The Reflex to Attack and the Reflex to Defend

I wish someone would explain to me why there seem to be so few of his supporters who will criticize President Obama when he’s wrong and so many of his opponents who are eager to attack him when he’s right. Further, nearly all I see are mindless, reflexive, over-heated attacks and similarly mindless, reflexive, and over-heated defenses. Is it the Internet?

Here’s an example. I very much appreciate President Obama’s restraint and moderate tone in foreign policy. I hope it’s matched by equally prudent actions although, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, at this point I think it’s too early to tell. I’m concerned about what he’ll do in Afghanistan but I don’t think any decision will be the end of the world. I’m also concerned that he’s taking so long to do it since while I think that interoception is a fine quality I also think that first reactions are frequently the right ones.

However, I also think he’s a tyro in foreign policy and seems to have surrounded himself with tyros as well. So, for example, the infamous bowing photograph (linked below). I agree with Jake Tapper’s Japan hand:

1) The ‘right’ is wrong about Obama’s bow.

2) The ‘left’ is wrong about Obama’s bow.

His bow is neither (1) unprecedented nor (2) a sign of cultural understanding.

I think that President Obama made himself look foolish but I don’t blame him, I blame his protocol advisors. Either they don’t know enough or they are too timid about telling him what to do to be advisors.

That’s not an attack, it’s just criticism. Criticism is good. Why must there only be attacks and defenses?

10 comments… add one
  • Jeff Medcalf Link

    My supposition has been that we lost concurrence between factions near and at the end of the Cold War. While Democrats and Republicans disagreed during the Cold War as at any other time, there was broad agreement about economics, the size of government, foreign policy and the like. Carter (by tilting very far towards nannying government policies) realigned the Democrats around the idea of government control of people’s private behavior “for their own good,” while Reagan realigned the Republicans (notably the everyday Republicans, not the party leadership) around libertarian economics. Each of these realignments was a dagger to the heart of the other party, and as a result, friction in domestic politics began to grow dramatically.

    With the end of the Cold War, America’s role in the world and the very shape of the international order came into question. Thus the last peg of unity between the parties was struck down, and the two parties have essentially schismed. Note that I am talking about the everyday people, still. The Republican leadership is still largely on board with the Clinton compromise attempt: activist foreign policy and a light hand in social policy, combined with substantial government intervention into business and trade. The Democrats’ leadership is more closely in touch with their base than are the Republican leaders, which is why you see the attacks coming from ordinary people (normally through the Internet, which for the first time actually allows this to be easily done) rather than from the Republican leadership.

    Until we find a new consensus on the role of government in society, and the role of the US in the world, it will not improve. In such an environment, radical reform attempts (Bush in foreign policy, Obama in domestic and economic policy) are a threat, quite possibly an existential threat, to the other side, and are going to generate criticism large in mass and heat. But since there is no appreciable common ground between the parties, no tacit agreement to keep immoderation down, only radical reform attempts are seen as useful.

    In other words, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I’m reading Mead’s Special Providence and got to the point yesterday where foreign protocols are given central treatment (Jeffersonian chapter). Some of the discussion is probably not limited to Jeffersonian world views, but if one’s foreign policy objectives are minimalistic, the protocols used become important.

    First, Mead observes that Jeffersonians are suspect of American engagement in the etiquette and hierarchy of foreign ministries and courts. Jeffersonians are want to flaunt formal conventions, either purposefully or through negligent resourcing of foreign missions.

    Second, Jeffersonians reluctantly see the value in maintaining some degree of foreign diplomatic engagement, if only to avoid conflicts. This has tended towards a willingness to present servile, non-threatening attitudes to foreign powers. One example given by Mead is the American foreign service’s participation in the honors given King George III on his death, something hidden from the American public by paying for the honors off-book.

    So, from a Jeffersonian perspective, Obama gets a C. He showed little interest or time in getting the decorum correct, he communicated American slavishness to a foreign power, but he allowed Americans to know about it. If Obama was on a Wilsonian/Hamiltonian trip, he gets an F.

  • “That’s not an attack, it’s just criticism. Criticism is good. Why must there only be attacks and defenses?”

    Well, in part I think this is a predictable result of Obama and Co. being in perpetual campaign mode. They are still more concered with image (which is what you do when you are in the middle of an election campaign), than substance. When image is everything, every criticism IS an attack, and every defense IS an attack by another name.

  • I think it is becuase we have a cult of the Presidency. We look at Presidents to fix all sorts of things such as the economy, bad foreign relations, etc. We elevate them and assume they can do what nobody else can.

    You are right, Obama’s bow is not bad because he is bowing, its like shaking hands in the West. It is appropriate that he bows. His bow is bad though. It is too deep and his posture sucks. And yes, the criticism is not that Obama is an idiot–I don’t expect many Americans to understand this point of etiquette in a foreign culture–but it is a criticism of his advis0rs on protocol and/or how he takes their information.

  • Larry Link

    Attacks stir emotions, and we don’t think so good when our emotions are in control, we defend first, then if we’re lucky, we get to actually think. Attacking also sets up a walls that are difficult to overcome or get around..and it’s an easy thing to do. It’s a great distraction.

  • Brett Link

    I blame his protocol advisors.

    That wouldn’t be surprising. Remember his gift of a bunch of DVDs that didn’t work to Gordon Brown when he made a state visit? Somebody in his protocol office is a moron. *

    *I wonder if the person doing it is an appointee. It would make sense, considering how many other positions involving matters of state are patronage jobs.

  • Andy Link

    Spoken like a true GoP, socialist hack, Dave. Every time you disagree with me it only proves that you are whatever caricature I say you are. Your efforts at nuance and moderation are only tricks to disguise the extremity of your views. Your goal is obviously to prop up/destroy this President. It won’t work I tell you!


  • Jeff Medcalf Link

    Andy, you’ve read Dave all wrong, since his goal is clearly to destroy/prop up the President. Clearly you are a (insert unthinking insult here).

  • Dave, I’ll give you the beginnings of my answer here:

    although as a current grad student in another field I haven’t got much time to flesh it out right now. Here’s the excerpted short version:

    “The instincts which evolved to protect the physical body must also act in defense of the sense of identity, an abstract cognitive representation assembled by intelligence and extended by analogy, and their autonomous actions to that effect are directly perceived as moods and emotions.”

    I’d be glad to have your reaction!

  • steve Link

    It is the Internets. Extremism gets hits. How many moderate blogs are really successful. Also, success on cable TV and radio now comes from extreme viewpoints, not from rational moderation.


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