Rutgers professor Alex Hinton has published an irate letter in the Weekly Standard which responds to a piece I wrote there. My piece used Hinton’s absurd comparison between the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror and our current prosecution of the war on terror as a springboard for showing how many on the left seem incapable of arguing against U.S. policy, and thus resort to half-baked metaphors and analogies.
The most noteworthy thing about Hinton’s letter is that, under cover of whining about my alleged “distortions and inaccuracies,” he backs away from his original rhetoric and, to some extent it seems, from his analogy. In his first piece Hinton wrote of the Khmer Rouge, “in their path to evil we catch reflections of ourselves.” In his letter, he says, more vaguely, that “we catch reflections of ourselves in the past.” This is part of a process wherein Hinton portrays his original piece as nothing more than a “why can’t we all just get along” plea, and then accuses me of taking the position that “critiquing desensitization and the dehumanizing use of stereotypes and euphemisms is a bad thing.” I took no such position. In fact, in my Standard piece, I acknowledged that the war on terror itself “has given rise to many arguably valid objections.” My complaint was that instead of making the objections through argumentation, people like Hinton hide behind metaphor. Hinton’s letter reinforces this criticism, failing to offer any evidence that the war on terror has resulted in greater desensitization or more dehumanizing use of stereotypes and euphemisms. For all Hinton shows, the real story of the war on terror is how tolerant and solicitous we have remained toward the religion and culture that is associated with the terrorism we have been forced to combat.
It requires a difficult thought experiment to imagine what a piece by an honest and serious commentator comparing the U.S. of today to the Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge would look like. At a minimum, such an analysis would present both the similarities (if any) and the differences. Even a minimally competent analyst would begin with a disclaimer that acknowledged how different the two situations are. Hinton did neither. So I set forth the differences in my Weekly Standard piece. I noted that, unlike the Khmer Rouge, we haven’t (1) instituted collectivized production and consumption, (2) forced our population into backbreaking and unceasing labor, (3) abolished freedom of worship, (4) cut off contact between our citizens and the outside world, (5) attempted to control how the public acts, (6) killed our own citizens, and (7) as far as I know, intentionally killed any of captured terrorists who are dedicated to killing us. I also pointed to the following things we have done that the Khmer Rouge didn’t: (1) promptly investigated abuses and alleged abuses of foreign prisoners, (2) directed powerful and unceasing criticism at our government regarding these abuses and all other aspects of the war on terrorism, and (3) liberated the citizens of two countries from the modern regimes that most closely resemble the Khmer Rouge.
Hinton doesn’t contest any of this. But, except for the fact that we aren’t committing genocide, he fails to acknowledge any of it either, much less consider the damage this evidence does to his thesis that we have anything non-trivial to learn from the Khmer Rouge. Instead, Hinton merely repeats his laundry list of complaints which (apart from torture and not being critical enough of our government, both of which I’ve just addressed) consists of using euphemisms and stereotypes, succumbing to peer pressure, and disparaging others. But this is the human condition. We did all of these things before the war on terror began; all people in all countries do them. Hinton could have written a piece trying to show that things have gotten worse in this regard recently. But that would have required citing facts and making a genuine argument.
Short of that, Hinton could have written the piece he now claims to have penned, a general denunciation of insensitivity. That would have been mushy but unobjectionable. Instead, however, he decided to compare our insensitivity (and ours alone) to that of the Khmer Rouge. As I have shown, this comparison makes no sense unless one’s goal is to take a shot at the war on terrorism without having to make an argument. That was the point of my Standard piece.
Finally, what of Hinton’s claim that I have distorted (or “decontextualized”) his argument? It centers around this statement that I made: “The chief lesson [that we can learn from the Khmer Rouge], according to Hinton, is that we risk heading down ‘their path to evil’ through our conduct ‘right now in the war on terror.’” Hinton objects that he did not say there is a chief lesson to be learned from the Khmer Rouge. But he neither admits nor denies that he thinks this is a lesson they teach us. Even as he back-pedals, Hinton still wants to have it both ways — smearing our government and the American people by references to the most evil regime in recent memory but, when called on this, pretending that he just wants us to learn “about the past.” The past has many lessons to teach. The notion that we resemble the Khmer Rouge in any meaningful way is not one of them. This, one hopes, is why Hinton quietly backed away from that formulation in his letter. If so, the professor himself may have learned something.
JOHN adds: This reminds me of a story I heard long ago about William F. Buckley. Someone was wondering why a liberal (I think it may have been Ted Kennedy) kept declining Buckley’s invitations to appear on Firing Line. Buckley replied: “Why does baloney fear the grinder?”
SCOTT adds: Buckley’s reference was to Robert Kennedy, but the comparison applies.
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