seems to be relevant to Pinker’s emotions.
I would disagree with that superlative. I think just about everything about our foreign policy toward Israel has been more controversial over the years. Support for the contras, immigration, the Iranian hostage crisis, SDI, Bosnia, Reagan’s speeches in Germany, Gulf War I – surely at least some of these deserve nomination as roughly comparable. China? Cuba? NAFTA?
Since Vietnam. Ah, is this a clue? Why would that particular controversy occur to Pinker in this context? It is not objectively very similar. But it is emotionally associated, and that has made all the difference. The prescient second half of my thought in the previous post was “Can a reference to Vietnam be far behind?” Three-point swish. I tell you, they just can’t help themselves. Progressives regard it as a proven part of the shared culture that Vietnam was wrong, wrong, wrong; that we resort too quickly to war; and the American government (especially Republicans) lies about it. This belief is central to the world-view of boomer liberals, and must be defended at all costs. Even when they don’t consciously perceive it as especially important; even when they might hedge a bit from their 1970 position in intellectual discussion now – it is part of the furniture. Click your stopwatch – they will mention it.
Am I over-reaching in my interpretation of the thoughts of Pinker in specific about this? He is, after all, an individual human being, not a stereotype; he is in no way notorious for anti-war commentary; his reference was not quite an explicit comparison of Iraq to Vietnam. Wouldn’t it be fair to smack the Assistant Village Idiot, who frequently rails about the mind-reading that others do, for pretending to see into the motives of someone he does not know? Perhaps. On the face of it, it even seems unfair to me that I am doing it.
But then how did I instantly know both things were coming?