Politics & Policy

The Tyranny of “But”

Bring back plain speaking.

The conjunction BUT, in discussions about the current war, has become endemic in the year since the victory in Afghanistan. So are its wishy-washy siblings of American conversation — the kindred “although, ” “however,” and “nevertheless.” A few experts employ the more formal “on the one hand… on the other hand….” “One could argue” is another, though weaker, method of qualification.

The current proliferation of these words reflects the popularity of equivocation, of covering all bets. Or maybe it is deeper — proof of an insidious relativism that now infects our thinking generally. There must be various explanations why so many of us cannot flat-out distinguish between right and wrong, smart and dumb, evil and good, or stasis and action — period.

Some of the blame can go to a certain deductive, anti-empirical view of the universe that has become institutionalized in our schools and popular culture. Timidity and the fear of losing our comfortable lifestyle may play a role as well. Clintonism and the idea that Americans did not know what “is” really meant left an unfortunate legacy.

In the new orthodoxy, for example, all cultures are a priori equal, so any evidence — like a public Iranian stoning, racist Saudi op-ed, or Sudanese genital mutilation or two — that, in fact, there exist vast civilization fault-lines has to be qualified. Force is presumed always wrong in our enlightened, postmodern world, so any proof that it actually solves problems — such as Milosevic or the Taliban — must be qualified. The United States is across the board dubbed unthinking, clumsy, and often sinister, so any evidence — such as its efforts in Afghanistan — suggesting that it is, in fact, sophisticated and benevolent, requires prevarication.

Life in the West is easy and good. So any course of action that calls for sacrifice and danger — higher gas prices, treasure and lives risked, and terrorist reprisals — is de facto wrong. Our enemies are usually seen as poor and less educated rather than as medieval, so that when they murder, explode, and terrorize us they are to be understood, rather than detested, opposed, and defeated. Oppression and exploitation are deemed reasonable pretexts for terrorism, so when multimillionaires like bin Laden carry out — and pampered Sheiks fund — terrorism, qualification and nuance are required.

In the same fashion, religions must all be founded on principles of peace, so that when Islamic radicals — in Pakistan, the Philippines, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Europe — daily kill Christians and Westerners, and do not act like Buddhists, we must assume that they are either deranged or using exceptional exegeses not being promulgated in thousands of mosques or madrassas.

The old, less-sophisticated America has gone the way of the coalmine, steel factory, and farm. Indeed, there are very few dinosaurs left who, after using reason and logic to discern good from evil, will grudgingly accept the world as a tragic place, inhabited by bad characters who cause suffering and pain — in a world of constant dangers, both natural and human. Not surprisingly, the world of “He’s no damn good” and “I’ve had about enough of that nonsense” is gone — replaced by different sorts of people who speak in different sorts of ways. Hence we see the ascendancy of our ubiquitous BUT.

Mr. Bush, who may lament this loss of absolutes, is, of course, caricatured for his accent and occasional mispronunciation. Yet perhaps the real reason for the unease is that he — more so than his diplomats — employs the old language of “smoke ‘em out” or “dead or alive,” and so draws into question our comforting assumption that the world is too complex to be so easily fathomed by the mere senses and by intuition. Mr. Reagan’s “evil empire” chilled many who had been accustomed to Jimmy Carter’s “no inordinate fear of Communism” — perhaps in the same manner that the “axis of evil” is now scarier than Mr. Clinton’s “I feel your pain.”

The result? We now live in a labyrinth of BUTs, and they appear almost daily in clusters, like the following:

The Washy-Washy BUT

I am no fan of Saddam Hussein, BUT

I don’t particularly like Arafat, BUT

September 11 was horrible, BUT

The terrorists were not justified in what they did, BUT

Suicide murdering is wrong, BUT

The Koran forbids killing innocents, BUT

The Nonsensical BUT

Iraq is capable of being contained and thus does not warrant military intervention; BUT Iraq is too dangerous, due to its arsenal, and thus military intervention is not worth the risk.

There is no real proof that Iraq possesses chemical weapons; BUT were we to invade, our troops could die horrible deaths from chemical weapons.

Because Korea already has nuclear weapons, we should deal with that threat first; BUT because Korea already has nuclear weapons, we should not dare provoke them.

Once a country gets nuclear weapons, our options are limited; BUT why pick on Iraq when, unlike North Korea, it does not have nuclear weapons?

The Dilatory BUT

The Taliban are terrible; BUT let us first take care of al Qaeda.

Saddam is terrible; BUT let us first take care of al Qaeda.

Saddam is terrible; BUT let us first take of North Korea.

North Korea is terrible; BUT let us first take care of al Qaeda.

The America-Is-Always-At-Fault BUT

The removal of the Taliban was, of course, good; BUT we installed them in the first place.

I support removing Saddam Hussein, BUT we helped him in the past.

Who likes bin Laden? BUT we created him.

Everyone agrees that the mullahs in Iran are terrible, BUT our past policies are to blame for them.

The Israel BUT

Of course, Israel is a democracy, BUT

No one supports the methods of the intifada, BUT

I am not saying what the Palestinian bombers are doing is right, BUT

Arafat is terrible, BUT look at Sharon.

The Bush BUT

Bush gave an excellent speech after 9/11, BUT

Of course, Bush was right to take out the Taliban, BUT

No one is a fan of Iran, Iraq, or North Korea, BUT

Sure, in theory, there are potential terrorists right here in the United States, BUT

The Alternative Is Worse BUT

The Saudi monarchy is pretty awful, BUT

I agree that Mubarak really is a dictator, BUT

I don’t like Musharraf any better than you do, BUT

Remove Saddam? Sure, BUT

To dethrone the reign of BUT, I suggest a revolution led by therefore — a better adverb which follows from, rather than sidesteps or elides, the truth:

Saddam Hussein murders his own, attacks others, and threatens us; therefore let us remove him.

Options are limited when a rogue nation gets nuclear weapons; therefore let us ensure that Saddam does not.

Israel is a democracy; its enemies are not; therefore let us be sure to support freedom over autocracy.

The Saudi monarchy is pretty awful; therefore let us insist on reforms or cease our support.

Language is the mirror of morality. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, BUT and its weasel-word clan were huddling in silence, afraid to come out when people of confidence and conviction had no use for their prevarication. But I’m afraid that now the worm tongues are making a comeback, and thus their BUT once more threatens to lord over us all.

This is a pity, because in times of crisis we need concrete language to reflect our moral clarity — not more double-talk on the eve of war about infighting in the Congress, eleventh-hour grand plans for a draft, harping over the U.N. weapons charade, and more worries about last-minute bailing on the part of reluctant allies. Important issues are on the horizon — What are our exact aims in Iraq? How will we define victory? Will we stay engaged after Saddam’s defeat? — that were not addressed candidly in 1991, but now demand clear thinking and clearer talk.

For better or worse, we have now crossed the Rubicon with Iraq, thereby assuring oppressed peoples that help is on the way, and warning terrorist enemies and duplicitous friends that the Middle East is soon to be altered in ways they should fear. Free Kurdistan exists only thanks to a few brave American and British pilots who risk their lives daily; the safety of thousands more rests with the specter of American force. There is no backing away; indeed, in many ways the war has already started. So the entire world is not only watching what we do — but also what we say and how we say it.


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