Saturday, January 22, 2011

nomads-land: the tertiary view in a dyadic debate

it will be interesting to see if journalist christopher hitchens returns the volley of historian niall ferguson following the latter's lecture of a few days ago at the london school of economics. ferguson, in his excellent as usual form, presented a preliminary case for a reassessment of the kissinger oeuvre of realpolitik, braving what he termed a considerable headwind against conscientious portraiture of this controversial statesman.

on the downswing of over five years of extensive research and with the unique distinction of possessing full cooperation from his subject, ferguson was careful to accord his conclusions a rightful tentativeness given he intends to spend another three to four years penning his final, highly anticipated biography.

on the heel of commentary a few weeks past in which a loosely contextualized extraction RN/HAK macho talk was offered as further damning evidence of kissinger's protosociopathic character (as if it were unique in american history), ferguson was quick to upbraid critics, and hitchens in particular, for penning sensationalistic and highly elective explorations of often skewed and disenfranchised statistics alongside limited evidentiary references.

this included some unfortunate swipes at hitchens' credibility, based in part on spare (according to academe standards) primary-source footnoting in 'the trial of henry kissinger,' and a snide comment about the esteem one could accord such a scholarly publication venue as vanity fair, both of which made me wince slightly, but ferguson is known as much as hitchens for a holds-no-prisoners fierceness, even finding occasion to take a shot at pet adversary paul krugman for winning a mere token nobel prize.

his arguments were persuasive at face value, but somehow managed to leave an unsettling impression of apologist, elitist spin. for example, comparing US interventionist campaigns in guatemala in the 50s to chile in the 70s, ferguson points to significant differences in terms of loss of life by a factor of 100, making the guatemalan conflict productive of some 200,000 deaths compared to perhaps 2,000-2,500 in chile. yet, nowhere, he was quick to point out, do we see the kind of virulent criticism leveled at the memory of then secretary of state john foster dulles. this felt in and of itself like a kind of isolated extraction of statistics. however, the larger point, that kissinger's tactics in both covert and overt foreign policy interventions were not especially exceptional in the wider view of american political history, is extremely important.

further points, like the credible insistence on placing critiques within the rigor and context of the times, avoiding the lens of what becomes apparent later in history but would've perforce been unavailable to analysis of the period, were compelling and cleanly cut. examination of the real state of the US economy; the binding corsets forced onto american motives going into the vietnam conflict; the now forgotten extremes of violence in the streets and the multiple assassinations that informed much of the pop culture hangover of the post-68 period and the revisions of consensus history it furthered; the alarming indicators that founded cold war attempts to avoid hot war; the chilling complexion of soviet union capabilities; the diplomatic endgame openings and benefits accrued by the playoff between china and russia, these were all particularly strong counterpoints for thorough contexting.

one point i found troubling was the suggestion that mere academics and journalists can't be trusted, for the most part, to appreciate much less judge the onerous burden of responsibility those in political power need must bear in making choices, not between right and wrong, but degrees of unavoidable nuance. and while reference was made to perhaps subradar antisemitism playing its part in uncharitable characterizations of kissinger as either an upwardly mobile or sycophantic 'policy jew,' no accommodation was made for the fact that those in power must persistently seek it, cultivating the most cunning means to acquire and keep hold of it. it's not a burden inherited by or forced upon political agents and therefore an inquiry as to motive, preferred operational methods and underlying vision of leadership is fair game.

my technical knowledge of political history is too scant for me to say whether or not the lecture itself or its cursory hints at future evidence to be presented will be sufficient to counter the far more emotionally satisfying case presented by hitchens and myriad other human rights activists. there certainly seems sufficient grounds to argue pros and cons, which makes it a topic worth tracking. in truth, my interest in the subject has less to do with nursing any prosecutorial zeal against kissinger per se and more with how his case study exposes the liabilities in foreign policy methodologies, the intractable nurturing of theocratically- and industry-correct violence mongering, and the basic insufficiencies of all international political formats and rigid structures of economies.

i suppose i feel less a sense of outrage over this particular period in american history simply because, in the case of the hate-on for HAK, it seems more like opportunistic scapegoating of a plausible target already suited by circumstance, timing, and hubris to collective roleplay needs. i would be more interested to examine how this kind of selective prosecution in the press serves exculpatory trends with respect to the political process itself and ruminate on possible paradigms for the future.

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