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« Put your money where your mouth is | Main | ’God Stories’ »

November 29, 2006

Words

There are certain abstract nouns that automatically set off my bovine scat detector: spirituality, stewardship and tolerance chief among them. When I hear someone use these words I'm reminded of the line from The Princess Bride: "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something." While spirituality, stewardship or tolerance are very good things, the words themselves are often the tools of control freaks, cultural vandals and con artists.

For a while, incarnational was on my endangered verbiage list. Fortunately, a change of religious habitat has enabled the word to make a satisfactory comeback.

No sooner had incarnational been de-listed than responsibility took its place. Nowadays, whenever I come across responsibility I hear "Danger, danger Will Robinson! Be careful where you place your shoes!!" in the background.

Case in point: a story in this morning's Washington Post entitled "As Iraq Deteriorates, Iraqis Get More Blame."

From troops on the ground to members of Congress, Americans increasingly blame the continuing violence and destruction in Iraq on the people most affected by it: the Iraqis.

Even Democrats who have criticized the Bush administration's conduct of the occupation say the people and government of Iraq are not doing enough to rebuild their society. The White House is putting pressure on the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group have debated how much to blame Iraqis for not performing civic duties . . .

Americans and Iraqis are increasingly seeing the situation in different terms, said retired Army Col. Jeffrey D. McCausland, who recently returned from a visit to Iraq. "We're just talking past each other," he said, adding that Americans are psychologically edging toward the door that leads to disengagement. "We're arguing about 'cut and run' versus 'cut and jog.' "

To those of us old enough to remember Vietnam and the Columbian Mammoths we passed on our way to class, this all sounds familiar:

"It's their fault, and by implication not ours, is clearly a theme that's in the air," said retired Army Col. Andrew J. Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and longtime skeptic of the war in Iraq. It reminds him, he said, of the sour last days of the Vietnam War, when "there was a tendency to blame everything on the 'gooks' -- meaning our South Vietnamese allies who had disappointed us."

Yep. Lost in what one analyst calls "the angry scolding tone" is any acknowledgment of our -- get ready! -- responsibility for the mess in Mesopotamia. As Phebe Marr, an adviser to the Iraq Study Group, told the Post, "You can't say, 'We did this and the Iraqis didn't rise to the occasion.' There's enough blame to go around."

Of course, if you're getting ready to cut and run, or at least jog briskly, you need to stock up on absolution to get you through all those Fox CNN broadcasts of the humanitarian catastrophe that you will leave in your wake. Since the half-life of absolution is very short, you need constant verbal reassurance that you did all that you could and that little, if anything, of what's happening is your fault.

(I wonder how many of Senator Graham's (R-SC) constituents, the ones who tell him that no matter what we do in Iraq, the Iraqis are incapable of solving their own problems through the political process and will resort to violence, have actually bothered to read a book or even a longish magazine article on the subject? How they know what Iraqis are "incapable" of doing?)

Which brings me back to "responsibility." Our political discourse is filled with invocations and appeals to responsibility, most of them directed at the vulnerable and marginal whose predicament, we are told, is at least partly the result of their own failure to take responsibility for their lives. That's true. What's also true is that this moralizing about the speck in someone else's eye while rationalizing away the beam, in your own is hard to take seriously. That's why I increasingly have no interest in what this crowd is selling.

If you'll excuse me, my shoes need a thorough cleaning.

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