Sunday, November 21, 2004

Bring the boys [and girls] back home

Bring the boys back home
Bring the boys back home
Don't leave the children on their own
Bring the boys back home
-- "Bring the Boys Back Home" lyrics by Roger Waters, music by Pink Floyd

I'd promised to deal with a question J.B. asked in an e-mail regarding "support our troops."
There's apparently a magnet now that some people are putting on their cars (it reads: "Support Our Troops"). Rob Walker wrote about this in the November 7th New York Times Sunday Magazine. The article ("The Magnet Magnet: How a Yellow Ribbon Went from Being a Local Fund-Raising Item to a Full-Blown Fad") is no longer available online so no link provided, but I'm going to quote what stood out (stood out to me, of course):

One attraction, clearly, is the message: "Support Our Troops" is an idea with extremely wide appeal. Noam Chomsky -- to cite an authority rarely referenced on the subject of car decoration -- actually addressed the attraction of that exact slogan during the 1992 (magnetless) gulf war: "Who can be against that?"
His point was that such phrases and symbols amounted to instruments of propaganda that divert discussion from issues of substance. Of course, to apply this to the magnet-bearers is to suggest that they are making some kind of public argument, engaging if not in rhetoric then at least in a kind of advertising-like coercion: "Hey, fellow driver on the public roads, I implore you to support our troops."

I haven't read the Chomsky essay/book that Walker's pulled this from but if anyone knows the title of it, please pass it on. I have seen this issue coming on the blog to The Majority Report (Air America show hosted by Janeane Garofalo and Sam Seder) and I've heard people begin to discuss in conversations. This week's edition of the Times Sunday Magazine publishes four letters from readers commenting on the issue raised (

I can't comment on Chomsky's meaning (not having read him on this subject) but the way I'm interpreting this slogan "support our troops" is as a closer. It shuts down discussions and leaves people with a complacency about an issue by suggesting that there's "common ground" between the two sides. I don't doubt that anyone who's pro-war "supports our troops." Nor do I doubt that anyone who's pro-peace "supports our troops." Outside of Nicky Kristof's rarefied op-ed existence, I don't imagine anyone in this country sits around wishing & hoping that the casualty rate increases.

But somehow the left has been put into a position where too often a statement begins with "Well, I support our troops ..." Who said you didn't? And if you're being asked that ("Do you support our troops?") you might want to give the person the sort of reply such an outrageous question deserves. I think it puts the left on the defensive (which was probably someone's intent). And we're left with it eating into discussion time.

When the discussion time is televised, it does something else, it allows the host to say, "Well at least we can all agree that we support our troops." And watching at home, someone might be able to smile and think, "Yeah, common ground on that. Is Law & Order on yet?"

If that's the "take away" when someone watches a debate on the issue (granted, those debates have been nearly non-existent on television), that person is left with a false impression. The two sides do not have a common ground. One side is for continuing the war and the other side is for bringing the troops home. (There are actually more sides than that but the domestic media loves dualities.) These are polarized views that do not meet at an agreed upon point. And allowing someone to suggest otherwise diminishes the arguments on both ends.

J.S. of Philadelphia writes the Times that:

What I was more interested in was the fact that the thinking behind these magnets might feed into the exclusionary zeigeist that the Bush administration promotes with its nationalistic fear strategy: beware of neighbors who oppose our war, for they are against you.

[J.S., to my knowledge, is not a journalist or "public person" so I'm referring to him as J.S. -- although the Times published his name, he might not have intended for it to go out into the blogsphere where it lives forever. Times readers may be aware of Daniel Okrent "outing" a reader over a private e-mail to a journalist. Okrent's behavior struck me as unethical so I'd prefer to err on the side of caution.]

J.B.'s e-mail (to this site) asked if the entry "Here Come the Madmen" could be seen as not supporting the troops. I suppose anything can be seen in any number of ways. I believe, sound familiar, this was the wrong war at the wrong time. If someone wants to argue that isn't "helpful" well that depends on where you're coming from. And to suggest that such statements shouldn't be made because "we are at war" -- it's because we are at war that such statements need to be made, it's what an open democracy, a participatory democracy, demands.

Focusing on "support our troops" allows us to cut off questions such as what are we trying to do over there? How long are we going to be over there? And it also renders Iraqis supporting players in a drama that is very much their own.

Those are my thoughts. Feel free to add your own in the comments subject. I had intended to go into a bit more depth but hopefully this addresses the issue raised.