Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Net Benefits

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

We will avert our eyes from Megan McArdle's post on birth control, since it is merely a defense of pharmaceutical companies which have been accused of blood libel--that they are more concerned about profit than innovation. Professions of Faith are dull, especially when they are dedicated to the health care industry.

And we will ignore the twitter frenzy McArdle set off by musing about a quote on twitter mistakenly attributed to Martin Luther King. Hundreds of commenters have either mistakenly attacked McArdle or have informed her about the history of the misquote. All McArdle wanted to do was point out (incorrectly) that someone else--someone not Megan McArdle--might very well be a liar and she, for one, can't possibly imagine what drives some people to lie because she, Megan McArdle, is most certainly not a liar, no matter what they say on the internet.

Instead, let's look at McArdle's opinion of the execution of Osama Bin Laden. Since she was a war-blogger during the run-up to our invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, surely she is rejoicing that the US finally achieved her goal. She fought for invasion, voted for Bush twice, laughed at the idea of police assaulting anti-war protesters she believed would become violent, and repeatedly told her audience of her horror and anger after the events of 9/11. Surely she was able to feel something when she finally got what she wanted?

They say that revenge is a dish that's best served cold. We've been waiting a long time for this particular dish to cool, and now that I've eaten it, I'm surprised to find that it's pretty tasteless and unsatisfying.

Evidently not.

McArdle doesn't feel the emotions she expected to feel because her support of Republican war-mongering wasn't just about her fear of bin Laden, it was also about her need to identify with the winners. She is conservative, conservatives controlled the government, so everything Bush did was smart, a sign of strength, a winning move. McArdle belonged to the team of the top dogs, the guys with the guns who were not afraid to use them, and the last thing she wanted to do was question whether or not Daddy could make everything all better.

Then--From September 13, 2002:

I'm beginning to think that someone in the White House is very, very smart.

One hopes it's the president of course, though I've heard strong minority voices for Condi Rice, Rumsfeld, and Cheney. Whoever it is, I think they've confirmed my belief that the Administration has managed this crisis like a virtuoso.

I never took very seriously the complaints that Bush was flailing, because my years of watching politics have convinced me that there is some sort of natural law decreeing that every administration policy will provoke an equal number of equally vehement voices for, and against it. Especially in a war, when the demands of national security mean that the people running the war have a lot more information than the people trying to tell them how to run it. That's not to say that their decisions are necessarily right. But it means that I am unmoved by complaints that "I don't understand where he's going with all this". Thank God. A military strategy where everyone and their brother in law can chart the moves in advance is not one that I find reassuring.

The first time I suspected Bush was smarter than he looks (well, actually, it was the second time. But I can't remember what the first one was) was when he announced the formation of the Department of Homeland Security. It seemed to me that rather than displaying panic, it was a master stroke, politically speaking. He didn't say anything until the Democrats had enough rope to hang themselves -- and then he pulled the trigger. They were left without anything to say.

This looks similar to me. The Clinton team would have been out there, aggressively putting over the spin. The Bush administration was silent until everyone had decided that the complaint they were going to hang their hopes on was the abominable unilateral bent of the US. They let everyone talk themselves out and then they delivered this.

The UN performance was brilliant in so many ways. First of all, even before the speech, the obvious push for invasion forced Europe to stop pushing to ease the sanctions and let Saddaam build whatever weapons he wants as long as he buys French equipment and pays the Russians what he owes them. It brought us to a position of strength in negotiation. Whether or not you want the US to invade, it's pretty clear that the credible threat of invasion is the only thing making Saddaam offer to submit to inspections, or making Europe actually argue for uncompromising inspections. Second of all, now that it is clear that the US is going, it is fairly clear to me that Europe is indeed going to jump on the bandwagon so that their governments don't end up looking totally irrelevant. And third of all, most brilliantly, it was a "Put up or shut up" to the multilateralists.

Saddaam is in violation of about a hundred UN resolutions. And not fluffy resolutions either. Resolutions about things like stockpiling ABC weapons.

The UN can endorse the US invasion, and lose an opportunity to aggrandize its power and appease the small countries who would like to see the US brought low.

Or it can fail to endorse the invasion, and admit that its resolutions have no force. Should this occur, I don't think it's alarmist to say that we could look for the US to pull out of the UN in the not so distant future, the UN having proved itself not only anti-American, but irrelevent to boot.

I think they're going to endorse the invasion. I think they will make Saddaam an offer he can't accept -- really, truly, disarm (in which case I think Saddaam knows he would be dead in six months) or the US gets the green light. And then I think they will -- reluctantly, painfully, resentfully -- give lip service to the American cause.

Flailing? I think the Bush administration has more discipline than we've seen in the White House for a long time.

And who could argue with that logic, especially in retrospect? Sure, she got everything wrong but no doubt it felt great to tell herself that her liberal friends were all wrong and she was right, so there.


I knew a fair number of people who died on 9/11. I don't want to overdramatize that--few of them were people I knew at all well, and none of them were really close. It's just that I grew up in New York and I did a lot of consulting work in the towers. So naturally, I knew some of the people who died. The loss of so many lives at once was still a tragedy so terrible that I had a hard time grasping the extent of it. I could see them so clearly in my mind--the people, the buildings, the terrible salad stand in the concourse--that it was hard to actually believe they were gone. The mental images seemed much more vivid and believable than the smoking rubble at ground zero--even though I was by then working next to that smoking rubble, doing administrative tasks for one of the disaster recovery companies. The rubble was too surreal, too much like a disaster movie.

For months I would walk around the site trying to grasp the enormity of what had happened. I was waiting for that movie moment when it all comes crashing over you, and you are overwhelmed by the sudden awareness of everything that has been lost. It never happened. The site grew to look less like a disaster area, and more like a construction site. I got wrapped up in the day-to-day problems of the slurry wall and the new PATH tunnel. Eventually, I accepted that the death of so many people is too big to be comprehended, or even effectively mourned.

A great many people were able to mourn those death, as well as the deaths of our soldiers and the many thousands of Iraqis we killed. Like many people, McArdle sought something outside of herself after 9/11 that she was missing within--a sense of purpose, a feeling of belonging, a catharsis that would ease inner turmoil.

I was, however, filled with a terrible rage. I wanted Zacarias Moussaoui to get the electric chair, even though I'm against the death penalty.

She's against the death penalty except when she want to put someone to death. Just like she's against war deaths except when she wants to go to war.

I wanted vengeance, justice, and an end to terrorism. I think I wanted them in that order. I would have been exulted if Osama Bin Laden had been shot by American troops.

Ten years later, I feel none of the righteous joy that I expected. It mostly just fills me with grief for all the deaths between then and now that should never have happened.

See, here's the thing. You don't get to tell us how the deaths of so many people fill you with grief when you wanted to go to war, when you knew those death would certainly occur, and most especially of all when you wrote a post declaring the number of corpses that were piling up wasn't nearly as big as everyone said it was. It's rather difficult to believe in that grief when it was clear that going to war was a bloodless exercise for McArdle, a theoretical choice, in which the value of human life was not a major consideration.

Then: From April 2, 2003:

Something that a lot of people have trouble grasping is that you have to trade off one type of error for another; there is no perfect balance. And in the case of war, although most of us have an emotional conviction that of course one is better -- pro-war people who feel that any mistakes are worth it if it increases our security, anti-war people who feel that pre-emptive war is of course always wrong -- there's no logical necessity to prefer one over the other.

[yap yap yap]

We will not correctly judge the need for every conflict -- only history can do that, and only that over long years. But we should recognize that we are making a tradeoff. Coming away from the all-positive (imperialist occupation of the entire world) and all-negative (isolationist or pacifist) extremes, there is going to be some tradeoff. If we try to strike early, before things become very dangerous, we will invade some countries where it is unnecessary or counterproductive. If we wait until the threat is more certain, we will have fewer conflicts, but they will be bigger and more destructive.

I understand that this isn't the only consideration in discussing the war; I'll no doubt get angry emails saying I'm missing the point entirely. But I do think it's an important framework in which to think about it, although not the only one. Because by looking at it this way we can recognize that people who disagree with us are making tradeoffs between a set of imperfect choices. And that we're all just guessing about whether this will be a net benefit or negative in the long run. I'm guessing, you're guessing, and so's the guy you hate at work with the simplistic arguments. We're all guessing. If we recognize that, maybe we don't need to pound each other to death as if there were some certain and blindingly obvious outcome that the other person is willfully ignoring.

"A net benefit in the long run." Yeah, we can see the grief flowing like water.


I'm glad we've taken a terrorist out of circulation, of course. But maybe because I'm older, and mortality seems all too depressingly real, I find it hard to celebrate anyone's death--no, not even Bin Laden's. The families of the victims deserved some satisfaction, of course, and a certainly hope they got it. But these days, all of humanity seems so fragile to me, the universes of our minds so easily destroyed. No matter how much Team Death deserves to win, I find it hard to cheer when the Grim Reaper does his victory dance in the end zone.

It's like reading Stephanie Meyers--just painful.

I would feel more celebratory if this, like Hitler's death, meant the end of a long and bloody war. But what has it ended? The people who died on 9/11 are still exactly as dead; they have lost 3,520 days that should have been lived, and tomorrow, they will lose day 3,521. And it's hard to assess the deterrent effect of tracking someone down and killing them ten years after they attack you: did we make an example, or a martyr?

Don't get me wrong: I do not think killing Bin Laden was morally or even tactically wrong. I just think it's profoundly unsatisfying. We won't recover any of the things that he took from us, or even the things we took from ourselves, like the ability to travel around the country without being treated like a potential terrorist. Destroying Osama did not unmake him, which is what I really wanted. He may be dead, but we're still living with him.

You mean there's no way to undo what has been done, bring the dead back to life, bring back the juvenile illusion of safety and superiority? And thousands of people had to die for this realization to hit?

When Megan McArdle wanted to support drug and health insurance companies, she told us that some people might die now but thousands will be saved in her imaginary future. Her ideology said so; governments can't do anything right, governments are coercive, and government regulation of health insurance would kill millions of people. She did the same thing with war, deciding that liberal warnings were wrong and conservative urgings were right because she believes conservatives are strong and therefore right and liberals are weak and therefore wrong, a very Randian assessment. McArdle might think that she feels grief for the people who have died since we invaded Iraq but when it counted she dismissed the deaths that would occur. There is nothing more dangerous than someone who is willing to sacrifice others to get what she wants.

However since McArdle has decided to share her feelings with the world, perhaps she should personally tell the children of the dead that while she grieves for them she feels strangely empty now that she's had her revenge. They'll appreciate that, as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives.


Anonymous said...

Well, you've nutshelled Megan with your last point, which I can't manage to quote here, where you point out that her cost benefit analysis for the war was identical to her cost benefit analysis for big pharma and for the status quo on uninsured people. In all three cases she argues that future deaths will probably either not be as bad as we argue, or are inevitable, or will be fewer than the status quo. She has absolutely no reason to argue that and, in fact, she always has to take it back eventually when the numbers are in. But as long as she is arguing for the majority position (the Bush admin position, her paymasters position) she always, always minimizes the counter arguments by making up some fictional accounting scheme.

And the goal of the fictional accounting scheme is to pretend to take the metric (deaths) and use them to argue that no one can know what will happen in the future so we are all off the hook with our actions today.

She reminds me of my recent argument with the hospital over my husband's treatment in the ER. They assured me that they had done a "cost benefit analysis" and that it demonstrated that X was too costly to be worth it. I pointed out that such an analysis always proves the cost to be of no benefit since the costs come from the patients but the benefit is to the hospital.


Ken Houghton said...

"And we will ignore the twitter frenzy McArdle set off by musing about a quote on twitter mistakenly attributed to Martin Luther King."

A friend now in WI notes that MLK Jr. said something rather close to that quote in "Strength to Love" (1963).

atat said...

The best thing about her MLK quote post is that she seems to be entirely unaware of a little thing called the Vietnam War.

atat said...

Okay, reading the rest of that post was really painful. So many crocodile tears. Does anyone doubt that if Dubya had accomplished this mission she'd be crowing about how vindicated she felt?

Anyway, this made me laugh:

"The first time I suspected Bush was smarter than he looks (well, actually, it was the second time. But I can't remember what the first one was)..."

This makes me assume that she's probably the type of person who, in conversation, never has an unspoken thought. There's just no filter.

Kathy said...

Sounds like ArgleBargle doesn't want to admit our military finally "getting" Bin Laden was a good thing (well, I think they ought to have captured him) because the Obama Admin succeeded where BushCo failed.

But she tries to dress up her feelings of "meh" in the guise of having achieved a more adult emotional insight, and the amazing realization (to Her) that Revenge is NOT sweet.

I never felt the rage and blood lust towards Bin Laden/other Muslims that so many of my friends and family expressed. I hoped that this time somebody would wonder why it was that Arab terrorists kept bombing us, particularly symbols of our military & financial might?

And I hoped people would NOT be satisfied with the "They hate us for our freedoms" shitola. My mistake.

ArgleBargle never really cared, doesn't care now. As Bob Dylan put it in "Positively 4th Street"
You just want to be on the side that's winning...

Mr. Wonderful said...

They say that revenge is a dish that's best served cold. We've been waiting a long time for this particular dish to cool, and now that I've eaten it, I'm surprised to find that it's pretty tasteless and unsatisfying.

It's possible that she completely misconstrues the saying, too. I take it to mean that one should obtain one's revenge coolly and not in the heat of an immediate response.

You serve the "dish" TO THE OTHER PERSON, on whom you are being avenged, in a cool manner. Not to yourself for eating. That, in order to assure that you obtain the result you want, as opposed to merely expressing your emotions.

As always, her hubris kills me. Can't someone tell her to just shut up, resist the urge to write about feelings, cooking, gadgets, and the history of appliances, and just focus on explaining to the lay public her supposed topic of specialization? Please, Atlantic?

Anonymous said...

That Jane galt post of Sept 13 2002 was *very* difficult to read through. I feel as though I need a brain scrub, clockwork orange style. I realize that knowing what we know now, it's inconceivable how anyone can heap that much praise on the collective braintrust of condi, rummy, dick and junior. Hindsight being what it is, of course. Nonetheless, by that point in the "rolling out" of the pro-war psy-ops campaign on the nation leading up to the AUMF vote, most of the pieces of evidence proffered by that crew had been either debunked or revealed to be of dubious merit. You supported the war because you *wanted* that war, either out of misplaced anger following 9/11, team red pride and/or a deep seated desire to stick it to those weak, America-blaming libs.

As pointed out above, the parallels to the jane's health care posts are striking. In both instances, thousands upon thousands of words feigning internal debate and "I see both sides" posturing end inevitably with the conclusion that props up the most powerful, entrenched and completely risk-averse private institutions in the nation. always. Actually, that kind of sums up her entire oeuvre, does it not?

Anonymous said...

Well, I agree with most of your analysis Mr. Wonderful but I have always interpreted "revenge is a dish best served cold" to mean that the revenge that is prolonged the farthest from the original offense tastes the sweetest to the avenger. Its sort of aspirational--its advice to the blood thirsty and the angry to hold back and to wait, even years, to get revenge rather than rushing into it in hot blood. And its generally used of situations in which the length of time between the offense and the reaction/revenge either prolongs the agony of the eventual victim, or enables you to gloat quietly over your plans in advance.

Still, whatever, Megan is a complete moron. Her morality is so vapid it almost can't exist in the same universe with ordinary morality. Its like an anti-morality.


Susan of Texas said...

That 2002 post is so revealing in its emotional arrogance. Smug superiority tells her both sides are to the extreme of herself, automatically shifting every argument to the right. Fear-based appeals to authority. Exaggerations of competence based on spite, due to dislike of the Other Tribe. Feelings of inadequacy compensated for by nationalist sentiments and appeals to naked national power grabs.

McArdle has grown much more careful over the years, naturally. She has been very moderate of late, which is interesting.

Susan of Texas said...

Aimai, I hope Mr. Aimai is doing well.

Anonymous said...

Hey Susan, Thanks for asking. We're both old enough now that a whole lot of time is about to be spent on maintenance, kind of like our relationship to our ten year old car, with the only difference being that if we really wanted to we could probably get another car but I don't think there's a clone leasing program available to us yet. But he's better. I'm really just fighting with the ER and the hospital generally because I'm a kibbitzer who believes that systemic problems need to be handled systemically--not my husband's system but the nursing system.