“Down the corner by the hotdog stand
I seen a man
I said ‘Howdy friend, I guess it’s just us two’
He screamed a bit and away he flew
Thought I was a Communist”
-Bob Dylan, “Talking World War III Blues”
I love debate. Debate is arguably (ha!) my favorite activity and the one I have probably devoted the most time and energy to in my entire life. Only three other efforts even come remotely close, those being, roughly: writing, friendship, and the pursuit of forging a successful romantic relationship. (Editor’s note: Storey got engaged on Christmas Eve! Yay!) Debate is great.
But I have often acknowledged that debate has one giant, glaring weakness that frequently manifests as a character flaw in those who love it best and do it most, or I should say, manifests in me. The best that a debater can do is to acknowledge this flaw, to approach it self-awarely, and to try to mitigate it wherever possible or wherever it does harm. I have not risen sufficiently to this challenge, as many friends and family are quick to observe over the last 24 years since I first became involved in debate. But I know what it is and I try to address it: seeing the world as binary. Right vs. wrong, black vs. white, and that middle grounds and compromises are the equivalent of losing.
Debate, for all its greatness, does not reward compromise. It can reward some mitigation and nuance, some acknowledgment of when one is wrong in the small picture, but only to advantage the larger picture of being eminently right. It does not reward acknowledging when the other side has a really good point that should be taken seriously. Most damningly, it does not reward the recognition that there are more than two approaches to any problem. Everything is reduced to A or B and, come hell or high water, your position has to be better than the other, with all other considerations ruled out.
The only advantage this gives debate over American political and international theory over the last century, near as I can tell, is that you don’t always have the same enemy for years at a time in debate. Indeed, debate mitigates its cardinal sin greatly by forcing people to debate on both sides of an issue, frequently putting someone in the position of passionately defending that which they loathe in the rest of their life. The spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth that comes from this exercise is the primary reason I’m willing to forgive debate’s binary adversarial structure and keep spreading its message far and wide. Nothing else in our society really gives us a strong incentive to take the “other side” seriously and engage it as though we agreed with it. No matter how ardently you’ve made your new year’s resolution about leaving your bubble, I only have hope that it will stick if you have a history with debate.
Of course, Democrats and Republicans or some form of left and right is, as I see it, the far less insidious manifestation of binary adversarial culture in America. As much as I hate the two-party system and all it has created, its damage meter pales in comparison to our sequential choosing of a nebulous international enemy and then throwing a Two Decades’ Hate at that foe, punctuated by bloody wars and unending bombing campaigns. From 1945-1991, of course, it was Communism, the specter that haunted our dreams and mostly looked like the USSR, but was nimble enough as an ideology to allow for the Vietnam War and a bunch of shady CIA-led repressions, coups, and borderline-genocides. What makes Communism a more satisfying enemy than the USSR is how widely it can be applied with how little evidence. You don’t need to point your guns, bombs, and henchmen at a flag or uniform only, but you can draw nefarious imagined connections between any speech or its up-and-coming sincere orator and the red menace that is coming to eat (or worse, brainwash!) good, strapping democratic babies.
For about eight years, from the end of the first Iraq War till 9/11, we got a brief glimpse of what it would look like to not have a global enemy to rally around, something to justify all the killing in the world. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most Americans remember 1992-2000 as pretty great years. Democrats want to claim this as Clinton’s legacy as a President, that he was an economic genius who replaced years of awful Republican policies. The truth, of course, is far more ambiguous: Presidents have very little impact on the economy and most of Clinton’s policies were right-wing reversions, like the crime bill or repealing welfare. If anything, Clinton’s enemy was the poor and there’s a case to be made (read your Shock Doctrine, folks!) that non-free trade and non-corporatism was the de facto enemy of this interregnum. But it was much subtler, much less broadcast, and frankly less violent. Oh sure, we were still bombing Iraq to smithereens on the regular and kept sending bombers to Somalia and Kosovo and such, but compared to the overt wars that came before and after, it was relatively peaceful.
Then 9/11 manufactured the Terrorist Threat and ushered in 15 years and counting of endless war, escalating incursions on traditionally held American rights and values, and a general renewal of the beloved American war machine, generating fear at home and bodies abroad in equal bloody measure. The only disagreement among the parties has been whether it’s more useful to call it Terrorism at large and be able to apply the force and vitriol literally everywhere (Democrats) or whether to specify it as Radical Islamic Terrorism and target it “only” at the perhaps two-thirds of the world’s nations where Islam is prevalent (Republicans). In every instance, the primary strategy has been to bomb standing nation-states into a total power vacuum so the Terrorist Threat can take hold as the only form of leadership or government available, then fight a long, protracted, awkward war with the manifestation of that threat. The hardest part about keeping this shenanigan going is that the threats which win the initial vacuum are often so weak and ridiculous that it takes a significant amount of smoke and mirrors (and often American arms) to prop them up to sufficiently make them look like a legitimate thing to be afraid of. Fortunately, there are just enough masks and black flags in the world and the American imagination is so easily terrorized that this has not posed a long-term danger to the strategy.
But a funny thing happened in 2016. It seemed there was real, legitimate dissent about who the great American Enemy should be. While Donald Trump went around continuing to talk about Radical Islamic Terrorism, rattling cages with this ominous bogeyman, Hillary Clinton pivoted rather forcefully to the ultimate champion of our old ideological foe, Communism, now rebranded as simply Putin (or very occasionally, Russian Hackers). It seemed an odd move for one of the most significant fighters of the War on Terror strategy, someone perhaps second only to George W. Bush himself in the desire to bomb Islamic nations into chaos and then talk gravely about the need to intervene in the resulting chaos. (It remains the strangest footnote of 2016 American politics that Clinton was criticized by the right for being weak on Libya through the Benghazi incident when she was the strongest advocate of creating its power vacuum for long-term exploitation in the first place.) And yet as DJT stands poised to take the international stage and renew the War on Terror in its insidious glory for the next 4-8 years, leadership in both parties yearns for the middle decades of last century and wants to switch to Russia instead. Whatever else you may think is going on in our nation’s capital, I suspect this is the ideological battle that will have the most impact on the shape of the world in the foreseeable future.
I feel I shouldn’t need to explain exactly what’s so problematic about having an appointed enemy who is the visage of ultimate wrong in American politics, that becomes the target of all our weaponry and hateful rhetoric. But I can also hear sincere believers in the American Way clamoring that both ISIS and Russia do shady stuff and act with bad intent toward our people and should be “held to account” for this. (Sidenote: “held to account” is a phrase we use to indicate going through the justice system, such as it is, for Americans or people we feel have rights. For non-Americans, it usually means “having your neighborhood indiscriminately bombed until you capitulate”. Worth thinking about.) Yes, ISIS does do bad things. So does Putin. So does the United States. If you can’t honestly look at the Native American genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, Vietnam, the CIA, and the War on Terror and imagine what the US would say, think, and do about a country with that track-record that wasn’t the US, then there’s no point in having a rational discussion about this. Imagine you’re debating the position that the US has done more harm than good. Look at how many arguments are available to you! Look how easy this position is to defend! Now, do you think the US is best because it’s truly best? Or are you predisposed to think that because we all tell ourselves a story about who we are, where we were born, and what we deserve?
The problem with having a sworn enemy, whoever it is and whatever they’ve done, is that it blinds you to both your own flaws and to the other side’s good traits. It turns the world into good and evil, baddies and goodies, things that we think might be all right for five-year-olds to absorb as an introduction to the world but that lose their efficacy for explaining the world by middle school at the latest. This touches on a few themes I’ve hit before, but perhaps the most important is the idea that people who disagree with you are innately irrational. This is incited in the wake of every mass-killing, every suicide, every terrorist attack, and I have discussed this more than almost anything else on this blog. It’s always labeled as “senseless” and “irrational” and “unthinkable”. When we kill, we have reasons. When anyone else kills, they have no reasons. It’s the persistent mantra of our self-enforced superiority as Americans. And it’s bunk.
But it applies beyond just the international realm. It applies, most prominently, to Donald Trump and his supporters. The traditional media, the left such as it is, and more prominently the center-right masquerading as the left, all agree that Donald Trump and everyone who voted for him are unthinkably irrationally crazy. Just as Russia and Putin are our sworn new foreign enemy to be thwarted at every turn, so too are Donald Trump and his voters our sworn domestic foe. And everything he does, they do, must be immediately called out as the worst thing ever regardless of its actual content or value.
Look, I’m no fan of Donald Trump. And most every move he’s made since early November has made him seem even more problematic. But not every move. And not every thing. And certainly not everyone who voted for him shares culpability for his most problematic stances, any more than every Clinton voter should have been tried for murder in the wake of whatever wars she started. It’s a fine and subtle distinction I’m advocating, between being hyper-critical of that which is bad and literally believing that everything a certain enemy does is condemnatory evil. We shouldn’t have enemies, at least not ones that persistent and that incredible. Even in debate rounds, our enemies change, we befriend our enemies after some time, and we sometimes even debate our teammates, with them being the enemy for just one round. It is this interplay between friend and foe, this understanding that most people do things that are wrong and other things that are right, that is vital to remember. It also makes it much harder for us to feel good about killing anyone.
Which is good. Because we shouldn’t be killing anyone.
You can take that line at the top, from new Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, and replace “Communist” with “Terrorist”. It’s searingly relevant for the last 15 years. Or you can replace it with just “Russian” and it will serve as a fitting parable about the last year of American perception. Or how about “Trump Voter” and that will tell you all you need to know about a lot of America in the last sixty days.
Howdy, friend. I guess it’s just us two. Let’s take that obligation seriously, shall we?