ambivalent imbroglio home

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January 08, 2005

Tacky, Morally Superior, and Snide

It seems my admittedly flip rant about magnetic ribbons has boiled Anthony Rickey's blood. I mocked the ribbons as a superficial expression of an ambiguous message. My little critique was not very original—see the comments at second person singular, which sparked my post; AntiMagnet; and Ernie Pook's Comeek. Anthony responded with a touching story of a scene he witnessed in which the magnetic ribbons were useful in bringing together two people who have loved ones in Iraq, allowing them to share their experiences and express support for the hardships involved with being in that very difficult situation. All of that is very fine. I thank him for that story, because it shows the ribbons playing a useful role for their displayers and helps answer my original question, which was: What do the ribbon displayers think they are saying with these magnets? Some of them clearly are saying something to the effect of: “I have a loved one in Iraq and I hope he or she comes home safe and sound.” That's great. I, too, hope all the troops come home safe and sound. In fact, my support for the troops in Iraq has never wavered on that count. From the first suggestion that the U.S. was going to invade Iraq, I objected strenuously. I marched and wrote letters and participated in teach-ins and pickets, all so that no American soldiers would be sent to Iraq in the first place. Now that they're there, I certainly hope they all come home ASAP and safe and sound. I hope I've never suggested otherwise, and I apologize if anyone has interpreted anything I've said any other way. But Anthony's post points out the crucial difficulty faced by those who have always opposed this war and occupation. First, from day one, it has been nearly impossible to have any sort of rational exchange of opinions on the subject. The pacifist (or the person not wholly opposed to war, but just opposed to this war) said, “Iraq is not a threat to the U.S. or its allies, it had nothing to do with 9/11, and the inspections and sanctions are working to keep Saddam in line.” The pro-war person replied, “Oh, you went to college and think you know more than our president? Bush says Iraq's a threat. Do you want the proof to come in the form of a mushroom cloud!?” And so we went to war and American soldiers began dying and getting maimed and wounded. Today, I suggest that magnetic ribbons are not a very effective form of support for troops in Iraq, but rather than explain to me why he thinks I'm wrong, Anthony writes an anti-intellectual screed that suggests that a college education has made me snide, morally superior, and tacky. But more important, he suggests that by criticizing ribbons, I'm not only not supporting the troops, but I'm somehow hurting them or their loved ones. There's a leap there that's not helpful for the troops or anyone else. So long as Americans are unable to have thoughtful exchanges about the war without one side constantly trying to trump the other by baiting them with emotion or fear, American soldiers will probably continue to die in unjust and unnecessary military misadventures. As for the substance to Anthony's post, he makes an important connection between the domestic response to what's happening in Iraq today and that response to what happened in Vietnam more than three decades ago. How much have the damaged pride and unhealed wounds of that national humiliation fed support for the current conflict? I really don't know, but the 2004 election showed that the unresolved feelings, unhealed wounds, and unforeseen consequences of Vietnam continue to shape and influence Americans and American foreign policy today; Anthony's connection between that war and this one simply reiterates that fact. Unfortunately, the mistakes we've made and continue to make in Iraq are also likely to negatively influence Americans and American foreign policy in similar ways for generations to come. Anthony concludes that because some percentage of magnet-displayers feel their magnets express something genuine and meaningful, all criticism of the magnets is meaningless. I obviously disagree. Dangerous jingoism generally thrives upon a foundation of true and justified sentiment, but that doesn't make it any less dangerous. That said, I don't think the magnets are all that dangerous and their objectionable potential probably wasn't worth the time it took to write my original post about them. I do wish they were being made by an American manufacturer (so as not to add needlessly to our already gargantuan trade deficit) who was giving 50% or more of the proceeds to efforts to educate Americans about the dangers of unilateral military adventurism and the self-perpetuating follies of war generally. To me, that would be a great way to support American soldiers, both those serving today and those who will serve in future generations, because it would decrease the likelihood that U.S. citizens would allow their leaders to put our soldiers in mortal peril for anything but a genuine last resort. On a final and more personal note, I hope Anthony (and others who feel as he does) will take this post as it's intended—as a measured attempt to explain my opinion of the subjects it covers. I've already admitted that my first post on the ribbons was a snide rant, and that is obviously not a good way to open or contribute to discussion of a serious issue. One of the double-edged swords of blogs is that they often encourage sarcasm and flippancy. This can be a refreshing way to cut through the spin we often hear from politicians and others, but it can also be a poor way to discuss controversial issues with people who see things differently than you do.

Posted January 8, 2005 11:40 AM | general politics


Don't worry about Anthony, he never really struck me as someone who fully thinks before he talks. Now, because I'm not that original myself, I'll leave you with a quote that seems fitting to your post.

"I believe they [the ribbons] are symbols, and I leave symbols to the symbol minded." George Carlin (actually referring to the ribbons from the first Gulf war).

Posted by: Unreasonable Man at January 8, 2005 12:08 PM

As to the magnetic-ness of the situation, an acquantaince of mine hostile to the magnets (lets not get into why) said his blood was boiled because he didn't know how to vandalize them. Should he steal them, or superglue them on?

Posted by: luminous at January 8, 2005 02:35 PM

But more important, he suggests that by criticizing ribbons, Iím not only not supporting the troops, but Iím somehow hurting them or their loved ones.

How, exactly, did I do this?

I suggested you were casting judgment upon the motivations of individuals you do not know for reasons you do not put forth. How you know what is in the hearts or minds of an individual in the car in front of you is, frankly, beyond me, when the information you have to go on is a yellow ribbon and your own preconceptions of who happens to be in the car. That was the point of my vignette: how do you know what the person in that car is thinking?

Indeed, I never even said you weren't supporting the troops. This, once again, is you implying the arguments you'd wish I'd made, rather than the one that I did. I have no idea if you support the troops. For all I know--and frankly, for all I hope--you're sending letters to old high school friends who are still in the military, sending care packages, or your own personal form of support, whatever it may be. None of this would keep you from also snidely and purposefully casting the aspersions you did.

Hurting the families of overseas troops? I wouldn't flatter you to have that kind of influence.

But of course, it's so much more reasonable if you turn the topic of conversation to accusations you wish were made: those with yellow ribbons are impugning the patriotism of those who don't wear them; I'm saying you don't support the troops; those who were anti-war are anti-American. Because any of those positions would be unreasonable, and if you could imply that your opponent supported them, unreasonable they would be too.

No, I accused you of acting in a morally superior fashion because you were throwing stones without knowing who you were throwing stones at. Whether the ribbons are an "effective" measure of support? I've not a clue. On some cost-benefit basis, probably not, but I also don't know what the person in the car in front of me does to support the troops. Just as I don't know what you do, and wouldn't hazard a guess without asking.

Posted by: A. Rickey at January 8, 2005 02:42 PM

Luminous: What college did your friend attend that made him so tacky and morally superior?

A. Rickey: I suspected you would respond by saying you never suggested my criticism of the ribbons had anything to do w/my lack of support for the troops or their families. Perhaps you had no desire to even hint at such a thing. Perhaps it's just my acute persecution complex (possibly another pernicious product of my college education) that made me see that as an implicit subtext of your comments. But what can you expect from a "hypersensitive political fetishist"? (I like that one a lot, by the way.)

Perhaps you didn't imply that if I'm not with the magnet-displayers I'm against them. What you unquestionably did, however, was attempt to dismiss my criticism (which you call mockery) with a fusillade of pejorative adjectives (tacky, morally superior, snide, and hypersensitive among them) and a sentimental, heartstring-tugging anecdote. So again, I'd say that's precisely the type of unhelpful and unnecessary rhetorical strategy that got us into this war in the first place. Name-calling and emotional appeals can be very effective, but that effectiveness may not always be the best measure of their value in a civil society.

I'm glad you think the magnet-displayers are with defending. I'm glad to hear your story. I'm sorry that I and others are wary of the possibility that our fellow citizens might confuse "support our troops" with "support the policies that put them in harm's way." I'm sorry recent history has provided so much evidence that we ought to be wary of such things, and that the current administration works constantly to elide any difference between support for the troops and support for the actions in which they're involved. I'm sorry that the finest intentions of the magnet-displayers and the troops themselves don't end up meaning much when those fine intentions are twisted and distorted by a leadership that consistently demonstrates its utter lack of regard for them. In short, I'm sorry that fine intentions can be such good tools for mass manipulation. But, well, there you go.

Posted by: ambimb at January 8, 2005 07:37 PM

'Luminous: What college did your friend attend that made him so tacky and morally superior?'

Some ivy league elite-fest no doubt.

Posted by: luminous at January 8, 2005 08:45 PM

If I was not so tacky and morally superior I would post the link to the discussion that this same issue generated on Left2Right.

Posted by: musclehead at January 8, 2005 09:22 PM

I suspected you would respond by saying you never suggested my criticism of the ribbons had anything to do w/my lack of support for the troops or their families. Perhaps you had no desire to even hint at such a thing.

You see, this rather puts your desire for any kind of honest communication to the test. At the very least I took issue with your actual words. Not their subtext, their meaning, or anything I wished to interpret into them, but their text itself. Blockquote tags are wonderful for that. Your whole countercharge has consisted of "Yes, it was snide (what Tony was taking issue with), but I have problems with the hidden meanings, subtexts, and contexts that I perceive in both yellow ribbons and his writing." If you honestly want a real discussion, that's unhelpful. Neither the first post, nor this, were arguments or attempts at them--they were shadowboxing the opponents you wish you had.

Now, perhaps you could have written a post talking about someone--anyone--who held the jingoistic beliefs you're talking about. Somewhere there's got to be a blogger writing about putting a ribbon on his car, and how anyone who doesn't agree with him is a terrorist, unpatriotic, or what have you. Fools being born every minute, it shouldn't be tough to find one. And if you want to find that guy and excoriate him, have fun. Hell, I might join you, especially if he's a self-identifying conservative. I've never been loathe to mock the sillier bits of my own political movement.

Instead, you made a blanket generalization, and not in whatever subtextual way you'd use to accuse me. And your response thus far has been to blame Bush, blame "mass manipulation," blame whatever for the fact that you have determined what the symbol someone else puts on the back of their car means. Or rather what it didn't mean, it being a vague, simple, easy assertion that didn't mean much.

Don't apologize for being wary that a symbol is being used for mass-manipulation. Being wary is perfectly fine. And if you find out that they are--and you find someone who is specifically being manipulated--then tell them about it. Hell, tell the world about it. If you want to make an accusation, then by all means be prosecutorial about it. But don't make some cutesy diatribe about media manipulation and how the ribbons on the road are mocking you for being insufficiently patriotic. A good number of them--probably the majority, by I wouldn't guess--probably aren't even about you.

Let's put it this way: you're always the fellow who likes to stick up for the little guy against cruel, heartless, wicked, greedy, deceitful Republicans like me. (See, I can play the "subtext" game too! Ridiculous, isn't it?) Well, in this case the little guy includes husbands and wives hoping their loved ones return. (Some of them, you know, probably don't support the war itself.) The little guy includes a father who's not heard from his son in weeks. It includes me when I idly think about the guy who taught me to play D&D and hope he's OK because I've not spoken to his mother in too long. Maybe it's a feeble gesture, but does that make it worthy of mockery?

Is the symbol trivial, "ineffective," vague? Since time immemorial mankind has hung talismans to ward off poor fortune, and their effectiveness can be generally judged by the fact that no matter how many are hung, bad fortune recurs. But if one perceives a matter to be out of one's control, then even a symbolic gesture can be a comfort. Why would you take that away?

Perhaps you didn't imply that if I'm not with the magnet-displayers I'm against them.

No, I didn't imply that: you stated that you were against them, at least in the display of their ribbons. If that's not the meaning that your original post had--that you are against the display of ribbons on the back of someone's car--then you're right: I've mis-read you horribly. "Damned ribbons" didn't seem to be a statement of vague ambiguity to me, but if you'd like to clarify, please do.

Does that mean you're against the troops? Who knows? I like to pay the simple courtesy of sticking to what you said. You were talking about people who have yellow ribbons on their cars: some of these might support or oppose the war; be more or less firm in their opinions; show a greater or lesser degree of sacrifice for the troops. I'm talking about your criticism of that group, which you made as a whole, and beyond that I've made little statement. I'm interested in how you know which is which, which is greater, how you've divided the "shallow" (your words) expressions from those that aren't?

Posted by: A. Rickey at January 8, 2005 10:05 PM

Reading some of these posts, it occurs to me that Dorothy Parker was right when she said "you can lead a whore to culture but you can't make her think."

Posted by: Famous P at January 9, 2005 03:52 AM

I don't really want to bloody myself in your fray, but I do need to mention that your Ernie Pook link won't work. Because of the frames, you will need to go ahead and link to my saved copy at http://www.superdilettante.com/bigcomeekg8.gif

:)

Posted by: care at January 9, 2005 02:40 PM

I don't get what all the hostility is about. I generally disagree with Mr. Rickey's politics but I'm with him on this one. The yellow ribbon means what it always has -- that we're thinking about our loved ones overseas. And if you're driving down the highway and you see one, maybe you'll take a moment away from your day to remember the people you know over there.

I know that the current political environment is a little scary, and it seems like "support our troops" can be an inflammatory statement. But let's just think about the troops themselves, not the people that put them over there. The magnets are a way to do that.

Posted by: CM at January 10, 2005 10:03 PM

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