The Uses of Outrage

From The New Criterion

The Gates of Hell

In our last installment, President Obama had injudiciously followed up his expression of moral indignation against the Islamicist killers of the American journalist James Foley and sympathy for his family with a quick game of golf on Martha’s Vineyard. The contrast between the gruesome photos of poor Mr Foley’s beheading — by an anonymous Briton subsequently dubbed “Jihadi John” by the British media — and one of the President behind the wheel of his golf cart, caught in the midst of a full-throated laugh, caused even the hitherto subservient media to grumble a bit. The power of these images may also have added impetus to the media’s complaints when, shortly afterwards, a second American, Steven Sotloff, was likewise beheaded, and the President’s reaction again seemed a trifle disproportionate to some, and lacking in the sort of ringing phrases he so often comes up with on matters, like the minimum wage or women’s “reproductive rights,” that appear to interest him more.

“We know that if we are joined by the international community,” he said at a press conference in Estonia, “we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.” A manageable problem? Did he plan to negotiate them down to cutting off some less essential body part than a head? Maybe he could eventually get them down to fingers and toes. Even when he realized that those who had put him into office to get American forces out of Iraq were now expecting him to go back in with some show of force — the emphasis, of course, being on “show” rather than “force,” — he didn’t strike all those he might have expected to sympathize with him as having hit quite the right note. “This is how a Nobel Peace Prize laureate goes to war,” wrote The Washington Post’s leftie snark merchant Dana Milbank:

He smiles warmly at the members of the U.N. General Assembly. He mentions his grandmother’s village in Kenya and notes that “Islam teaches peace.” He admits his country’s own flaws, praises “the path of diplomacy and peace,” and asserts that lasting gains cannot be “won at the barrel of a gun.” Also, he wades a good 19 minutes into his 40-minute speech (the official time limit is 15 minutes) before getting to the nub of the matter: “The terrorist group known as ISIL must be degraded and ultimately destroyed. . .In the most horrific crimes imaginable, innocent human beings have been beheaded, with videos of the atrocity distributed to shock the conscience of the world,” he says. “No god condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning, no negotiation, with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.” Network of Death! A linguistic heir to George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil, perchance? “Those who have joined ISIL should leave the battlefield while they can,” the peacemaker threatens.

Could it be that Mr Milbank was accusing the President of insincerity in his outrage?

Even if you didn’t take his words on this occasion to be an admission that, as one of the conscience-shocked, he would not have been standing there announcing his air-strikes if it hadn’t been for the videos, that was the clear implication of a report in The New York Times a week or so earlier in which he was quoted as saying that, “if he had been ‘an adviser to ISIS’. . . he would not have killed the hostages but released them and pinned notes on their chests saying, ‘Stay out of here; this is none of your business.’ Such a move, he speculated, might have undercut support for military intervention.” But what did he suppose ISIS cared for the domestic support of his military intervention? What it would have “undercut” by such an improbable gesture on the part of the Islamicists was the political pressure on the President to act exerted by the visual shock to “the conscience of the world” of the beheading videos. Nor was it at all probable that ISIS was kicking itself at having provoked him into his reluctant half-measures. It was much more likely that the public beheadings were shown to the world precisely to goad him into acting as he did.

If the President’s rhetorical counter-punching left something to be desired, it wasn’t necessarily the best idea either to go to the opposite extreme as Vice President Biden did, according to Politico:

“[W]hen people harm Americans, we don’t retreat. We don’t forget,” Biden said during a speech in New Hampshire. “We take care of those who are grieving, and when that’s finished, they should know, we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice. Because hell is where they will reside. Hell is where they will reside.”

That might have seemed a bit more like it if it had come from anybody but the Vice President, whose artificial passion pointed up the problem for politicians in expressing such feelings, even where they might be generally considered appropriate. To put it bluntly, they wouldn’t be believed. Mr Biden can get away with such rhetorical extravagance because no one believes him anyway, even when he is not parroting someone else — in this case, Senator John McCain, who had promised to follow the late Osama bin Laden “to the gates of hell” back in 2007.

Outrage is getting to be a tricky thing these days, and those on whom the media deem it to be incumbent need to calibrate it with some care. That was also clear in the case of another shocking video that caused a nine-days’ media wonder at the same time President Obama was working on his reaction to the beheadings videos. Ray Rice, a professional football player, was caught last spring on a security camera in the act of punching his girlfriend, later his wife, in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino and knocking her out. In July, Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League, handed out what by the league’s own standards was the light punishment of a two-game suspension without, so he said, having seen the video. When the celebrity news website TMZ got hold of it and put it up for everyone to see, the wave of popular and media outrage was as much against Mr Goodell for not being outraged enough as it was against Mr Rice for the original outrage.

In certain precincts of the left, such as The Guardian, not only were Mr Rice, Mr Goodell and the NFL implicated in this case of “domestic violence” but so, to some extent, was anyone associated with American football, if only as a fan. Perhaps the long-discredited feminist legend that the incidence of wife-beating can be statistically shown to rise on Super Bowl Sundays lurked in the background here. Outrage was called for and outrage was insisted upon. And if, like Mr Goodell’s, one’s sense of outrage was deemed inadequate — perhaps because he made the mistake of regarding as a mitigating consideration the fact that the punchee subsequently married the puncher — one risked exile from the community of decency along with Mr Rice himself, whose football career appears to be at an end as I write. Naturally, I hasten to add that the preceding should not in any way be considered an apology for Ray Rice or any other perpetrator of domestic violence.

But like the launching of what some were calling the third Iraq war, the Ray Rice furore could not be disentangled from the video that had sparked it. In the former case, the beheading videos had made the rise of ISIS politically unignorable, however obvious it may have been that the President would have preferred to ignore it — as he had, in effect, promised to ignore it when in 2011 he took credit for ending the Iraq war begun by his predecessor. Some on the right were now calling that his own version of former President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech. And, like Roger Goodell, the President must have been a bit puzzled that, having undertaken to do subsequently what he felt was being demanded of him, he was being criticized for not having shown enough of the passionate anger and resentment about it that his critics were priding themselves on.

Back in the days of the Cold War, “nuance” was all the rage on the left. Simple-minded right-wingers like Ronald Reagan who believed that Western democracies confronted the “Evil Empire” of the Soviets in the East were derided for their Manichaean outlook on the world, the division into Us and Them allowing, as was frequently charged, for no middle ground, no grey area. Echoes of this attitude were heard again when George W. Bush decided to go to war in Iraq and found it convenient to treat Saddam Hussein as a sort of Middle Eastern Hitler knock-off who could not be appeased and had to be defeated — not only by a “coalition” of democracies but by Democracy itself, seen as an infallible cure for Hitlerism. Now it sometimes seems that the left have become our latter day followers of Mani. “Nuance” is out, good and evil are in. The media culture, in particular, polices itself with ruthless determination for any sign of flagging zeal or diminished outrage towards any of the evil ones identified by the left as their own version of imitation Hitlers.

When, for example, an anonymous reviewer for The Economist made the mistake of criticizing a book called The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist on the grounds that “almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains,” it could not apologize quickly enough. “There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so,” the equally anonymous apologizer announced to the magazine’s readers. “Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so.” I could have warned them, as I was inundated by abuse on Twitter — which seems to have been built for just such a purpose — last year after making a similar criticism of the Academy Award winning movie, 12 Years a Slave. Lack of nuance is no longer even a legitimate criticism when it comes to slavery, as to domestic violence. How long, I wonder, before “capitalism” itself joins them on the list of things ineligible for civilized discussion without a noisy accompaniment of outrage and moral anathemata?

The media, as prophets in their own conceit, assume the right to say with Jonah when the notoriously irascible God of the Old Testament unexpectedly spared the distant ancestors of the ISIS-ites the destruction He had promised them, “I do well to be angry, even unto death.” They have got into the habit of assuming their own right of self-identification with certain classes of victims whose victimization can be leveraged on behalf of progressive political causes — especially when there are pictures. Meanwhile, President Obama was working off his own ersatz outrage on the descendants of the Ninevites in largely ineffectual air strikes which some of his own military advisers claimed were most unlikely to do any good without the “boots on the ground” that he was still resolutely promising the boots’ owners not to send.

It wasn’t enough to forstall a question posed by Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” as to whether the conquest by ISIS of large parts of Syria and Iraq had come to him as “a complete surprise” — as it evidently had. “Well,” said the President, “I think our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.” Not only was this a blatant attempt to shift blame away from the office at which it was once said the buck stops, but there were too many instances of public statements over the last year by other intelligence officials as well as Mr Clapper suggesting that they had seen it coming, even if the President had not, and that, therefore, if there were any underestimating going on it was his own. Hadn’t he compared ISIS to the terrorist junior varsity only last January?

The attempt by presidental spokesman Josh Earnest to wriggle out of that one was painful to watch, but all the gotcha-journalism made it easy to forget that the criticism was still focused on presidental feelings rather than actions. If he hadn’t been outraged enough by the beheadings, maybe it was because he had been suffering from an outrage deficiency going back further than anyone had hitherto suspected. It was easy to forget that for virtually the whole of the period since Mr Obama’s sudden rise to national prominence in 2004, the only permissible object of political outrage was his predecessor in office, George W. Bush, and his allegedly precipitate launching of a previous Iraq war on the wave of outrage which had ensued upon the terror attacks of 9/11. It was also easy to forget what his own candidacy had owed to his political distance from that war and, therefore, his giving voice to that politically focused outrage on the part of an energized Democratic party.

Certainly he wasn’t forgetting it, which is why, having been forced to admit that the current surge of outrage over the beheadings demanded action of some kind against ISIS, he spent most of his time after authorizing air-strikes against the advancing Islamists in reassuring people that this time it was different — including military people who might not have been presumed by another President to be eager to hear that their services were not required. And yet we mustn’t be too quick to condemn the media for focusing on the wrong thing. Submitting the presidential emotions to the only media metric, the outrage-ometer, was a crude but not an irrelevant attempt to get at something deeper, something to do with the credibility of his administration and, perhaps, of the political and bureaucratic class in general which has become more and more despised as they have submitted to the media’s demands for phony emotion and politically correct platitudes. About outrage, I might commend to the media what Keats said about poetry, that if it doesn’t come as naturally as the leaves to the trees, it had better not come at all. But that, clearly, is a utopian notion if not itself an outrageous infringement on the media’s right to demand outrage on behalf of their most favored constituencies, or themselves.

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