In defense of Atrios

What liberals need to learn from Machiavelli and John Wayne.

Just for the sake of variety, let me try defending something written by my un-friend Duncan Black (Atrios) against the angry denunciation of my friend “Winston Smith,” the Philosoraptor. Much of what Winston says about the decline of Eschaton seems to me (regrettably) sound. And the post Winston attacks could have been better written. But I think there’s a core of truth to that post that Winston misses.

Atrios is complaining that eagerness to support military adventure is often confused with gravitas. That complaint has considerable merit. Conservatives have convinced many voters that aversion to warfare as a means of policy displays cowardice: real men, they say, are hawks. Atrios is right to say that a preference for violence reflects a character disorder, though he’s mostly wrong to call it sociopathy; it has much more to do with sadism and narcissism.

Winston is right to say that no sane person actually prefers warfare to other means of achieving the same ends, if those ends are in fact achievable without warfare. But he’s wrong, I think, to say that the relevant kind of insanity is rare enough to ignore. And the political process tends to select for that kind of insanity.

Machiavelli analyzed all of this five centuries ago. Good people, he points out, don’t like to hurt others; they prefer generosity to stinginess and mercy to cruelty. But stinginess and cruelty are necessary elements of statecraft, because a public policy of immoderate generosity and mercy boomerangs: generosity winds up by taking money from many to give it to few, and mercy winds up cruelly exposing victims to the violence of undeterred domestic predators and foreign aggressors.

So for good people &#8212 generous, merciful, compassionate people &#8212 to rule successfully from the viewpoint of those they rule, they need to learn to be able not to be good: to restrain their impulses toward generosity and mercy when it is necessary to be stingy and cruel. When it’s necessary to bomb Serbia, killing lots of innocent Serbs, to stop the Serbian government from committing genocide, good rulers go ahead and order the bombing, without enthusiasm but not without resolution. They try to minimize the amount of blood they shed (as Sheldon Wolin says, they economize on the use of violence) but they don’t shrink from inflicting some violence to avoid more violence. They aim at the Aristotelian mean.

The problem with this, as Machiavelli also points out, is that it’s psychologically extremely difficult. It’s easier for people with a cruel streak to use cruelty than it is for compassionate people to use cruelty, even in a good cause. (As Miss Hardcastle, the head of the secret police, says in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, the only people who volunteer to do that sort of job are the ones who get a kick out of it.)

So good, compassionate people &#8212 liberals &#8212 naturally tend to use too little violence. Everyone more or less knows that; the fact that John Wayne is a standing joke among liberals is not lost on our fellow-citizens. So there’s a reasonable and natural tendency to want your rulers not to be too good. And that’s how a tendency that everyone will admit is pathological gets to be valued in office-seekers, while a tendency that everyone will agree is sane gets to be viewed with distrust. Currently, that’s the basic political tactic of the American right: convince the public that liberals are too nice to be entrusted with the national security (and too generous to trust with the public purse). They did it to Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry.

What Duncan especially resents is that some liberals, such as Peter Beinart, demand that other liberals prove their fitness to rule by endorsing pointlessly cruel policies. In strictly political terms, Beinart isn’t completely wrong: the execution of Ricky Lee Rector helped Bill Clinton into the White House not despite its obvious injustice (Rector, in case you’ve forgotten, was so mentally defective that he asked if he could save the slice of pie from his last meal “for later”) but because of its obvious injustice. Still, the demand that candidates prove their andreia by either acquiring or faking an enthusiasm for bloodshed remains a disgusting demand, and Duncan is right to be disgusted by it.

That doesn’t justify Duncan’s insistence that anyone who disagreed with him about Iraq was sadistic, stupid, or craven. But it does help explain that insistence, and partly excuses it.

What would I do if I were in charge? I’d try to find liberal leaders (e.g., Wesley Clark) who have fully absorbed both halves of the Machiavellian lesson, and who are willing but not eager to suppress their goodness when its suppression is a public necessity.

And I’d have those leaders appeal to the true andreia (machismo in its original, non-pejorative sense: menschlicheit) of the John Wayne character against the defective, sadistic andreia of Dirty Harry and the Terminator. Defending yourself and others against real threats is manly. Picking fights just for the hell of it is juvenile. Bullies are cowards. Only perverts like hurting people. Torture is for girly-men. Real Americans are above all that.

Footnote Of course Wayne acted in some turkeys, and occasionally allowed himself to lapse into self-parody, as when he played Genghis Khan. But the contempt for him among liberals reflects, in my view, not just a moral error but an aesthetic one as well. If you don’t see Rooster Cockburn in True Grit and Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and J.B. Books in The Shootist as deeply admirable characters, then you and I disagree about virtue; if you don’t think Wayne portrays them with immense skill posing as artlessness, you and I disagree about acting. That those who want to be considered cinema sophisticates admire Brando and contemn Wayne never ceases to astound me.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

28 thoughts on “In defense of Atrios”

  1. "But the contempt for him among liberals reflects, in my view, not just a moral error but an aesthetic one as well."
    I thought liberals hold Wayne in contempt because he was a warmonger who didn't serve when he had the chance.

  2. You really, BADLY, need to go rent HBO's The Wire.
    I love your blog, but John Wayne? The ridiculous one-dimensional characters he plays are – I agree – scrupulously moral to a fault – but the films themselves are such childishly shallow morality tales that how well he plays their comic book heroes is beside the point.

  3. Wayne's best performance was in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail:
    Lucian Trescott from the Village Voice and I tried to arrange a brief chat between "Duke" and about two dozen vets from the Lost Patrol. They had just arrived in Miami when they heard Wayne was holding an open press conference at Nixon headquarters in the Doral they decided to stop by and pick up on it…
    "Say, man," a vet in a wheelchair called out to me after I'd used my press credentials to penetrate the cop-cordron, "Can you get that asshole Wayne out here to talk to us?"
    "Why not?" I said. "He's tough as nails, they say. He'd probably enjoy coming out here in the sun and abusing you dope-addled communist dupes for a while…"
    But John Wayne was not eager that day for a chat with the Last Patrol. "What the hell do they want to talk about?" he asked.
    "Yeah, what?" said his drinking buddy Glenn Ford. They were standing on the front steps of the Doral waiting for a cab.
    "They just want to shoot the bull," said Lucian. "You know, maybe talk about the war."
    "What war?" Ford snapped.
    "The one in Vietnam," Lucian replied. "These guys fought over there-a lot of them are crippled."
    The Duke seemed agitated; he was scanning the street for a cab. Finally, without looking at us, he said: "Naw, not today. I can't see the point in it."
    "Why not?" Lucian asked. "They just want to talk. They're not looking for trouble. Hell, the place is crawling with cops."
    Wayne hesitated, then shook his head again as he suddenly spotted a cab. "So they just want to talk, eh?" he said with a thin smile.
    I nodded. "Why not? It won't take long."
    "Bullshit," Wayne replied. "If they got somethin' to say to me, tell 'em to put it in writing."
    Then he waved us away and eased off across the driveway to the waiting cab. "Playboy Plaza," he barked. "Jesus, I need a drink."

  4. The idea that any polity in the US has ever used "too little" violence ranges from the misspecified to the risible, depending on my interpretation. I shall take this as yet another convoluted mea culpa for your supporting Iraq II in the first place.
    Sometimes, I don't feel bad at all for rubbing someone's face in his errors. On this subject, you have a lot of company. With due respect, I hope you feel an extra pang with every casualty report and Lancet study.

  5. Heh, John Wayne vs Marlon Brando. I usually say that American idiots prefer football coaches to history professors.
    A better analogy is John Wayne's character in 'Libery Valance' vs James Stewart's. That is the whole point of the movie, after all. Better, but still fiction and fantasy.

  6. Contempt for "John Wayne" (real name Marion Morrison) was widespread among sailors and GIs during WWII, who thought of him as a blustering poseur. Gore Vidal recounts (in Screening History, I think) times when Wayne was booed by the troops he was sent to entertain. The industry that grew up around Wayne has always served the rightwingers, who themselves are ruthless poseurs. Shallow and vicious. I loved John Wayne as a child. But I am no longer a child.

  7. The technical and engineer worlds are filled with people who love to swagger around and engage in Yanamoto-style chest-pounding contests, screaming fights, religious wars, and all the forms of "mine is bigger than yours" that 2nd-rank men believe signfiy manliness and dominance.
    In my experience, the very best technology people, the ones who can come in, listen to everyone, take a deep look around, and *solve* the toughest problems, tend to be quiet, self-effacing, and acknowledge at every step of the process that they _don't_ know everything, that they might be wrong about their judgements, and (most importantly) that they expect to learn something from the process of solving this problem that they didn't know before – even if it is the most boring and routine problem they encounter, they learn something every single time.
    Oddly, a non-insignificant percentage of these people are also trained in martial arts, fencing, and similar forms of man-to-man combat. In a word, they could kill most of the people who scorn them with their bare hands. But they don't talk about that either.
    Please compare the Radicals whom you say embody "societal toughness" to, say, George Marshall. Or perhaps Omar Bradley might be a better choice. Then tell me again that Duncan Black is wrong.
    Cranky

  8. > A better analogy is John Wayne's
    > character in 'Libery Valance' vs
    > James Stewart's.
    Well, James Stewart flew 40 combat missions in World War II, while Wayne and Ronald Reagan sat on the sidelines cheering. Might have something to do with it, eh? Real war and real death tend to do that the people who forced to engage in them.
    Now what did Cheney and W Bush, the "strong father figures", do in Vietnam again? Newt Gingrich? The Bullshit Moose? The rest of the Radical "hawks"?
    Cranky

  9. I agree with those who say John Wayne could act but is disliked because in real life he pretended to be a super tough guy when he actually avoided military service — I would compare him to Sly Stallone (not in Nam due to "flat feet") except that Stallone has not set himself up as an apologist for every American war (in spite of those dreadful Rambo movies). John Wayne was not a bad actor — he was a fake hero — big difference (does this make Atrios right again?).

  10. I used to be a regular reader of Philosoraptor but his inability to think clearly about liberal critics of TNRism just got too tiresome, esp. since he's also unable to let the subject go.

  11. Though I agree with what you've written here, Mark, I just can't see it as a plausible interpretation of what Atrios wrote.
    It seems obvious to to me that machismo is a powerful and destructive force in politics in general and American politics in particular…but that's a far cry from saying that anybody who advocates any war is a sociopath.
    Still and all, I certainly appreciate the thoughtful response, and am well aware that I could be missing something.

  12. Mark: "That doesn't justify Duncan's insistence that anyone who disagreed with him about Iraq was sadistic, stupid, or craven."
    Cite? I didn't think his position was quite that strong. Though I don't think there was a good answer to the Dsquared argument:
    http://d-squareddigest.blogspot.com/2003/02/and-a
    WS: "that's a far cry from saying that anybody who advocates any war is a sociopath."
    Straw. Here's the post in question (regarding wars):
    "That isn't to say there's never a point when they're necessary or justified"

  13. Atrios: "Wars are failures. A primary purpose of sensible foreign policy is to stop them. When wars happen, our foreign policy has failed. That isn't to say there's never a point when they're necessary or justified, but that point is simply an acknowledgment that the people in charge failed."
    The kernal of this idea is not fundamentally different from the point MK has made regarding arrest, prosecution and imprisonment as being costs, and, to some large extent, evidence of failure in social control. It is part of the worldview, which makes both Atrios and MK, liberals, even if they differ in matters of personal style.
    Philosoraptor, while intelligent and superficially civil enough, appears to have less a coherent worldview than a systematic problem in reading comprehension, combined with a tribalist bad attitude.

  14. John Ford (who served in the Navy and received a Purple Heart for wounds suffered at Midway) apparently refers to Wayne as "the Great Dodger" in one of his books. The fact that Wayne's political feuding with Frank Capra (who enlisted in the Army during World War I, although he didn't see combat, and made the Why We Fight series during World War II) led Wayne to eventual make a crack about shipping Capra back to Sicily is the icing on the cake. I love Rio Bravo as much as the next guy, but there's a severe mismatch, to say the least, between Wayne's ultra-hawkish politics and his personal behavior. (Jimmy Stewart's politics were probably as hawkish, but he served in the Army Air Corps and the Air Force and lost his adopted son in Vietnam.)

  15. Further note on Stewart. He refused to be in combat movies. He took patriotism very seriously. He also took war seriously too.

  16. rilkefan wrote, _Though I don't think there was a good answer to the Dsquared argument:…_
    Yeah, that one is going down as a classic.

  17. Philosoraptor has some seriously discordant baggage. On the one hand, us liberals aren't nice enough because our rhetoric doesn't bespeak a sufficiently civil discourse for Winston — typified by his annoyance that not enough us are willing to chant mea culpas for all the Eve Enslers in our midst, but now, apparently, we are TOO NICE because we question a standard that prefers maiming and killing as the default position for interfacing with the world.
    How's this Winston: I would have kept the U.S. out of Iraq the first time around too on the basis that a Saudi Arabia that had to do at least as much as Israel does to defend itself would be more likely to liberalize its political and cultural position in the world. I know, the Kuwaitis would have suffered, and I would have regretted that, but I guess I'm just not nice enough.
    Sombebody should get Winston a special bound edition of the Three Bears for Christmas and tell him to stop whining until he has written "I will stop behaving like Goldilocks because she was a spoiled PITA who didn't contribute a damned thing" at least one thousand times.

  18. I can't speak for Mr. Black, but after reading his blog for several years I can attempt my own summary of his underlying position here: our foreign policy is currently in the hands of some deeply unserious people who not only consider themselves to be the "serious" ones but who have convinced the traditional media and the DC political establishment that they are "serious", should be taken "seriously", and that anyone who disagrees with them is a "raving pacifist lefty". I think that is an accurate description of the current state of affairs, and as much as I respect Mr. Kleiman I don't think he has contradicted it in his criticism of Atrios. I mean, seriously: Wolfowitz, Feith, Bolton, Cheney, and Rice? Rumsfeld and Franks? Seriously?
    Cranky

  19. I'm going to take a deep breath and throw a bomb into this thread. The issue isn't "niceness" vs toughness, whether it comes from Mark or from Philosoraptor (who I've not read). It's Israel. Israel is why people like Beinart can't think straight about any regime or people in the Middle East. It's addled many people and not only Jews.
    This is not an original observation, God knows, but I think it's true. If Saddam was a threat to Israel (as an avowed enemy he was) then– if you have a deep and abiding and unwavering commitment to Israel no matter what it does, no matter who runs it, no matter what it does to any people under its protection, no matter what the goals of the people who run it with regard to anybody in the neighborhood– you're going to be very *predisposed* to see Saddam as a threat to the US when he's not being nice and very *predisposed* to see his regime as a military problem rather than a diplomatic or economic one. Period, stop, end of story, and it can't be left out of this discussion.
    I don't say anyone is operating out of bad faith, though I think there have been a few. But I *am* saying that the matter of predisposition is very powerful.
    The "niceness" question is hooey. It comes straight from Thomas Wolfe and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, a caricature as much as Wayne was a caricature. The Cold War and the Korean War were liberal enterprises; so was fighting off Harry Bennett and his goons; so was creation of Israel in 1948. So was Social Security and so was the Voting Rights Act. "Niceness" is a way for someone like Beinart to fool himself about the importance of Israel in his thinking, without actually addressing it.
    The story I want to see from him is the story explaining why Saddam Hussein was a military menace solely to the United States.

  20. I think you miss the underlying subtext in Atrios remarks about social position and access to the public sphere. In 2001, we still had the situation where only journalistic and academic elites (such as MK) were allowed to communicate in the public sphere and everybody else was just a "dirty hippy." This communication process resulted in the worst strategic disaster in U.S. history. The reason philosoraptor and MK no longer like Atrios is his single-minded devotion to the idea that the elites to whom communication was reserved in 2001 did such a terrible job that they should be completely discredited. This included the liberal elites who largely went along with Iraq as well as conservatives. This isn't an argument that MK or TNR folks are going to be happy with, of course. MK has dealt with it much more honestly than TNR.

  21. Go find Ford's _The_Horse_Soldiers_. Wayne plays "Col. Marlowe", a fictionalized version of Benjamin Grierson, a Union commander who led a cavalry raid into Mississippi during the Vicksburg campaign. There is a marvellous scene where Marlowe is setting an ambush that will massacre the pursuing Confederates. His aide notices that he is unarmed, and tries to hand him a pistol. Marlowe jerks his hand back, clearly loathing the killing he is about to lead.

  22. That footnote amazes me. If moral seriousness were more important than moral responsibility everything would be fine, but it isn't.
    Are those who disagreed with Atrios and most of the world about Iraq, sadistic, stupid, or craven? How about only those who claimed to have an 'educated' opinion? I haven't made up my mind on that one. It's a sloppy line, but politics is rough business, and all this self-important academicizing is a joke. talk about bringing a knife to a gunfight.
    Speaking of intellectual sloppiness: John Wayne the man was a coward who copped out of WWII, for which John Ford mocked him repeatedly. As a political figure he was a hypocrite and a hack. And as far as "defective andreia" goes, I guess you've never seen The Searchers, which is a model for late Eastwood.
    "That those who want to be considered cinema sophisticates admire Brando and contemn Wayne astounds me."
    Who the fuck are you talking about? You're the one who's talking about Rooster Cockburn[!]. 'Sophisticates' talk about Stagecoach, Ford and Howard Hawks. Like Brando, Wayne was an actor, a performer and a phony. Art is artifice. But if you want a good description of Wayne's style (and of American acting in the era before 'the method' look up Charles Laughton's description of Gary Cooper.
    No political sophistication, no intellectual sophistication. Maximum self-importance.
    Atrios on the other hand has always called himself a political hack; but he's an honest hack. I read him every day.

  23. As I early Clark supporter and an appreciative reader of Machiavelli, I applaud this analysis of the liberal "problem." And I agree: it's precisely what makes a candidacy that would appeal to "middle America" so difficult to sell to established liberal groups. Thus the near unanimous reaction to Wesley Clark in the Seattle Labor Chorus (to which I belong) was revulsion: how could I even consider lending a general (or as one chorus member put it, "a murderer") my political support? Why wasn't I where all good liberals belonged: in the Dean or Kucinich or even the Nader camp? Of course, it didn't help Clark's candidacy that he was new to politics and even newer to the Democratic party; but talking to the good people I'd linked hands with in the WTO "battle of Seattle" (and yeah, Clark wasn't "on board" there), I kept running up against this basic problem. That I was asking them to lower their ethical standards, embracing a villainous political reality myself . . .

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