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When Good News Feels Bad

After Iraq’s vote, New York liberals are in a serious moral-ideological-emotional bind. And the only way out is to root for Bush’s victory.

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After the blizzard and before the fashion shows, you may have heard, the elections in Iraq went off extremely well. Remember? Or, like most New Yorkers, perhaps you let that fact slide from your consciousness as quickly as possible . . . Hey, speaking of Fashion Week, what is it with this renaissance in corseting?

Seriously: The success of the elections poses a major intellectual-moral-political problem for people in this city. The cognitive dissonance is palpable.

New Yorkers think we are smarter than other Americans, that the richness and difficulty of life here give our intelligence a kind of hard-won depth and nuance and sensitivity to contradictions and ambiguity. We feel we are practically French. Most New Yorkers are also liberals. And most liberals, wherever they live, believe that they are smarter than most conservatives (particularly George W. Bush).

And finally, most liberals and New Yorkers suspect that we may be too smart for our own good. It is a form of self-flattery as self-criticism. During these past few years, I have heard it said again and again that liberals’ ineffectiveness derives from their inability to see the world in the simple blacks and whites of the Limbaughs and Hannitys and Bushes. (Why else, the argument goes, did John Kerry lose?)

Maybe. But now our heroic and tragic liberal-intellectual capaciousness is facing its sharpest test since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Back then, most of us were forced, against our wills, to give Ronald Reagan a large share of credit for winning the Cold War. Now the people of this Bush-hating city are being forced to grant the merest possibility that Bush, despite his annoying manner and his administration’s awful hubris and dissembling and incompetence concerning Iraq, just might—might, possibly—have been correct to invade, to occupy, and to try to enable a democratically elected government in Iraq.

At a media-oligarchy dinner party on Fifth Avenue 72 hours after the elections, the emotions were highly mixed. The wife of a Democratic Party figure was (like me) unabashedly hopeful about what had happened in Iraq. Across the table, though, the wife of a well-known liberal actor was having none of it; instead, she complained about Fahrenheit 9/11’s being denied an Oscar nomination. And a newspaper éminence grise seemed more inclined to discuss Condoleezza Rice’s unfortunate hairstyle than the vicissitudes of Wolfowitzism. It was the night of the State of the Union speech, but as far as I know, no one (including me) ducked out of the dining room to find a TV. Who really wanted to watch Bush take his victory lap?

Like most New Yorkers, I disagree with the Bush administration politically, temperamentally, and ontologically most of the time. Two years ago, however, unlike most New Yorkers (but probably like most Americans), concerning Iraq I went from 50-50 fence-sitting to fretful 53 percent support of an invasion. So the ups and downs of the war and occupation since have conformed, more or less, to my own deep ambivalence.

But for our local antiwar supermajority, the Iraq elections were simply the most vertiginous moment of a two-year-long roller-coaster ride. By last November, they’d hoped the U.S. would see things their way—and it was some solace that by January, a solid majority of the country apparently agreed with New York that Iraq was a mess and a misadventure.

Until the Iraqi vote: surprisingly smooth and inarguably inspiring and, in some local camps, unexpectedly unsettling. Of course, for all but a nutty fringe, it is not a matter of actually wishing for an insurgent victory, but rather of hating the idea of a victory presided over by the Bush team. (I may prefer the Yankees to beat the Red Sox, but I cannot bear the spectacle of Steinbrenner’s gloating.) Three months after failing to defeat Bush in our election, plenty of New Yorkers privately, half-consciously hoped for his comeuppance in Iraq’s. You know who you are. Last week, you found yourselves secretly . . . heartened—and appalled—by the stories of the Marine general who said it was “a hell of a hoot [and] fun to shoot some people” in Afghanistan, and about the possible Islamist drift of the Shiites who will now govern Iraq. When military officers show themselves to be callous warmongers, and neocon military adventurism looks untenable, certain comfortable assumptions are reaffirmed.

Like “radical chic,” a related New York specialty, “liberal guilt” once meant feeling discomfort over one’s good fortune in an unjust world. As this last U.S. election cycle began, however, a new subspecies of liberal guilt arose—over the pleasure liberals took in bad news from Iraq, which seemed sure to hurt the administration. But with Bush reelected, any shred of tacit moral rationale is gone. In other words, feel the guilt, and let it be a pang that leads to moral clarity.

Each of us has a Hobbesian choice concerning Iraq; either we hope for the vindication of Bush’s risky, very possibly reckless policy, or we are in a de facto alliance with the killers of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. We can be angry with Bush for bringing us to this nasty ethical crossroads, but here we are nonetheless.


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