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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

There may not be any "Good Guys" in a given situation/current politics

I grew up with television and books.  My siblings also had radio.  What we all had in common was exposure to stories of conflict in which there were identifiable "Good Guys" and "Bad Guys".  In some books, the authors might try to fake us out - by getting us and/or other characters in the books to misidentify the motives of certain heroes or villians - and there may have been minor characters who were in-between or who changed sides, but, basically, there were Good Guys (for whom one rooted) and Bad Guys.

This has led to an impulse to misunderstand how the world actually works, particularly in a political sense.  It's often easy to identify Bad Guys.  Nazis were Bad Guys.  Communists were Bad Guys.  To me, Hamas is definitely a bunch of Bad Guys.  The problem is that we, both individually and as groups, have a strong impulse to want to believe that anyone who opposes the Bad Guys is a Good Guy.  However, as Gershwin wrote, "It ain't necessarily so."

I will pass over the Nazi-Soviet Pact and our subsequent alliance with the Soviet Union against the Nazis.  While I suspect those events to have been the cause of many instances of "political brain whiplash", they are really before my time.  I came of age during the Vietnam War and other Cold War alliances with groups primarily because they were anti-communist.

Of course, I started out knowing both that "we" were the Good Guys and the the Vietnamese Communists were the Bad Guys.  While I was in college, however, I learned that our own troops did not always act in an exemplary fashion, and that our allies - in Vietnam and elsewhere - could be corrupt and oppressive.  I also came to understand that some of the Bad Guys at least thought that they were the Good Guys.  Indeed, because our news media had more access and freedom in regard to investigating and reporting what we and our allies did,  we were perhaps more exposed to our own side's faults. (It may just seem that way to me in hindsight.  Viet Cong atrocities may not have gotten as much attention because they were, after all, the Bad Guys, and having them commit atrocities was not "news".) Be that as it may, large numbers of members of my generation turned against the war.  That (at least in my mind) was probably justified.  A second result was the rise in suspicion about the actions of our Government in foreign policy matters.  That was understandable, and probably good, but only up to a point.  After all, comparatively speaking, (I believe) we were and are actually the Good Guys.  Most unfortunate, however, was almost automatic assumption that those who opposed us (particularly the North Vietnamese) somehow became magically transformed into the Good Guys because we or our allies were the Bad Guys.  THAT IS A CONCLUSION WITHOUT ANY LOGICAL FOUNDATION,  AND IS STILL A COMMON MISCONCEPTION.  Nature does not require Good Guys (or Bad Guys for that matter).  The North Vietnamese and their Communist allies did a lot of bad stuff, both during and after the war [Pol Pot, anyone?].  That does not mean that we did not have to deal with them, but they were no heroes, at least of mine.

OK, on to today.  We still have that tendency to believe there must be Good Guys,  Our Government still tends to back those whose chief virtue is that they oppose our enemies (a little old, but remember who helped the Moslem Fundamentalists in Afghanistan rise up again the Godless Soviet Union?).  Saudia Arabia may be somewhat of a current example (we also need its cooperation on oil).  The best current examples are Iraq and Afghanistan.  The current Iraqi Government at least looks to be intent on creating a State dominated by the Sh'ite majority at the expense of the Sunnis and the Kurds (not quite what we had in mind, is it?).  The Afghan Government is obviously hideously corrupt and also admits to taking large sums from Iran.  Fortunately (?), the Taliban is so obviously not Good Guys that  I don't think any of us are tempted to suck up to them, although we are encouraging the Afghan Government to do so.  The emotional temptation is to wash our hands of them all, except for problems like terrorist training camps and our own national security.  We (or at least I) have a problem in dealing with situations where there are no Good Guys, and our choice is whether and how we deal with competing sets of obvious villians.

However, what really worries me about this tendency is how it affects our domestic politics.  A lot of people are unhappy with the Democrats, who theoretically (only) control the Government.  Maybe our current problems are the Democrats' fault; maybe not.  Maybe they are the Republicans' fault.  Maybe not. [My own opinion is that Obama has done ok (but, hey, I'm a liberal and a Democrat), but the actions of both parties in the 90's and before 2008 leave plenty of blame for virtually everyone in a position of power in our Government] But whichever party or faction that you may believe to be the Bad Guys, it does not mean that the other group is the Good Guys. 

When we cast our votes next week, we will put a check mark or whatever besides the name of the person we are voting for, not a "they are an idiot" mark against his or her opponent.  Whoever wins will get to make decisions that potentially affect all of us; the losers will face nothing more than embarrassment and having to go on book or lecture tours or return to probably good jobs or retire.  For good or bad, we don't just shoot the incumbents who screwed up [perhaps the South Americans were on to something].   We are, in fact, electing people, not really effectively "punishing"  them.  Put another way, we may be not letting them go to a movie or taking away their favorite toy; we are not spanking them. [Modification- I wrote this Post yesterday - it occurs to me now that I did not pay enough attention to the concept of "punishment" of incumbents.  I think punishment is an important concept both because: 1)booting the guys out of office will really hurt them, or at least their ambitions and egos, and 2) we voters have a strong psychological need to simply punish those we perceive as wrongdoers.  One of my former Law Professors, Donald H.J. Hermann, published a paper or two in the 1970's on the need to "punish"in connection with the purposes of criminal law.  I suspect there's other stuff out there as well.]

The phrase "cutting off our nose to spite our face" comes to mind.  Punishing someone else, in and of itself, doesn't do us any good.

I tend to think that the Republican party  (and to a much lesser extent, the Democrats) have basically sold out to the monied interests, banks and larger corporations, and that., if given more power, they will screw up the economy even worse in order to line the pockets of their benefactors.  You may well disagree.  You may even be right.  If you believe that the Republicans have better answers and solutions, you should absolutely vote for them.  However,  the fact that the Democrats have not, for whatever reason, been able to restore the economy does not automatically mean that the Republicans will.  Remember, just because one side is the Bad Guys does not make the other side the Good Guys.  Or because one side is stupid or inept, the other side does not automatically become smart or competent.  Both sides, perhaps because they are locked in to certain policies or constituancies, may take us down the tubes  [flushing noise here]

To me, the really scary thought is that, while one party may have better ideas than the other, it may be that it is simply no longer within the power of the United States Government to substantially improve the economy, at least right now, and that things are going to get worse before they get better.  That's a possibility no one want to even think about, much less say aloud. Enough


  1. Wow... you grew up with most people still terrified of communism. Sometimes even I forget how old you are.

    Anyway, your points are indeed valid, though I'd like to present the concept that, in most cases, people believe that the side they're on is the "good guys". Even al Qaeda truly believes that they are on the side of good, however delusional that belief may be. The motivation for most people to take "moral" action stems from the belief that a person or group of people is the "bad guys".

    That said, I really need to teach you proper emoticon and action usage for the web. It would make your posts look much less like a wall of text, which means people are much more likely to read them.

  2. Good point. I understood that everyone thinks they are the Good Guys. My main point is that the existence of those we perceive to be Bad Guys makes us inclined to believe that anyone who opposes them are Good Guys. However, I had not thought about your comment about motivation - you are right; it seems to generally start with a need to take action against Bad Guys - particularly those who are deemed to be a threat, rather than with any need to come to the aid of Good Guys.

  3. The government may not be able to fix everything? Wow, what a thought! It sounds almost...Republican (or at least what I thought Republican was supposed to be). That's what strikes me as particularly absurd - those who seem to be saying don't regulate anything or tax anything or cut anything, just get us out of this mess!