Khizr Khan and the Wages of Self-Sacrifice

Everyone–or at least all of America–seems to be talking about Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Am I the only person who found Khizr Khan’s message depressing rather than uplifting? I understand the need to put Donald Trump in his place, and sympathize with the desire to stick it to him. And yes, there was something inspiring about the spirit if not the letter of Khan’s speech.

But as for the content of the speech, it hit all the wrong notes. Translated, it seemed to be saying the following:

Now that I’ve sacrificed my son on the altar of your foreign policy, paying for my family’s citizenship rights with ‘undivided loyalty’ to the state, I’d appreciate it if you would respect the rights we’ve purchased in this way, as promised in your Constitution.

The message comes straight out of the middle class Pakistani ethos of servility, obedience, and self-abnegation: respect from others is the ultimate value, a value to be achieved by means of assiduous commitment to altruistic self-sacrifice. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the respect; hence an untimely, altruistic death ought to confer complete respect.

But with all due respect, a message of “sacrifice” and “undivided loyalty” to the state is precisely one that no one ought to be valorizing, and that no one needs to hear. No one seems to have the heart to tell Khizr Khan that his son died in a war that was one more in a long chain of bloody “mistakes” made by a foreign policy establishment that thrives on the indulgence of families like his. Nor does anyone have the heart to tell him that his son’s enlistment in the army was itself a mistake–a mistake that not only cost his life, but led him to a meaningless death in the middle of nowhere. But maybe someone should. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but it would certainly break the spell cast on the Khans by the mantras of sacrifice and loyalty.

A better speech would have looked both parties in the face, waved the son’s bloody shirt directly at them, and extracted a promise from the Democrats for a less interventionist foreign policy, starting in January 2017. But what are the chances of such a policy with Hillary Clinton at the helm?

In any case, like it or not, the revised version of Trump’s proposed policy didn’t violate the Constitution. The first version of the policy barred all Muslims from entering the country, but having hastily blurted it out, Trump quickly realized the mistake he’d made, and offered a revised version. The second version permitted Muslim citizens to enter, but prohibited Muslim non-citizens from entering.

Both versions are unjust and abhorrent, but the fact remains that the Constitution doesn’t prohibit a discriminatory (or even racist) immigration or visa policy from being applied to non-citizens coming to the U.S. from abroad. So if Trump had borrowed Khan’s copy of the Constitution, there’s nothing in it that would have explained why the considered version of his proposal was unconstitutional. Khan’s invocation of the Constitution is just another case of Trump’s opponents’ throwing the kitchen sink at him in the hope that something or other will stick. But if simple truths won’t stick, neither will legalistic falsehoods. Those who want to ensure Trump’s defeat in November need to return to the drawing board and find a different approach.

That said, Americans should stop looking to Muslim Americans like Khan for the feel-good quality that such “undivisibly loyal” Muslims seem to provide. And Muslims like Khan need to stop playing the enabling role whereby Muslim Americans purchase respect from America by proving that they’re willing to throw their lives away for the American war machine. What we need instead of either feel good nostrums or self-sacrificial servility is a hard look at our intervention-happy foreign policy,  and a serious attempt to figure out how the hell to change it. The point is not to appreciate how many different kinds of people we’ve managed to bury in Arlington Cemetery, but to stop having to bury so many people there in the first place.

24 thoughts on “Khizr Khan and the Wages of Self-Sacrifice

    • That response kind of misses the point of my post. I’m saying that the “failure to sacrifice” accusation is beside the point. Hillary Clinton can’t be “more deserving” of an accusation that is beside the point than Donald Trump. If the accusation is beside the point, no one deserves it. It’s just beside the point.

      It’s not as though Hillary Clinton’s “failure to sacrifice” is a strike against her candidacy, or as though, had one of her loved ones died on the battlefield, she would enjoy some special distinction as a candidate. That’s the very assumption I’m contesting. We have to stop praying at the altar of military sacrifices. Listening to Americans talk about the virtues of sacrifice is like watching some primitive people propitiate a wrathful god. The more we sacrifice, the more pleased the gods seem to be by the aroma of burning flesh. Meanwhile, we keep sacrificing, keep applauding those who do, and keep execrating those who don’t. For all his supposed independence and candor, not even Trump was able to ask the obvious question: why is sacrifice a good thing?


      • Irfan, I got your point. My point was against Khan’s double standards, not your article. Khan obviously believes self-sacrifice is a good and admirable thing. He accused Trump of having sacrificed nothing, yet failed to recognize the same regarding Hillary. Also, Hillary supported the war in which Khan’s son was killed; Trump did not.


  1. I’m not political and tbh I’m really glad about that because wow it really can lead to things and decisions that are awful .. I understand your point of view though where you say that the war he fought in was a mistake and it could have been prevented .. However, his speech was powerful , I think it’s something we needed to hear at a time like this when there is a chance of Donald trump winning (which could be a disaster) and with the attacks that have happened in the name of “Islam” – It’s showing that we too are a part of the country and fight for it (I don’t live in america but still ) .. The last thing you wrote “The point is not to appreciate how many different kinds of people we’ve managed to bury in Arlington Cemetery, but to stop having to bury so many people there in the first place” . That is soo very true and a really strong message . Even though I’m British i really really do hope Donald Trump does not win … Lets see what happens ..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, I appreciate your comment. Apologies for taking so long to acknowledge and respond to it, but I’ve had a lot on my hands.

      I agree that Khizr Khan’s speech was powerful, and as I said in the post, I agree with the spirit of what he said, or at least the overarching goal he was trying to accomplish. He was right to challenge Donald Trump, and right to regard his son (and his family) as a counterexample to Trump’s bigotry. I particularly admired his responses (and his wife’s responses) to Trump’s attack on him after the DNC speech. I probably should have said more in the post about what was admirable about the speech and the couple.

      That said, if the son’s death was a mistake, as I think it was, it compounds that mistake to treat it as an act of heroism that other people should emulate. And that is how Khizr Khan and his audience treated it (more the audience than Khan himself, but the audience reaction was a predictable response to Khan’s speech). A mistake is a mistake, even if it came about through praiseworthy motives. If I’m overly trusting and get robbed as a result, it makes no sense to praise my being so trusting of people. It’s even misleading to describe the motives in question as praiseworthy, since the motives are closely related to the trust that led to the robbery.

      What I found terrible about Khan’s speech (the speech, not Khan himself) is that one got no sense from it that the son’s death was a mistake. The implication was that Humayun Khan did a heroic thing, with the clear implication that other Muslims should emulate his action. The speech was so anxiously focused on gaining the good graces of the American people that it gave a free pass to the entire leadership responsible for sending the son to his death in the first place.

      Bear in mind that this leadership lied to us. It tricked all of us into the Iraq War. Yes, Donald Trump is a fascist, but Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy is at least as interventionist as his. She is just more polite about it. I’m all in favor of attacking Trump, but what the Khans’ admirers have ignored is that Khan’s speech serves to get Hillary and the Democrats completely off the hook for their commitment to a foreign policy that is almost indistinguishable from Trump’s. Trump may sound like a lunatic whereas Hillary sounds reasonable, but when it comes to foreign intervention, they are both hawks, both amazingly willing to go to war despite everything we’ve learned about war since 9/11 (or Vietnam).

      I am not blaming the Khans for all this. I am trying to say that their message simply reinforces American interventionism. Perhaps I should have made it clearer that my focus was the message rather than the people, but it was.

      What I object to about the message in “We too are part of the country and we fight for it” is the implication that fighting for it in a mistaken war–“sacrificing” for it–makes one more part of the country than not doing so. Khizr Khan’s emphasis on sacrifice really does imply that. The Khans’ objection to Trump is that unlike them, Trump didn’t sacrifice for America. The suggestion is that the Khans have a special status because they did sacrifice for America. But the problem with Trump is not his lack of sacrifice. The problem with Trump is his willingness to sacrifice others to his political ambitions.

      Mistakenly sacrificing your life for your country is not a virtue. It’s a tragic condition of victimization. It should not be valorized or applauded. It should induce us to demand accountability of our leaders, and to ensure that such things don’t happen again. But predictably, Khan’s speech induced America to applaud and valorize its own disasters.

      In that respect, the anger I feel is directed less at the Khans than at a country that would put such people in such a predicament–not once, but twice. First we get the son killed. Then we clap over “the life he gave for us.” As for re-thinking what they’re doing or changing course, not a word. Just more airstrikes and more talk of war. This won’t change, whether under Clinton or Trump, until we stop applauding military sacrifice for the state. I can understand anger and I can understand tears. But the applause has to stop.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Wow now your reply was a powerful one 🙂 . I understand exactly what you are saying . Instead of realising that this mistake caused deaths that could have been prevented its been steered the other way and now everyone is praising the heroes (not that they weren’t because they were fighting for their country) but those heroes fought a war that might not have ever happened if the right decision was made . It makes me sad thinking that they could have still been alive. When you wrote “The problem with Trump is his willingness to sacrifice others to his political ambitions” – yes , absolutely . I mean its between Hilary and Trump- it’s put everyone in a pickle really – who to choose. She’s made everything sound soo much better but what will truly happen when and if she comes into power ?.. I still would leave this planet and move to the moon if Donald won lol …


      • I’m not sure if you’re planning a separate response to my response, but since you say some relevant things here I’ll try to say some similarly relevant things. Once again I find myself agreeing with much of what you say but finding it misapplied to the speech. But maybe the better way to think of it is that I look at the speech within a narrow context and you look at it within the much broader context. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking at these speeches in the broader context, and I think much of what you say about it from that point of view is at least broadly right. So I may not have such strong objections as it originally appeared. I do, though, think we might disagree about an important point.

        You say that it is a mistake to treat Humayan Khan’s death as an act of heroism, suggesting that it is not worthy of special respect or emulation but was simply pointless and worthless, no matter how praiseworthy his motives were. I disagree, and I think my disagreement is consistent with acknowledging the obvious sense in which the death was pointless and worthless. That sense is that it occurred in the context of a war that we had no good reason to be fighting, that has at least arguably done more damage than good to U.S. interests and the world at large, and that we only went into because we were lied to (I take it as clear that we were lied to even if the Bushies sincerely believed that there really were WMD’s and that they really were a serious threat, because they plainly knew how slender the evidence was and tried to sell it to us as quite strong). But Humayan Khan’s act was obviously not to take us into a stupid and detrimental war. His act was to go to war when he was called on to do so and to risk and ultimately lose his life protecting his fellow soldiers. I take it — and perhaps we are disagreed here — that we in fact need people who are willing to go to war when called on to do so and to risk their lives in the process. Part of what this involves is being willing to suspend your own judgment about whether we should be going to war in the first place; if soldiers did not do this, the military would not function. This is by no means to say that soldiers must suspend their judgment altogether and do absolutely anything they are ordered to do; I would even say that soldiers should be free to decline to serve if they regard the campaign as unjustified. But a soldier cannot effectively regard himself as bound to serve only when he has no remotely sensible doubts whatsoever, and at the time when Khan went to Iraq he would not have had strong reasons to believe that the whole rationale of the war was a complete fabrication or that it was a sheer act of injustice. Unless we think that it is simply unreasonable to act on authority, I cannot see how his willingness to act on the authority of the executive and legislative branches of our government was unjustified. So as I see it, he performed a service that we need people to perform and he was not unjustified in doing so. In the process, he died and saved the lives of several of his fellow soldiers. That seems to me to qualify as heroic and worthy of respect. In fact, the pointlessness of the war seems to make it more worthy of respect — obviously not because it is better to sacrifice your life for a stupid cause than a good one, but because the stupidity and pointlessness of it were neither his responsibility nor so abundantly clear that he could only have been foolish to be willing to serve in the first place. I would, for what it’s worth, be willing to say the same about many soldiers who were killed in Vietnam, a war that was, at its height, quite clearly stupid and pointless.

        I don’t think your analogy with being overly trusting and getting robbed as a result is a good one. I think the better analogy is the one I offered already: being robbed because you do not carry a gun and pull it out at the first sign of anything suspicious. The reason I think it is better is that I take not carrying a gun, or at least not pulling it out at the first sign of anything suspicious, as something that we all need to do in order to have civilized lives. So too, we need people who are willing to serve in the military and risk their lives in the process in order to have civilized lives (perhaps not in some anarchist utopia, but in any world sufficiently like the one we live in to be realistically possible). But just as sometimes the price of not pulling guns on every suspicious character you meet is that you get robbed, sometimes the price of being willing to serve in the military and risk your life is that you die. That is not at all to dismiss the urgency of holding politicians to account so that they do not send people to risk their lives for stupid reasons; on the contrary, it heightens the urgency, because if the military really is necessary for civilized life, then we cannot say the stupid things that some people like to say about cases like these, “well, he chose to risk his life; he didn’t have to do that.” No, none of us has to do it; but some of us do.

        Perhaps I am underestimating the possibility of civilized life without a military that requires its members to act on authority. Or perhaps I am missing some other point.

        For what it’s worth, I also don’t think it’s quite true that Clinton has not sacrificed in some sense that Trump has not. I did not take the question, “what have you sacrificed?” to mean, “when did you or your child die in the military?” but rather, “when have you done anything for the sake of the common good that was not to your own greater personal advantage?” I am not sure Trump has ever done anything that meets that description. Clinton at least arguably has; she could very easily have pursued a career that would have made her far wealthier, far less subject to the vitriol that she receives on a daily basis, and far more comfortable, but less likely to bring about the positive changes that she has tried throughout her career to pursue. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not claiming that Hillary is a selfless public servant, and I’m not even claiming that she has not made questionable use of her power and influence to benefit herself and her friends. I’m not even denying that she is corrupt to a significant extent. Rather, my judgment of her character — which is, admittedly, extremely fallible — is that despite being an exceptionally ambitious politician who seeks power in part for the sake of self-aggrandizement, she genuinely does care about most of the things she says she cares about, and while there is perhaps no substitute for the heights of political power, she could certainly have become much wealthier and still considerably powerful without enduring any of the costs that she’s endured in her career. That’s a kind of sacrifice for the common good. That it is entirely consistent with her own personal benefit is, to my mind, just a straightforward fact about sacrifice. But even if you don’t buy this picture of her, it’s the picture that she and her admirers want to project, and I think the kind of sacrifice it involves is enough to draw the contrast with Trump that Khan’s speech intended.


          • My response will have to wait until this weekend–too much going on here at once. Within the next 48 hours, I have to: administer final exams, do/submit the final grades, and get someone at the university to make me an ex post facto job offer so that they can pay me (ditto my translator)–while the university is under periodic attack by the Israeli army. Also have to do some last minute sightseeing and fly home. But the weekend is clear. “Clear” in both senses: plenty of time, and no tear gas anticipated.


          • Excuses, excuses. War didn’t stop Thucydides or Locke from writing. Why should you get off so easy? Because we have bombs? Oh, ok…


          • Dude, it’s not the shooting, it’s the grading. Thucydides and Locke may have written during wartime, but they didn’t have to grade plagiarized papers in a foreign language. Of the two violations–military incursions and plagiarized papers–I’d be hard pressed to tell you which one is worse. Invasions, at least, are exciting. But try to get excited by the nth plagiarized paper, in Arabic, on Locke’s theory of property.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure whether you and I interpret the speech so differently because we disagree about substantive issues or because you understand some subtext that I don’t. In any case, while I haven’t gone back to comb through the speech, I didn’t hear a message of servility, obedience, and self-abnegation; I didn’t hear the idea that respect from others is the ultimate value; I didn’t even hear the idea that altruistic self-sacrifice ought to earn complete respect. Nor did I hear any suggestion that the Iraq War was anything other than a mistake. I heard a plea for respect for American Muslims, respect grounded not simply in their humanity or their right to religious freedom, but in the service and sacrifice that some of them and their families have made for the country, a reminder that Muslims need not be divided in their loyalties and are not inherently opposed to the U.S. or even simply willing to tolerate it in the absence of something better, but can be just as supportive of it as anyone else, and that the whole notion that a Muslim in America necessarily is and ought to be an outsider is false and foolish.

    Yes, the speech appeals to the value of service and sacrifice. But to appeal to their value is not to make their value absolute or to give them priority over everything else. I am just as opposed as you to any ethic that sets up self-abnegating, purely altruistic sacrifice as the essence of morality, but there is a giant chasm between embracing the kind of altruism that Rand described and valuing service and sacrifice for the common good. MacIntyre is a far better guide for thinking about this; though his conception of common goods is unduly narrow, he clearly understands and incisively shows why service and sacrifice for a genuine common good are not self-immolation on the altar of the collective and that we think otherwise only if we suffer from the delusion of self-sufficiency. Neither you nor I would be in a position to argue freely about the value of service and sacrifice were it not for the service and sacrifice that many people have made and continue to make on our behalf, and neither service — which hardly entails servility — nor sacrifice need amount to self-abnegating subjection to others, not even when they take the form of military service, and not even in the service of such an outrageously foolish campaign as the Iraq War. In any possible version of the world we live in, we depend on people who are willing to fight and die if necessary, and that doesn’t work if those people act only in those cases that they judge to be fully just and prudent; successful coordination requires adherence to a chain of command that will always be susceptible to misdirection. The injustice of Humayan Khan’s death is not the injustice of service and sacrifice, it is the injustice of fools manipulating the willingness of Khan and so many others to fight and die on our behalf, exploiting the people we depend on for ends that do not in any way favor our common good and almost certainly increase the threat to it instead. You are dead right when you talk about the “foreign policy establishment that thrives on the indulgence of families like his,” but the realistic solution to this problem is not for everyone to refuse to enlist in the military, but to replace that foreign policy establishment. Attacking soldiers for being so stupid and gullible as to become soldiers in the first place is a bit like blaming the victim of a mugging for not having carried a gun and shot the perpetrator as soon as he saw the ‘suspicious’ character anywhere near him; refusal to initiate lethal force preemptively on the basis of whimsical ‘suspicions’ leaves us vulnerable to attack but is a prerequisite for civilized life, and when other people take advantage of our behaving in ways that are required for civilized life, blaming us is perverse.

    I’ve no doubt you’ll disagree with much of this, and I’m not under the illusion that I’ve said enough to persuade you otherwise. But while I wholeheartedly agree that enough hasn’t been said until it’s been stated loudly and clearly how unnecessary and pointless the deaths of soldiers — and not only soldiers — in Iraq have been, your critique of the speech and your disdain for the Khans seem entirely wrongheaded. You’re of course right that not all of Trump’s ‘proposals’ about how to treat Muslims are unconstitutional, but I’m not sure why his incessant flip-flopping, sometimes in the same sentence, should make up for the fact that the man publicly proposed — to great applause — a policy that very clearly violates the constitution and walked it back only out of strategic considerations. More importantly, I’m a bit mystified as to how you of all people can fail to see the urgency of making it abundantly clear to everyone that Muslims can be decent American citizens. There is hardly any convention speech that wouldn’t stand in need of heavy qualification before we could agree to it without reservation. But the point of the speech wasn’t to say everything that might need to be said, it was to make vividly apparent that Muslims can be and are decent Americans and that Trump and his ilk’s paranoia and religious bigotry are contrary to the guiding principles of the United States.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not surprised. As I said, I didn’t offer much in the way of defense of it, so I wouldn’t expect it to change your mind. I wouldn’t presume to know your thoughts well enough to know exactly what you disagree with, but one thing I can say is that if one rejects outright the value of service and sacrifice — assuming, again, that one is not working with a tendentious, question-begging conception of service and sacrifice such that servitude and self-abnegating prioritization of ‘the collective’ are built into the concepts — then it will be no surprise that speeches at a convention for a major political party will seem, well, problematic, given that no major political party will succeed with a platform that consistently rejects the value of promoting and preserving our common interests. So far as I can see, even Rand-inspired libertarians like Rasmussen and Den Uyl do not deny the value of service and sacrifice, they just have a very thin conception of the political common good that is worth serving and sacrificing for — something like ‘the conditions that preserve the possibility of self-directed agency’ — and notice that a life involving sacrifices can nonetheless be one that is good for the person living it and chosen as such. My politics is a lot closer to Hillary Clinton’s than to Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s, but while I wouldn’t expect them to have much sympathy for most of what was said at the DNC, even they recognize (or ought to, anyway, given their overall views) that promoting, protecting, and even sacrificing for our common interests is not tantamount to being a collectivist slave.

        Of course, that may not be the part you disagree with. But unless one rejects it outright or perhaps thinks that the U.S. military is so outrageously evil that nobody who serves in it deserves any respect, I can’t see the sense in criticizing the speech for what it didn’t say about the stupidity of our foreign policy.


          • Let us mark this occasion as one in which we completely agree!

            For what it’s worth, I would not regard Trump and Sanders as remotely equivalent. It’s not just that I think more highly of some of Sanders’ proposals and positions, but that I can’t see Trump as simply an extremist on the right where Sanders is an extremist on the left. I know plenty of people who are as conservative as Sanders is progressive; they simply can’t bring themselves to vote for Trump because he represents so little of what they believe and says so much that is contrary to it. I wouldn’t say that Trump’s rise within the Republican party doesn’t make sense, but I have a hard time seeing it as just a more extreme version of conservatism in the way that Sanders is mostly just a more extreme version of progressivism.


    • I still haven’t gotten to responding to this, and still intend to, but for now simply offer this Op-Ed by J.D. Vance from a few weeks back as exactly the sort of thing that Khizr Khan’s speech was pre-emptively appeasing.

      Vance says:

      To serve in the modern military — or to be the uncle, parent or sibling of one who does — is to treat the necessary service and sacrifice of war with a sacred honor.

      I can summarize my response to both Vance and Khizr this way: It is neither an honor nor is it necessary to serve in the United States military, and we should stop pretending that it is, lying to people that it is, and abetting the lie that it is. It is not. It is a collective act of insanity that we all abet, that Khizr Khan helped abet, and that J.D. Vance is actively trying to promulgate and rationalize.

      Putting aside the activities of the Coast Guard, and the initial phases of the War in Afghanistan, it is simply unclear what the U.S. military has done since Nagasaki to keep the citizens of the United States safe from foreign enemies. I mean that absolutely literally. If it is so obvious that they have protected us from foreign enemies, I’d like someone to name me one actual instance of their doing so, where “their” means the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. I am excluding the initial invasion of Afghanistan, the legitimacy of which I grant (but even there, the case is far, far from airtight). At any rate, the “modern military” has done a hell of a lot more than invade Afghanistan since 1945. Can anyone make a cogent case that the bulk of it, or even any of it, has kept us safer than we would have been had they not done what they did?

      Suppose not. If I am right that it is not necessary to serve in the U.S. military, then why are we obliged to pretend that it is? And why are we obliged to pretend that there is some “honor” involved in going abroad and killing people by the hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands when there is no demonstrable necessity about it–not even no “demonstrable necessity” but no felt need to demonstrate one?

      But suppose so. If the activities of the military have been necessary, why does no one feel even the slightest need to explain how or why that is so when they offer up such fulsome praise for the institution, and such enthusiasm for the idea of “serving” it? If the case is so obvious, what are its basic elements? I teach international relations and I couldn’t begin to tell you. The entire case for the alleged “necessity” of our military activities seems to rest on little more than a vague appeal to patriotism and altruistic mush: it would be unpatriotic and “selfish” to question the legitimacy of the last 71 years of “our warriors'” great service to our nation, hence it must all have been worthwhile, necessary, sacred, and honorable. Really?

      It strikes me as handwaving in the extreme to think that anyone should serve in the U.S. military because, in general–ceteris paribus–nation-states need militaries, and service in the military serves that need. Practical judgment about particulars doesn’t turn on what is ceteris paribus the case. It turns on what is actually the case, here and now (or has actually been the case in the recent past, and promises to be the case for the foreseeable future). And what is actually the case is that the United States military is an imperialist war machine that feeds on the delusion that its warriors are moral heroes who protect us with their valor, while serving up propaganda to keep us convinced of it–lying to us when necessary, and serving up huge dollops of flim-flam when it decides not to lie. It really is not obvious to me at all that the U.S. military has been a net asset to this country for the last 71 years. To the extent that “it” has, the “it” has a referent that is much, much, much smaller than the anything that Khizr Khan or J.D. Vance have been valorizing.

      But if “military” refers to all of it, including the soldiers at My Lai and those at Abu Ghraib and those everywhere else we’ve gone, up to and including all of the atrocities, and all of the liaisons to military dictatorships and….if they have done more harm than good–if that understates what they’ve done–it isn’t obvious to me that joining up is anything but an act of irrational, “patriotic” self-delusion, self-abnegation, servility, and self-sacrifice. What on earth could justify it? If someone you knew asked you for advice about whether or not to join up, and there was a good chance that the person would see combat, what conceivable argument could you give for joining up that didn’t involve servility to a delusional ideal of national greatness, and an irrational lust for pointless, premature death? The best you could say is: if you avoid getting your ass blown off, you’ll get skills that you can parlay into a nice civilian job once you come home and cash in on the GI Bill. There is, frankly, nothing else to say. But there’s nothing honorable about killing people in the name of the GI Bill. It’s just the old Machiavellian choice of self-abnegation in service to the nation or cut-throat opportunism in one’s own perceived interest.

      This isn’t so much a proper response to your comment as the preface to one that occurred to me in a spare moment I had. I don’t have many spare moments, so I thought I’d set it down in pixels, and resolve to write a proper one yet later than I already have.

      The second letter in this link serves up the same “patriotic” slop as Vance’s Op-Ed.


      • I’d forgotten about this.

        I can’t do you justice with a response, but I can say this much:

        I certainly agree with enough of what you say that I would not recommend joining the military to anyone except perhaps in some very special circumstances (not likely to see combat, unlikely to put together a decent life otherwise, etc.). I’m still inclined to stick by my claim that military service is necessary; it is, of course, not necessary for any given individual to join the military, but it is necessary to have a military (would you really choose to bring it about that our country has no military, if you could? If so, I’d be curious to hear how you think that wouldn’t be a disaster; the only answers I can think of are standard anarchist stuff, and you were not an anarchist the last time I checked, so if there are non-anarchist reasons to think that having no military would work out pretty decently for us, I sincerely can’t think of them). That said, if not for the collective rationality problem that virtually guarantees it wouldn’t work, maybe our military policies would get more sane if people refused to enlist until they do. I don’t have anything to say in defense of the policy (though I suspect I’m more hawkish than you, I don’t think I can make a very strong case for any of the major military operations since WWII). I do, however, think it’s excessive to say that the military has literally done nothing to keep anyone safe; to take one boring example that I just happen to know about for totally incidental reasons, the military was instrumental in evacuating American citizens from Lebanon in 2006 when Israel was indiscriminately bombing it. That’s small potatoes, I know, and it’s not an answer to your argument, but it is a case — presumably not a unique one — of the U.S. military acting to protect its citizens.

        None of that amounts to an objection to what you’ve said. I definitely don’t want to endorse the mystification via heroization that Vance et al. engage in; I’m just not convinced that that’s the only way to respect and honor people for military service, or that doing so is inconsistent with your strong denunciation of the uses to which the military has been put.

        But if I ever get around to making a case for that, I’ll let you know.


  3. Critics of Donald Trump note that his speech patterns and rhetoric map disturbingly well to 1930s fascists. I’d argue that Bernie Sanders’ speech patterns and rhetoric map disturbingly well to 2010s pseudoscientists.


    • Which pseudoscientists do you have in mind? Now that some die-hard Sanders supporters are flocking to the Green Party, we don’t have to look very far for pseudoscience in politics: Jill Stein’s paranoia about vaccinations and the party’s general views about homeopathy are more or less right there. Much as I hate to say it, I think vaccination paranoia is probably even more irrational than climate change skepticism. Stein also seems to be worried that wireless internet signals will harm children’s brains. Perhaps that’s all more anti-science than pseudoscience, but at this point if I read that the Green Party officially endorsed astrology in the formation of foreign policy I’m not sure I’d be shocked. Thankfully, Sanders is a long, long way away from this sort of thing.


  4. Sanders has repeatedly shown strong anti-immigration stances. He voted against the 2007 immigration reform bill. He’s against unskilled immigrants and work visas. He’s repeatedly pushed the notion that immigration harms American workers and drives down wages – a notion that is not only incorrect, but the opposite is true. Sanders is not only to the right of most Democrats and Libertarians on immigration, but he’s to the right of many Republicans as well. In short, he parrots the “Immigrants will come here and steal our jobs” line that the left has appropriately attacked many from the right for saying for the past decade. He repeatedly utilizes xenophobic nationalist rhetoric when discussing immigration and trade. He frequently drums up fervor talking about American jobs going to China and Mexico – a tactic that should strike many as identical to the talking points of one toupeed republican billionaire.He stokes the flames of an Us vs. Them mentality. Americans versus Chinese. Americans versus Mexicans. Americans versus Immigrants. Hard-working people versus corporate capitalism

    eww, eww, eww


    • Yes. I have sometimes wondered whether that rhetoric masks a more nuanced view, since, unlike with Trump, I do not believe that Sanders has anything like xenophobic, quasi-racist, or religious motives for these views. But I suspect that, whatever his ultimate views are, he regards strong economic protectionist policies as beneficial for the country, and while I am nowhere near a libertarian about markets, I share at least some of your wariness about what Sanders has said about these issues. I’d still opt for him over Trump on those points, but Clinton strikes me as far more sensible, however far from ideal she might be. More or less the only point on which I think Sanders has taken a better view than Clinton is on Israel and foreign policy more generally, though I also suspect that his general foreign policy views are the product of naivete and would not survive a month in the White House. I’m not a big fan of Clinton’s foreign policy tendencies either, but at times in the primary I found myself wondering whether Sanders sincerely believed that if we just stopped dropping bombs, everything would be perfectly fine. I’m not sure I believed that even when I was a 21 year old kid protesting against the invasion of Afghanistan on the simple-minded grounds that war is always bad and totally unjustified unless someone is literally attacking us in our own territory right now. Even then I realized that people would still try to attack us even if we stopped dropping bombs. I’m sure that Sanders doesn’t really hold such a naive view, but as I said, there were times in the primary where I couldn’t help but wonder whether that idea was more or less the entirety of his foreign policy platform. Here I think we run up against an unfortunate reality of American political rhetoric, particularly campaign rhetoric: simplistic slogans get far more votes than complex, nuanced declamations.


  5. Just to expand a bit more on what Moataz said and add to what I think of Hiliary (in the next comment):

    Bernie Sanders is the latest is a very long line of politicians who have criticised international trade liberalisation on the basis that it exerts a downward pressure on wages in the rich world.

    That was of course the old mercantilist argument until the rise of the “classical” economists in the 18th century: trade could only create jobs (or raise wages) in one country at the expense of workers in another.

    The modern view is that international trade doesn’t affect the number of jobs: it simply re-allocates them across the economy in a more efficient way, which in the long-run will lead to higher average wages for the workforce as a whole.

    However, there are a number of other trends which can have a negative effect on some workers, even if average wages are rising. One is technological change, which in both the US and the UK has been polarising wages.

    All those relatively middle-waged industrial jobs – machine operators and so on – can be more easily replaced by machines, while the share of very low waged jobs (like retail work) and high waged jobs (like design) has been rising.

    It is no longer possible, in countries like the US, to earn a middle-range living with very little education, simply by learning technical on-the-job skills in a local factory or suchlike. Hence the massively increased demand for higher education.

    That said, most jobs at the lowest end of the labour market will usually be better than before: a modern retail floor worker enjoys much better conditions, and can buy more with their wages, than the lowest-paid industrial workers 40 years ago.

    But the transition is slow, and in some countries (including the UK) the switch from heavy industry to services was very badly managed. Even while overall living standards are slowly getting better, some communities have seen their prospects worsen dramatically over the past few decades.

    So Sanders’ problems are closer to home than he realises, I think, and putting up trade barriers isn’t going to solve them; indeed, he’ll just end up hurting the poorest workers who tend to benefit most from overall rises in productivity.

    Liked by 1 person

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