Excuses: Petraeus, Vick, Craig
Words mean something. The misuse or unusual use of them tells more than the speaker may wish to reveal. The following are cases in point from the world of recent news. They serve to demonstrate how people use language to make excuses, that the way they use language is what we mean by making excuses: they are deliberately avoiding the issue rather than giving an account of the issue in question.
General Petraeus remarked a while ago that his soldiers were too busy trying to distribute weapons to Iraqi soldiers when he was in charge of building up the Iraqi forces in 2004 that they did not have time to put in place formal tracking systems. The remark is referenced in today’s New York Times as part of an article about investigations into corruption in the distribution of materials in Iraq. It struck me as funny at the time for him to have said that. No one was asking for perfect record keeping. There was no need for signed invoices that stated the serial numbers of the goods turned over, though it would not have been unreasonable for there to have been an Iraqi general who could have signed off on just such invoices. What the hell. A war is going on. So I guess we would have settled for the American commander of a unit distributing rifles to simply initial a memo forwarded to Baghdad that so and so many boxes of rifles and so forth were dumped on such and such Iraqi units during the past week. The job is for a company clerk. A report compiling these memos could easily enough have been constructed by one of the people hanging around the Green Zone and forwarded to Washington. What are computers and e-mail for anyway? But there are bigger issues afoot than the war as a place where corrupt money can be made (unless that turns out to be one of the main purposes the war serves, appalling as it is to find oneself thinking that the old populist truth that the purpose of war is to make profits for munitions makers and their ilk may have more than a smidgeon of truth to it, at least in the case of this war.)
The Times, however, goes one better in its tantalizing front page article. It treats a Petraeus deputy as the center of the investigation. I don’t know if the story will build, but it is curious that the Times ran the story, with that slant, so close to when Petraeus is going to report to Congress. They are certainly aware that Petraeus’ own reputation would be besmirched were the investigation to amount to anything. Again a case of a senior person, this time not the Attorney General, being aware or being unaware of the doings of his immediate subordinates, neither of the two characterizations doing Petraeus any honor. If the charge isn’t true, I expect heated denials from the Pentagon before the end of the day; if the Pentagon stonewalls by saying an investigation is in progress, then you know they are covering up. I think the Times editors knew what they were doing by running this non breaking news story. I had hoped Petraeus’ testimony before Congress could have been handled “cleanly” by inquiring as to whether the report he was making was his or whether he was just delivering the White House report, and whether the claims that progress was being made in Iraq was an illogical conclusion to draw from the available evidence. I am ever disappointed by the extent to which democracy drags itself through the mud. Meanwhile, Petraeus’ remark stands out like a sore thumb.
Various Black journalists and some black athletes wonder why so much attention is paid to the dog-fighting charges against Michael Vick. After all, I have heard a number of them say, there are much worse things happening, however awful dog fighting might be. There were those girls shot down in Newark, for instance. Excuses are being made because there is a shift in the focus of horror from the person to the deeds. Of course there are worse events than torturing dogs. People still count more than dogs, even this dog-hugger attests. The point, though, is that is what is reprehensible about Michael Vick is not his deeds but what his deeds say about him as a person, that he is of such limited moral imagination that he does not see the pure cruelty of torturing dogs (Animal humane society do kill animals, though under humane conditions, and not after having gotten them injured in contests just short of fight to the death.) Vick’s behavior is evil, to use Augustine’s definition, because it is gratuitous. People who kill people usually have reasons for doing so: to defend their turf, to assuage their jealousy, while they are in the commission of a robbery. Such behavior is understandable even if morally unacceptable. But why torture animals? You can say Vick’s culture made him do it and he had to take care of his entourage. In that case, are we willing to state that his culture or sub-culture is depraved? He could have set his friends up in another business. Defending Vick by going through the litany of the social problems that afflict the Black community obscures the issue of the psychology of the perpetrator. A strained and misleading analogy used as a plea for sympathy for Vick by his advocates tells you just how reprehensible they find his conduct to be. They just don’t want to discuss it directly.
Senator Larry Craig says he made a mistake when he pled guilty to disorderly conduct when he was picked up in a men’s room for soliciting an undercover agent. (I thought we no longer sought to entrap homosexuals, but never mind.) “Mistake” seems to be the wrong word because it usually refers to an error in a calculation that is trivial but crucial, as is the calculation of how many rifles we distributed in Iraq. Or else “mistake” refers to a balancing off of considerations that is complicated enough so that people who come to other conclusions are not morally liable. That is why it is so weird to hear Hillary faulted, as if it were a moral crime, to have voted for the war. She has laid out all the things that had to be considered in that determination, or at least most of them, and only with hindsight can energy be worked up by Kucinich and others to regard that vote as immoral. A lot of people did not know at the time what was the prudent thing to do: give Bush authorization for what you were not convinced he would use totally irresponsibly, especially just before the 2002 midterm elections, when voters were still working their way through the 9/11 haze, or deny him that authorization when a case could be made that there were weapons of mass destruction and that the war would be over quickly enough so that it would not be an issue in the 2004 election. Hillary should have fallen on her sword only if she knew the Administration were lying through its teeth, but even then she would know there were other considerations to take into account. She had a bigger fish to fry, her run for the White House, and we all knew then how much a few thousand votes could make a difference in everything from judicial appointments to domestic legislation to foreign policy for a decade to come. Potential candidates have a lot to balance off, and ought to.
What Larry Craig had to consider was how to mitigate publicity. On balance, would it be worse for him if he pled guilty to a minor offense that would probably be neglected by the press, or if he paraded his innocence, which would lead to a lot of publicity? He made a mistake in the sense that he guessed wrong. The conviction and the story came out, and now it is hard to backtrack, and all the rumors of his being gay have resurfaced, Republican politicians notably less willing than Democratic ones to admit their sexual natures. So “mistake”, in this case, doesn’t mean a trivial or a complicated miscalculation; it means “error”, which is certainly the case, rather than that he got confused about what he should do, a hardly credible excuse for a Senator unless he was overcome with having been outed.