I was a bit surprised, albeit pleasantly, to see Jon Stewart nail Harry Truman as a war criminal. After all, Stewart is a typical Hollywood liberal, whose politics are by now a staple of the corporate, anodyne culture that permeates the airwaves, and this naturally excludes everything that might challenge the liberal groupthink that constitutes the conventional wisdom in the Age of Obama.
Certainly, in "respectable" quarters, criticism of anything or anyone connected to the great liberal "anti-fascist" crusade, the "Good War," is strictly verboten, and surely an intelligent guy like Stewart knows this. Yet – contrary to what he said later – this wasn’t an argument that arose in the heat of the moment, in the context of a robust discussion with obnoxious neocon Clifford May on the alleged merits of torture.
No, Stewart had apparently thought this one out, at least to some extent, because when May asked him if he thought Truman was a war criminal for nuking two Japanese cities, he didn’t just say "Yes" – he went into a whole riff about how, if we had first demonstrated the power of this new weapon on an uninhabited atoll somewhere, and then informed the Japanese government that they’d better surrender, or else that would happen in Japan, then and only then would it be okay to drop the Big One. The audience cheered him on, as he took apart the frenetically hysterical May, whose ferret-like features and organizational affiliations make him the perfect spokesman for a policy described by Stewart as "temporary insanity." Yet, a few days later, Stewart was back to the same subject, minus the rabid ferret, this time reversing his stance – and apologizing for calling the little haberdasher a war criminal.
My, that was quick.
Alas, apparently not quick enough for the executives at whatever network Stewart appears on – yes, I know, I have to be the only person in America who doesn’t watch his show – who no doubt would have preferred that he never said it at all. It was clearly the execs who reined in the freethinking Stewart and laid down the law, and the first law of "controversial," "provocative," and indubitably "edgy" television commentary is to never – ever, ever! – allow a deviation from the conventional wisdom that falls outside the contemporary Left/Right paradigm.
Rule number one in this game is that everybody must play their assigned role. You’ve always got to be "in character." If you’re on the Left, you can take on George W. Bush, murderer of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis – but not Harry Truman, killer of even larger numbers of innocent Japanese civilians. Rightists regularly excoriate the crimes of Stalin, yet they are expected to remain silent when it comes to war crimes committed by the U.S., such as the "Phoenix program" during the Vietnam conflict – and they rarely disappoint.
This enforcement of a dubious double standard, by the way, goes beyond the issue of war crimes and mass murder. If you’re on the Right, you’re allowed to express unlimited disdain for the thuggish Hugo Chavez – indeed, it’s a veritable obligation – but even a hint of contempt for the equally thuggish Benjamin Netanyahu and his neo-fascist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, will earn you enough brickbats to build a Wall of Separation between your ideological comrades and yourself. Likewise, lefties are allowed to cuddle up to Fidel Castro while inveighing against Augusto Pinochet.
In any case, Stewart’s apology was embarrassing: for him, for the studio audience (which giggled nervously, and inappropriately, at awkward intervals), and for me. As he looked into the camera and babbled about how wrong he was – without giving a single reason, never mind a good one – you could almost see his strings being pulled by his corporate masters.
So let’s see if I get this straight: it is not okay to torture a member of al-Qaeda, who no doubt has information we need in order to stop terrorist attacks. Instead, we have to treat him as a prisoner of war according to the rules laid down by the Geneva Conventions. On the other hand, it is okay to murder hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in cold blood, to incinerate entire cities and poison the land for generations to come, as long as your name is Harry Truman.
Am I getting this right so far?
I have stayed away from the torture "debate" for a number of reasons, because, after all, the issue isn’t debatable. Not in a civilized country, that is. We might as well debate the merits and demerits of infanticide or coprophagia. Normal people don’t argue about these things; they simply turn away in revulsion.
Another reason for my abstention from this ongoing brouhaha – which seems to have consumed the left wing of the blogosphere ever since Obama took office – is that there is something remarkably phony about the high moral dudgeon of the liberals when it comes to this non-question. How much moral moxie does it really take to come out, guns blazing, against torture? I mean, you don’t have to be a saint or anything to enlist in a campaign to ban pulling off the fingernails of defenseless prisoners, you just have to be halfway normal.
Furthermore, there is another reason to be suspicious of the liberals-against-torture campaign that now monopolizes the capacity of certain pundits for outrage: the amount of noise being generated about this issue very effectively – and conveniently – drowns out opposition to the rest of Bush’s ugly legacy, principally the ongoing occupation of Iraq and Obama’s escalation of the "war on terrorism" in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Exhausted by their 24/7 calls to expunge the stain of torture from America’s conscience – which is to be accomplished, supposedly, by trying Bush, Cheney, and the Republican gang for war crimes – the liberals have no moral energy to take on Obama’s wars.
Thus what passes for the Left in the America of 2009 is perfectly happy to make demands they know will never be met and rail against a practice that even those who advocate it in certain circumstances seem uneasy about. It’s so much easier than coming out against the foreign policy of a popular president whom liberals regard as the second coming of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King combined.
It doesn’t seem to matter that those policies are murderous, just as Bush’s were, and potentially even more disastrous for the U.S. in terms of "blowback." If we are signing on to an occupation of Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan that will make our activities in Iraq seem like the briefest of episodes, then liberals of the Kossack/Huffington Post/Jon Stewart sort don’t want to hear about it. That’s because they’re okay with it – as long as we don’t torture people individually, you see, by making them think they’re drowning or throwing them against a wall. Obama’s in the White House, and all’s right with the world!
Once Dear Leader has determined that it’s imperative we actually kill people en masse, for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the defense of the United States, as we are doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan – well, then, it’s nothing to get too excited about. Indeed, it’s actually praiseworthy, positively Truman-esque – and we all know what a heroic figure the gnome-like machine politician Truman was!
Cliff May and his ilk know what side they’re on, they know what they believe and what they want, and they are quick to home in on the many contradictions of ostensibly antiwar liberals like Stewart, whose instincts are good, but who don’t know anything but the permitted pieties about America’s role and actions during World War II. That’s why liberals are rendered practically speechless by ritualized neocon invocations of "Hitler" and "Munich" every time a supposedly deadly threat to the U.S. arises somewhere in the world.
For a moment, however, Stewart saw through the veil of myth and prejudice (yes, racial prejudice) that obscures the truth about what we did to Japan, which was ready to make peace on reasonable terms. Roosevelt’s insistence on unconditional surrender, upheld by Truman, rationalized mass murder on a scale never before seen, and at the time the liberals fell right into line, with nary a pip or a squeak from any of them.
It was inside the military and the U.S. government that dissent raised its head. Truman’s decision went against the advice of Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight David Eisenhower, not to mention his own secretaries of state and the Navy. In 1963, Eisenhower told Newsweek: "The Japanese were ready to surrender, and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing."
Oh, but please don’t confuse us with the introduction of needless facts. What are you, one of those obstructionist Republican extremists? In the wake of Stewart’s faux pas and subsequent Soviet-style self-criticism, one thing is clear: measures must be taken. It is necessary – in this, the Age of Obama – to establish a firm doctrine from which no one, no matter how popular, how "provocative," or how "edgy" they might be, is allowed to dissent, and it is this: no Democratic president can ever be guilty of a war crime. No, not even Lyndon "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" Johnson. Which means Obama has a license to obliterate Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran (as his secretary of state said she would like to do), and we can get on with the important business of conducting political show trials of our favorite Republican villains.
And all’s right with the world…
To conclude: yes, Stewart is a wimp, a wuss, and a moral coward – but he’s very far from alone.