FDL Book Salon: The Age of Fallibility, Part I
The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror is an ambitious and serious book, and one which propels an incredibly politically incorrect (2006 version) argument imperative for our times. If you have not had the time to read the book, I wholeheartedly recommend you do so.
Let’s begin, first, with Mr. Soros himself. A longtime philanthropist and childhood escapee from Nazi Germany, experience has made him painfully aware of what folly the madness of crowds can propel. He’s made a career of recognizing the madness of crowds in financial markets, betting against the herd to become one of the world’s wealthiest men. He brings those same sensitivities to the current delusional bubble in American politics.
But let’s start at the beginning: Soros begins his discussion from a core philosphical framework, some first principles through which he comes to understand and explain the nature of human cognition, knowledge acquisition, rationality and the limits of rationality. In fact, he is not primarily a political thinker or even one comfortable in the rough and tumble world of hardcore politics.
Having had the opportunity to discuss his book with him, I can tell you Mr. Soros longs for a world where rational people can put their arguments into the public domain for consideration by a fair and willing citizen audience. He is not a partisan, temperamentally predisposed to fight for any political party. By personality, he prefers calm centrists far more than I do, as my diagnosis of what is unfortunately politically necessary in this age of polarization and monumental global stakes probably differs a bit from his (rabid lamb that I am). But on the fundamental ideas put forward in his book, he and I are in agreement.
The first part of the book lays out his philosophical first principles, the upshot of which is that no individual can perfectly know the full truth. Therefore, human societies must protect themselves from gross error by committing themselves to becoming and remaining open societies, places where all voices can be heard and considered. A commitment to open society is the ultimate cure, in Soros’ view, to our current Age of Fallibility.
In the second part of the book, Mr. Soros applies the principles delineated in the first part to our current national politics. He then makes this provocative point (from page 102):
But the war on terror was counterproductive. It embroiled the United States in an adventure that cannot succeed and from which it will be difficult to withdraw. In my judgment, it was in its response to 9/11 that the United States left reality behind and got lost in far-from-equilbrium territory. The terrorist attack was real indeed, and it required a strong response; but the response chosen by the Bush administration carried the notion into a fantasy land created by a misrepresentation of reality. What is worse, people still do not recognize the phantasmagoric element in the war on terror. I shall have a hard time getting my point across because the war on terror has been unquestioningly accepted by the public; indeed, it is seen as the natural response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 even by those who are opposed to the Bush administration’s policies.
In my interpretation, the war on terror is a false metaphor – the opposite of a fertile fallacy. It has been used by the Bush administration to further its own objectives, but those objectives are opposed to the principles of open society and harmful to the national interest. Eventually, the war on terror even proved detrimental to the Bush administration’s own interests because it has had unintended adverse consequences: The invasion of Iraq turned into a disaster.
It find it quite tempting to quote at greater length. While Mr. Soros lays out in more patient, calm detail much of what I earlier discussed in this tub thumping protest piece (whose core argument has been echoed today by the NYT Editorial Page), I find his dissection of our current society and politics all the more devastating for being more comprehensive. Before he’s done, he takes on our weakness as a "feel good society," nuclear proliferation, global warming and the global energy crisis. Did I mention you should buy this book?
I’m glad Jane will offer us the opportunity to discuss the book again next week in Part II of our review of The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror. But for the purposes of today’s discussion, I’d like to make a bit of a transition to get some ideas flowing from the community here. The problem I’d like to highlight is underscored in the text I’ve chosen to quote: how can we as progressives reorient our society so that it comprehends that the so-called war on terror is a fallacy, a false metaphor? How do we do this when even Democrats intone the language of the "war on terror" to explain their policies and positions? How do we educate the culture so that it understands that the very notion of the "war on terror" we currently accept uncritically is entirely false?
When I wrote my provocative piece linked above, it drew a good deal of attention across the blogosphere, and the Yellow Elephant, 101st Fighting Keyboardist crew inhabited our comments section to fling feces, hurl threats, spew hate and share their colorful wishes for my gruesome, speedy demise (we deleted the worst and left the rest, without, may I add, collapsing to the fainting couch).
It seems to me there are two strategies open to progressives. First, we can directly counter the false "war on terror" metaphor directly by pointing out its falsehood and unreality. This is my position and Soros’ position, though I am more aggressive in making the case forcefully in the political arena. To Soros, the "war on terror" metaphor is like a market bubble primed to pop. Alternately, progressives can take take the approach articulated well by John Aravosis at Americablog, a contrary position I myself find compelling and appealing on some level. In this approach, it can be argued that the war on terror is necessary, and it would be nice if we had actually begun one. In this approach, progressives would seek to redefine the "war on terror" on our own terms, arguing instead on behalf of our own, more realistic security strategies.
The differences between these two approaches are in part strategic and in part philosophical. Tactically and politically, it’s an exceedingly difficult thing to do to redefine an overarching political metaphor and rhetorical cudgel so successfully deployed, in its way, by the other side. For my part, I don’t believe you can take down failed conservative policies by deploying conservative rhetoric, even if you seek to redefine it. Progressives (and political movements in general) do not succeed by playing on the visiting field, utilizing what Lakoff describes as the other side’s "frames." What’s more, Democrats, including John Kerry in 2004, have sought without success to deploy this redefinition strategy, to disappointing results.
On another level, the philosophical difference between these alternate approaches relates to the applicability of the metaphor of "war" on a tactic, or on, as I described it in my previous post, an emotion. National security relies most on, as Soros argues, the protection and promotion of the principles of an open society, both at home and abroad. Moving the discussion to these terms, progressives may create an opportunity in the national dialogue to propel an alternate vision for security consistent both with our values and a pragmatic assessment of international reality.
In my view, moving the discussion to such alternate terrain allows us to make a meaningful case against the very truthfulness, applicability or strategic wisdom of the so-called "war on terror." It appears conservatives find these direct attacks on their faith-based ideology of a "war on terror" fundamentally threatening, evidenced by their determined rush into our comments section when we argued directly against it. This further suggests, in my view, that direct attacks on the very truthfulness and reality of a "war on terror" will be more effective in changing the national dialogue, if only because they will concentrate more attention on the fundamental issues at stake. Finding Mr. Soros’ argument truthful, I further believe that, politically, it will ultimately be the most successful, even as it most certainly will encounter immediate, determined, harsh and irrational resistance.
I acknowledge, as Mr. Soros does, that ours is the minority view. Accordingly, I’d like to open this argument up to the community: which approach is best? Which approach is most truthful? And when philanthropic idealists like Mr. Soros become the subject of hateful, defamatory, false attacks based on his ideas, what should be done to defend him? If elected Democrats, presumably opponents of the current administration (Hi, Joe!), are to succeed in promoting the principles of an open society while attacking the prevailing conception of the "war on terror," what must be done to embolden them to make the necessary case? Finally, isn’t the "war on terror" falsehood the shoehorn the right wing is trying to use to slip us uncritically into war with Iran, against all reason or sober assessment of our national security interests and strategic priorities?