Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Atrios, repeating himself:
For some reason people in and covering national politics seem to hate the fact that politics actually involves genuine disagreement, and it'd be so much fun if we just got rid off all that stuff we disagreed about.
Ah, the yearning for consensus.

Reading The Best and the Brightest, I think there's an older pedigree for this than we often realize. During the 40s, 50s, and early 60s, there really was a kind of consensus among those in power: Communism had to be defeated, Civil Rights for blacks was dangerous extremism, and the government could be -- in fact, had to be -- trusted on matters of national security. #2 started to break down early, but the others took a while longer to be seen for what they were.

Of course, there was never a true "consensus" in the sense of people universally agreeing with each other. Rather, what you had was the owners of the New York Times and the Washington Post agreeing with the Presidents and Secretaries of Defense and State of the age (so, never more than a dozen or so white men.) This was enough, for the early age of post-war mass media, to create the illusion of consensus.

But -- and this is really quite important -- the consensus was absolutely wrong, and a disaster for America. Communism wasn't universally imperial and expansionist. Indeed, after Stalin died, it wasn't imperial and expansionist anywhere that the US cared about until the 1970s in Afghanistan. So rather than make some kind of separate peace with the Chinese Communists, and later the Vietnamese, America saw both powers as nefarious and hostile.

Even worse, the desire to reinforce The Consensus led directly to McCarthyism, and a permanent lobotomization of the US foreign service. Because the US couldn't dare admit that maybe Chiang Kai-Shek wasn't the Asiatic reincarnation of George Washington, that maybe the KMT was simply incompetent to rule China, the Nationalists must have been betrayed -- the US must have "lost" China. In the witch-hunts that followed, anyone who had been right about China -- predicting the Communist victory -- was hounded out of office, while those who'd been most enthusiastically wrong, and were still clamoring to "unleash Chiang" on the mainland (ha!) were promoted. So the fall of China rewarded those who'd been most wrong, and punished those who'd been most right.

The results in Vietnam, later, were very similar, and the blood flowed from the same opened artery: a refusal to "lose" another Asian country led to a refusal to recognize that, once again, the Communists were the only truly nationalist, patriotic force in Vietnam, who commanded the loyalty of the people. Millions had to die on both sides before the Americans would bitterly abandon the illusion -- and some never have.

So no, please, let's not have any more consensuses (consensa?) in Washington. I don't think the world can afford them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The consensus still exists in regards to Iraq, it's just spread to the other elite outlets. And it's alive and well at the Washington Post and NYT. Michael Gordon, John Burns and the rest of the gang can be counted on to churn out the usual "US officials in Iraq say...", which is why someone joked they should be renamed to "Officials Say".