When a problem is too troubling (and the response unbearably light)

I’ve been trying to write about this observation for a while, but haven’t found the means to express it. So I am just going to state it, in what I admit is speculative form. Here’s what I said on Twitter Sunday: “We tend to think: big revelations mean big reactions. But if the story is too big and crashes too many illusions, the exact opposite occurs.” My fear is that this will happen with the Afghanistan logs. Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect— not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget. [emphasis added.]

That’s from a post by Jay Rosen that I think gets at the heart of the Wikileaks war logs and the Afghanistan war in general, but also points to a larger malaise suffocating the country right now.  As Krugman warns of an American Lost Decade characterized by unnecessarily high unemployment and stagnation, Scahill reports that even after combat troops withdraw from Iraq an ever-expanding army of mercenaries will remain for “the foreseeable future.”

Nobody can pretend anymore that Afghanistan is going well or is even “winnable” (a loathsome word in that context if ever there was one), after the newly published war logs.  And for anyone who would like a front seat view to a kill in that country, watch Restrepo, a new documentary that follows a platoon of soldiers deployed in the Korengal Valley for a year in what is known as “The Valley of Death.”

Chris Hayes predicts that those calling for austerity measures in Europe — which may very well deepen the recession — will continue to be treated as the only Serious Experts in town no matter how disastrous their policies turn out to be, just as we saw in the run-up and aftermath of Iraq.  When it comes to calling for war or sacrifices from the poor, it is impossible to be too far to the right.

Forgive these broad strokes, which are in fact the hobgoblin of a successful blog post, but after reading Rosen’s quote above I can’t help myself.  The problems facing the country right now are too troubling to face head on, made more so by this country’s lackluster response to them.  It’s not just that the economy is failing, it’s that the Obama administration wasn’t able (or couldn’t, if you prefer) to enact a large enough stimulus to restart the economy.  As a result, we’ll see sluggish growth and a serious risk of deflation.

It’s not just that the war in Afghanistan is expensive and unwinnable, it’s that we know those truths, yet we will be an occupying power there in some capacity for years.  We acknowledge the futility of the endeavor, yet nothing changes.  This has resulted in a show of mental acrobatics from the establishment, whose response to the leaks has been a confused contradiction of: this is a serious crime/these papers say nothing new.  But this country is not a poem, and that contradiction will not open up a new mode of knowledge.  So we’re compelled to ask this absurd question: Can anyone imagine this country suddenly turning dovish, even though “everyone knows” the war is a complete mess?

It’s not just that the national security apparatus has spiraled out of control since 9/11 to the extent that no one knows how big it is or how much money it devours, it’s that the revelation two weeks ago by the Washington Post went virtually unnoticed.

In all of these cases and more — like the environment! — there are people who have waved the warning flags but have been ignored.  Many of those same people continue to offer suggestions to fix things: increase stimulus spending, draw down the occupations, decrease military spending, restore habeus corpus rights, close Guantanamo, and the list goes on.  Those voices exist in this country, yet they continue to go unheeded despite a Democratic president and large majorities in both chambers.

On some level, the explanation is the same as always: there’s money to be had in war, in tax cuts for the rich, in an ever-increasing privatization of this country’s military and intelligence forces.  And in denying climate change.  And in ensuring the health care bill wouldn’t have a public option.

But I can’t shake the feeling that we as a country are unable to see what we are because it’s too unpleasant.  The problems too overwhelming; the inequalities too embedded.  The foul promise of American Exceptionalism has dehydrated this country like a long walk in the desert, like the fourth shot of gutter whiskey a gambler needs to go all in yet again.

The problems this country faces are troubling, yes, but what’s truly horrifying to watch is our country turn away from clear solutions in favor of Established Wisdom.

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3 Responses to When a problem is too troubling (and the response unbearably light)

  1. Mr. Knefel,

    The size of the public reaction to a news story is not proportional to import of the story in the abstract but rather its ability to change the course of events. The election of Scott Brown, a previously unknown Republican over heavily favored Democrat Martha Coakley in the traditionally Democratic state of Massachusetts was big news because it would seriously alter the balance of forces in the Senate. Now the event itself was nothing too big, just a special election for one vacant office but the implications were huge.

    In contrast, the leaked documents, while of no small significance, will have little impact on the course of the war in Afghanistan. US troops will be out by mid-2012 one way or another. The release of these documents will not change that fact and everyone knows it. It is the like the firing of Gen. McChrystal or the “discovery” of trillions of dollars in mineral wealth in Afghanistan, all very interesting but neither will impact the outcome of the war. Neither story had any lasting impact on the course of human events in Afghanistan, just as this story will not.

  2. leonkelly says:

    …It’s not just that the economy is failing, it’s that the Obama administration wasn’t able (or couldn’t, if you prefer) to enact a large enough stimulus to restart the economy….

    Don’t tell me. Let me guess. Obama wasn’t able or couldn’t cuz the bad guys wouldn’t let him. Right? Maybe our glorious leader needs to get outa bed with the banksters and show some courage for a change.

  3. jpfitsch says:

    I totally agree with your concern. Let’s make a list of all the clear solutions that our government is not using. Then maybe we should start making lists of incremental steps that could be made towards those clear solutions. I’ll start.
    1. Transform the military budget into an economic stimulus machine. Take the technology, infrastructure, and personnel now being channeled into the task of killing people and put it to work creating a new economy based on new energy resources (forget about oil).

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