Flies Collecting On A Wound

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My friend and former colleague, Conor Friedersdorf, takes me to task for my demonization and dismissal of anti-war protesters a decade ago. He is right to, and I certainly don’t take it personally. I would have been disappointed if he had left me out – because it would not be consonant with Conor’s integrity as a writer.

I could quibble. But I simply do not have the standing to do so at this point. Still, here are a few salient issues that I think have been missed in this necessary reflection.

The first is the 2000 election. In some ways, 9/11 wiped that vivid, searing, deeply divisive event from the public consciousness. But it played a part, I think, in the polarized climate that made the post-9/11 debate so poisonous. In the summer of 2000, when I foolishly found myself wanting Al Gore to lose (Excelsior!), it was not a strong emotion. In the campaign, Gore was the advocate for a larger defense budget and Bush was all about being a “humble” nation. I figured there wasn’t much difference between them (and I still think Gore would have launched the Iraq War as well). But when the vote ended up a statistical tie in a key state, Florida, stances hardened.

I was a lonely Bush supporter in TNR offices back then, and I felt something I’d never felt before, even in the polarized, back-biting, ego-colliding of that era’s TNR. My colleagues felt that the election was being stolen in front of their eyes – and there was almost a cold civil war mood emerging. They also knew, as I did, that Bush would be a president without a majority of the national popular vote. Worse, Bush, instead of governing in a way that calmed the waters, and acknowledging his weak position, acted from the get-go as if he had won a landslide. America was in a constitutional crisis months before it was embroiled in a second Pearl Harbor. The very legitimacy of the entire democracy was in the air. It was in that profoundly polarized atmosphere that the catastrophe happened.

I succumbed to the polarization, and had become far more attached to the new president than I ever expected to a year before. Others also got carried away:

It may have seemed meaningless at the time, but now we know why 7,000 people [sic] sacrificed their lives — so that we’d all forget how Bush stole a presidential election.

My horror at 9/11, combined with crippling fear, compounded by personal polarization was a fatal combination. This is not an excuse. It’s an attempt at an explanation. And my loathing of the left had been intensified earlier that year by a traumatizing exposure of my own sex life by gay leftists determined to destroy my reputation and career because of my mere existence as a gay conservative.

I had spent much of the 1990s at war with the gay left, and I think it had embittered me. That those battles were over my campaign for marriage equality and military service as the two biggest priorities of the gay rights movement makes for a strange irony today. Nonetheless, when you have been smeared, physically threatened, picketed and despised by the gay left, you dig in and begin to see nothing but bad in that political faction. And earlier that same year, I had been publicly humiliated by parts of the gay left for being HIV-positive, and trying to find other HIV-positive men online for sex and love. That made my embitterment deeper. When I really examine my emotional state that year, I can see better now why my anger at the left in general came out so forcefully in the wake of such a massacre. It was a foolish extrapolation from a handful of haters to an entire political tradition. Again, this is not an excuse. But if I am to understand my own personal anger at the anti-war left, it is part of the story.

Second, I was marinated in the knowledge of Saddam Hussein’s unique evil. At TNR in the 1990s, the consensus was that this dictator truly was another Hitler type (and in many ways, he was). My moral umbrage was exacerbated, I think, by this previous history. You can see it in the blog – as early as September 11, the day the mass murder occurred. Here’s the post:

Check out this 1995/1996 Public Interest essay on the first World Trade Center bombing. Some of it sends chills down your spine with its prescience. But its most important suggestion is that Iraq might have been behind the bombing. Ditto today. Saddam is not only capable but willing – especially against a nemesis like the son of the first George Bush. More evidence that Colin Powell’s tragic abandonment of the war against Saddam might well be one of the biggest blunders in recent history. If this coordinated massacre needed real state-sponsored support, which nation would you pick as the prime suspect?

This was an instinctual response, not a rational one. Notice I am not stating that Saddam had WMDs or had any connection to al Qaeda. I’m just raising the question. But by merely doing that on the day of the attacks, I’m revealing something important about the neoconservative mind. I had been prepped for something like this – prepped to see Iraq behind it. And so the pivot to Iraq for me was not a surprise. It felt like the obvious response. And it took me three more years to even thoroughly doubt the necessity for taking him out. That epistemic closure, that surrender of the mind to the gut, that replacement of analysis with anger: this was part of it.

This was the mother of all confirmation biases. It was also the very beginning of the blogosphere, and I had not yet learned the brutal lessons of writing instantly with reason-crushing emotion pulsing through my brain. The one silver lining was this blog – and the necessity to write every day in real time for the years that followed. That effectively denied me cover for my massive misjudgment and bias. You forced me to confront a reality I had never wanted to see, or had blinded myself to.

I cannot undo the damage and do not seek to put this behind me. Instead it is in front of me, a constant reminder that fixed convictions are dangerous, that premises should not be mistaken for conclusions, that confirmation bias is real … and can play a part in the murder of tens of thousands and even today, the birth of babies allegedly deformed horrifically by the depleted uranium we left behind. I cannot take responsibility for all of this; but I must take responsibility for some of it, for the pain and evil it fomented:

Trust your wound to a teacher’s surgery.
Flies collect on a wound. They cover it,
those flies of your self-protecting feelings,
your love for what you think is yours.

Let a teacher wave away the flies
and put a plaster on the wound.

Don’t turn your head. Keep looking
at the bandaged place.

That’s where the light enters you.
And don’t believe for a moment
that you’re healing yourself.

— Rumi