PolySciFi Blog

Thursday, February 02, 2006


Defending Tom Toles from Folk Marxism

Finding myself in the odd position of defending an anti-war position twice in short succession, I don't understand the brouhaha over Tom Toles's editorial cartoon which I've reproduced below (sans permission, but let's call this a "fair use"). Or rather I do, and I'm saddened.

Instapundit calls it disgraceful. This morning, Laura Ingraham was going off on it the entire time I was in radio reception range this morning. The Joint Chiefs wrote a letter denouncing it. All of which seem to center around the following criticism which I've excerpted from the Joint Chiefs' letter:
Using the likeness of a service member who has lost his arms and legs in war as the central theme of a cartoon is beyond tasteless....

we believe you and Mr. Toles have done a disservice to your readers and your paper's reputation by using such a callous depiction of those who have volunteered to defend this nation, and as a result, have suffered traumatic and life-altering wounds...
So the assertion seems to be that it's beyond tasteless to draw a bandaged quadraplegic in an editorial cartoon and is furthermore callous to those who have suffered traumatic wounds.

This criticism completely ignores the point of the cartoon which was an attempted rebuttal of Rumsfeld's earlier assertion that Iraq was not breaking the army and was rather making it battle hardened.

Now I happen to agree with Rumsfeld. One of the big advantages of wars is indeed battle hardening where in the abstract the military learns what it didn't know it didn't know, what works well and what doesn't work well, more efficient ways to do things, and in the practical, actual fighting is far more realistic training than any simulation.

But battle hardening (as well as the other objectives of the war which are all much more important objectives) comes at a price. And one aspect of that price is maimed and killed soldiers. And it is perfectly plausible that the price could outweigh the benefit in terms of military effectiveness, which is what Toles is asserting (and which is what the report that Rumsfeld was reponding to asserted).

Perhaps Tom could've made the same point by showing a burnt-out tank, but if you are to make the case that the price is too high, there is no more reasonable way of making this argument than by noting the impact on soldiers. Unlike say the Soviet Union in WWII or China in the Korean War, the modern US military's most valuable asset is its soldiers. Lose a tank, we can have a new one ready in a day. Lose a fighter, give us a week. Lose a battleship, give us a few months. Crunch all you want, we'll make more; we're far and away the largest economy on earth and we could spend the rest of the world into the ground if we so chose.

But training soldiers takes time. A lot of time. Officers even longer. And unlike equipment, you can't hurry up production of a soldier without severely damaging quality (those equipment times above represent "busting your hump" times). So if you're going to discuss the price of a war, it makes sense to discuss the price in terms of soldiers lost or maimed. And a significantly maimed army would not be battle hardened at all.

Now while I think a quadraplegic is an absolutely lousy metaphor for the current state of military readiness, I imagine Tom thought it was spot on - but that's a difference in opinion on our assessments of military readiness, not the tastefulness of using quadraplegics to note the price. As I noted in the preceding graphs, an injured soldier is the correct image to display the cost of the war and its impact on military readiness.

So why assert that the use is tasteless if it's an otherwise appropriate image? Surely, Tom is not denigrating the nobility of those who have sacrificed in service of the the country. In fact without such a recognition, the cartoon would not carry the emotional weight that Tom uses to advance his argument. Rather, an assertion of tastelessness allows the spokesmen for the injured servicemen to remind us that they hold the moral high ground thereby shutting down debate without actually making a cogent argument.

We as a society permit them to take the moral high ground (without actually defending the real argument) because in today's society we assign absolute moral authority to victims, victim classes, and perhaps more importantly, to their spokesmen. A flipside example is Dowd's assertion that Cindy Sheehan has absolute moral authority because her son Casey died in the war.

In both cases, victims (or their spokesmen) assert that their position is correct because a) they have absolute moral authority and b) moral authority must mean their arguments are correct. Of course this is a logical fallacy - in fact it's a compound logical fallacy, first arguing from authority, and second erroneously assigning authority to those that don't really know what they're pontificitaing on.

On what grounds is Sheehan an authority on international affairs or war crimes? A loss of her son provides no insight into that.

On what grounds does the fact that a person has been injured in the war give that person an adequate perspective on the readiness of the entire military? None. Now the Joint Chiefs are in a position of authority with respect to the readiness of the military (in fact there's probably no one better equipped to make that judgement), but they didn't make that argument. Instead, they asserted the "rights" of a victim class to shut down debate.

We as a society permit this to go on because we have bought into what Arnold Kling calls Folk Marxism. Folk Marxism separates the world into two classes - victims and their oppressors. (In reality there are 10 classes of people, those who understand binary and those who don't. ;)) Marxism assigned absolute moral authority to the proletariat (and noteably to those claiming to be their spokesmen) and none to the oppressing bourgeois class. Whatever the proletariat asserted was correct and whatever the bourgeois asserted was wrong. While we have largely discredited the idea of Marxism, the idea of victims and oppressors and assigning absolute moral authority to victim classes has become a part of our society's everyday thought.

I find this to be quite dangerous as a) it shuts down rational debate (e.g., the uproar over Fisher DeBerry's comments) and b) encourages people to claim the position of victim.

While the problems associated with b) might not be immediately apparent, I feel it is as bad as the problems associated with a). Victimhood-seeking encourages people to perceive and claim slights where none were intended thereby coarsening feelings between groups. Victimhood-seeking encourages people to assume problems are external (from some oppressor class) rather than internal when the vast majority of life's problems either begin with number one or are the result of chance. Victimhood-seeking encourages people to think in terms of in-groups and out-groups rather than as individuals, something which I term a form of tribalism (and we all know how effective that is).

In the past, Folk Marxism used to be solely the domain of the left (e.g., sexist, racist, patriarchical capitalist pig-dogs). But over the past decade it's become the domain of the right as well (e.g., Christian aggrievement, angry white males), a trend that I don't think has been for the good (once we're all victims, we're all screwed, especially when competing over rent-controlled apartments).

So if I may engage in a little pessimistic conservatism, with the highest reaches of the military now also engaging in Folk Marxism, I fear for the future of our society.


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