Friday, September 5, 2008

Country First

Does anyone else detect something in the neighborhood of performative contradiction in Country First as a campaign slogan, especially since the tacit background to the slogan is that Obama is simply interested in winning an election?


English Jerk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
English Jerk said...

Country First calls to mind Deutschland ├╝ber alles, but it also has an air of enigmatic ungrammaticality thanks to the lack of a determiner (Our Country First? My Country First? Their Country First? Any Old Country First? Yummy Delicious Country First?).

But let’s not forget that Tweedledee’s slogan, Change, is equally ludicrous and (given the reality) equally fascist. The two candidates have exactly the same policies on every issue of substance; see, e.g., Of course, this should be no surprise, since they’re owned by the same corporations, namely Goldman Sachs, UBS, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Lehman Brothers, and Morgan Stanley (see And it is worth recalling, in case one wonders who ought to run the country, that the views of ordinary people on such issues are, by contrast, largely quite rational:

Spiros said...


I agree that "Change" is vacuous. But it doesn't strike me as performatively contradictory. "Country First" is a campaign slogan, which is by definition something designed to help win a campaign. If "Country First" is shorthand for "country first, not election winning," then it seems odd (again, in the neighborhood of performative contradiction) to use that very sentiment as a campaign slogan.

English Jerk said...


That sounds right to me. "Change we can believe in" is just a lie, whereas "Country First," on your reading, could never be true. Also, they're both so vague that they could be sympathetically re-packaged for any target market, whereas each is supposed to function performatively as a kind of commitment to a regulative ideal (i.e., something like a promise). McCain's, then, is performatively contradictory, and both are performatively dishonest, since neither candidate is committed to anything but the worship of Mammon.

Santa said...

"Country First" seems right up there with "My Country, Right or Wrong!" in terms of dumbing down a campaign by jingoistic means.

For example does it mean that the opposition to a "Country First" campaign believes that certain interests should be placed above loyalty to country, as the slogan implies, and that it is somehow wrong to hold such beliefs?

If certain beliefs such as conformity to the terms of the Geneva Convention, the UN Declaration of the Rights of Man, and even the US Declaration of Independence that the US has embraced for years are somehow deemed traitorous thoughts, what does that say about the nature of dissent and opposing views in this country if such a politician comes to power who uses the motto of "Country First"?

Lastly, how can someone campaign under a motto of "Country First" yet have been an author of an immigration bill that rewarded people for breaking US immigration laws thereby compromising border security and population control? Unless the motto is a parenthetical: "(Every other country but the US) Country First", the motto rings false. No other country looks the other way as much as the US when it comes to immigration and working papers. As someone who was a candidate for jobs in the UK and HK, I can tell you the legal hoops one has to leap through to work in those countries in particular is much more diificult than for someone to be able to earn a living in the US.

Santa said...

English: Great posts. As far as the Pilger piece however, there are a couple of problems that seem to hint at an underlying bias against the Democratic party in his writing.

Pilger wrote: "This has been the case since the truly historic and exciting victory of Harry Truman, the liberal Democrat said to be a humble man of the people, who went on to show how tough he was by obliterating two cities with the atomic bomb." There is a huge historical problem with the implication presented in that passage. The passage implies that Truman obliterated two cities after his electoral victory. That is impossible considering the two cities were bombed in 1945 and he was elected president in 1948. At the very least, it is shoddy research and editing for Pilger to say that, at the most it is a blatant lie or contortion of facts based on his ideology in order to make a point.

Later on, Pilger states: "He (Obama) comes from an unbroken Democratic tradition, as the war-making of presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton demonstrates." This seems to imply that the US Republican party does not make war. One only has to look at both Bush administrations, Reagan's multiple military intrigues, Nixon's expansion of the Vietnam conflict into Cambodia & Laos, the Eisenhower Doctrine, and even Lincoln's pursuit of military supremacy over the Confederacy to see that no one party in the US has a monopoly on war making. Rather than calling such an unbroken tradition "Democratic", perhaps a "American" would have been a more accurate adjective to use in the unbroken tradition of US Presidential war making. The fact that Pilger skews his language in that way also shows either an intellectual sloppiness or an unstated agenda.

Krinos said...

I wonder if there's a more generous reading of 'Country First.' Perhaps it is about what one's ultimate ends are in politics and thereby makes a (not so subtle) contrast with other chains of motivation:
X's motives are such that whatever progress she makes in her career are means to the greater end, pursuing the good of the country. Y's motives are inverted so that pursuit of the good of the country is only one among many means to pursue her own good.

As I see it, the strategy, though it has performative tension (which you note), is nevertheless intelligible. The statement "I'd rather win a war and lose an election than lose a war to win an election" is strictly comparative... surely given the contrasts with someone who had the different values, the greatest preference would be to win the war and win the election over that other guy!

The tension, I don't think, yield the contradiction Spiros is pointing out, then -- it's more on the order of the rhetorical strategy of saying: "I won't mention my opponent's drinking habits and womanizing, which though disgusting and immoral, are immaterial ad hominem attacks in a debate that really comes a question of our character." It's *sneaky* to be sure, but I don't see it as a contradiction that undermines the claim.

That said, it's really Palin that's the intellectually vicious one. When do we get to savage *her* here?

729 said...

English: I'm unsure it's precisely the case that the slogan, "Change we can believe in," is just a lie. The slogan is a modal claim, turning upon what change *can* be believed. The change that *can* be believed in may be non-existent (no change at all). So, the slogan "Change we can believe in" isn't false under these conditions. We can't believe in any change, and that's the change we *can* believe. It's a bit difficult to speak about the truth conditions of slogans, but the modal auxiliary verb really comes in handy rhetorically and the opaque belief context renders it a field day. Just as one might believe the morning star is venus, and not believe the evening star is venus, one might believe Candidate X is Business-As-Usual while not believing Candidate Y is Business-As-Usual. Maybe we need a special name for this, something like "substituting into political contexts!"

Anonymous said...

The Repub's are just saying what kind of music they prefer.

Kevin said...

In fact, "Country First" seems to me to be somewhat of a performative truism, not a contradiction. Even if one's final goal was to win the election, that can only be accomplished through the collective action of the country, first. By "first" we can mean both temporally and logically antecedent. Before Obama can win a presidential election, the country must elect him president (of course, Bush might have indicated the unsoundness of that argument). And by definition (though we can argue about the practical realities--but that would require extricating ourselves from our very comfortable armchairs) a democratic election necessitates the collective action of the country. There is no candidate without the constituency (the term "constituency" is not a coincidence).

"Change" may be in some sense vacuous. But in terms of the historical and social conditions in which the term is employed, it does hold some value and meaning. However, that meaning is more appropriately characterized as a visceral reaction to an undesirable political situation. I am much more concerned by the rejections to Obama's slogan. While the slogan of "change" may be intrinsically empty, I do not think we can deem it socially and contextually empty. However, the rejections to "change" are often downright defiant of logic. I recall listening to one person say something along the lines of, "We don't need 'change' [sarcastically inflected], we need a plan to improve our economic situation, we need to get jobs to hardworking Americans..." etc. Well, considering there is anything that we do "need," and supposing that we don't have it now, the only possible description of moving from undesirable state A to desirable state B is "change."

English Jerk said...

Santa: Pilger’s claim that all Democratic presidents have been warmongers does not entail that the Republicans are peaceniks; in fact, it does not entail anything at all about the Republicans, who Pilger assumes we’ll know are warmongers as well. His point is that the two aren’t different in this respect and never have been (Truman was supposed to be a liberal Democrat and a man of the people; he was also a mass-murderer). Pilger knows this to be true because he’s spent much of his life going to various dangerous places to record first-hand the human costs of American aggression. See his book Heroes for a taste of the sort of thing he’s up to.

English Jerk said...

729: There’s definitely, as you say, a plausible reading of “Change we can believe in” where it would mean “Change that it is possible to believe in.” But this would also be trivially true: it’s possible to believe in anything that comes into our heads. We could believe that we are being persecuted by wily unicorns, we could believe that we have a square circle tattooed on our eyelids, we could believe that pushing a button in a booth (or standing around with platitudes on sticks) constitutes real political action. But surely the pragmatics of the situation encourage us to construe the slogan to mean “Change that is actually plausible,” i.e., change one’s belief in which would actually be warranted by the facts. So here’s the revised summary: McCain’s slogan is either trivially false or it’s a lie; Obama’s slogan is either trivially true or it’s a lie. As always, the worshippers of Mammon dally much with the strumpet Rhetoric.

Santa said...

English: I will concede that the Democratic president argument of Pilger's is valid, although there is some bias in the slant of the language of the article when he could of just as easily said "all Presidents" and been much more accurate with less overt political partisanship.

However, Pilger fucks up the timeline with Truman rather disingenuously. He talks about Truman's historic victory predating the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That is not true. Truman had his historic victory after the bombings and despite them. It is very easy to call a leader a "mass murder" in a time of war depending upon your ideology. The idea of a victory in war is to make the other side capitulate as quickly as possible with the minimal amount of casualties to your people. In that regard, facing an Imperial Japan that was motivated to die for their Shinto god, the emperor, which of the following is more of a mass murdering tactic?
a) forcing an invasion which probably would have seen over 500,000+ Allied troops killed and 2,000,000 Japanese civilians and military killed
b) total Japanese casualties of >200,000 and smashing the will of a nation state to wage war and believe in the infallibility of their leader as a god and follow him into future schemes of military intrigue.

Remember, Imperial Japan was not a placid regime if you read any of the accounts of what Imperial Japan's actions from the 1870's through WWII. This was not a government that could be considered peaceful to its neighbours and the religion frowned upon surrender.

To call Truman a mass murderer is to call any leader who has to make the awful choice of using extreme force to end a military campaign a "mass murderer", which renders the term at best toothless and at worst a morally relativistic shell game of a term. It basically groups Lincoln, Truman, and FDR into the same rarefied club as Stalin, Hitler, Hirohito, and Pol Pot by such a careless use of term.

Pilger's work carries a certain slant which seems to think that the world would be better off without any American intervention. However, the example of WWII is an example of when it actually helped curb three of the most reprehensible nation states: Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy. So there are times when such military interventionism produces a greater good than inaction or Chamberlain style diplomacy would.

English Jerk said...

Santa: To murder someone is to deliberately cause them to die (cf. Latin mori, ‘to die’). The attributive use of mass in a compound means “relating to, involving, or affecting large numbers, or the majority, of people or things” (see OED “mass, n.2”). Hence, mass murder is deliberately killing people in large numbers, no matter who is doing it or what the circumstances are. So by the normal, literal, straightforward meanings of the words, and based on the uncontroversial facts in the historical record, Truman is a mass murderer.

Your general claim, then, is that mass murder is, in some circumstances, morally right. Your particular claim is that the mass murders Truman committed by ordering the use of atomic weapons against Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were committed under circumstances adequate to make the act morally right (and I assume you’d say the same about the Tokyo firebombing, the Dresden firebombing, etc.). This second claim (along with the associated reasoning you provide above) is, in my view, not even remotely consistent with the historical record, since the Japanese had officially offered surrender long before he dropped the bombs (just not on Truman’s draconian terms) and since Truman’s avowed purpose (as his journals make clear) had to do with securing US economic and political hegemony and not with saving human lives of any nationality. But these issues have been debated extensively in the scholarly literature, and I don’t see much point in us replicating that debate here.

I also disagree with your general claim. In my view, mass murder is never morally right under any circumstances whatsoever. Your final paragraph makes the extremely reductive assumption that there are circumstances (WWII is the standard example) in which the only options are mass murder and absolute inaction. Since we are talking about a very large number of human beings (the whole world), each with the usual nearly unbounded range of possible actions, many aggregated into collective entities that themselves have a nearly unbounded range of possible actions, and who could potentially be aggregated into other collective entities that would also have a nearly unbounded range of possible actions, it is ludicrous to suggest that there are only two alternatives. So the only argument you’ve given or implied to support your general claim does not seem to me convincing.

Also, if you think that mass murder is only sometimes morally wrong, it seems to me that you’ve given up on the idea of categorical wrongness itself: if right and wrong are determined by circumstances, then right and wrong are relative. You seem to think that using the term categorically and consistently is “a morally relativistic shell game”; I can’t make any sense of your reasoning on that point. If you think mass murder is wrong, then you think it’s wrong no matter who does it—that is precisely the absolutist position, not the relativist one.

In any case, you’re certainly right that the sentence from Pilger you quote suggests an erroneous chronology. But the chronology is irrelevant to the point he’s making, namely that if you think the Democrats in general aren’t warmongers, or if you think Obama in particular isn’t a warmonger, you are mistaken.

Santa said...

English Jerk: There are extreme circumstances in which murder is correct IMHO such as self preservation, nation state preservation, and economic independence preservation. There are more examples in history of those who escape the fate of victims and casualties by subscribing to such a view than by joining hands in a circle and singing Kumbaya or imitating Gandhi or trying to negotiate without serious consequences or hoping the "proper authorities" will intervene. I prefer to live and have a roof over my head, if I needed to defend myself or my family by murder to do it, so be it. Not everyone will make that choice, however I do and I have no qualms defending those that follow the same path under such circumstances. So in that sense, I have not given up on "wrongness" as a concept, but I would prefer to be alive to have the debate rather than dead and have others debate the concept for me. And in ratcheting up the scale from the one to the many, mass murder in terms of war waging can be correct if the goal is to preserve one's existence in such circumstances as I outlined above.

Your definition makes every political leader who ever had a conflict or supported a conflict by historical action a mass murderer. If that is the case, you have just blunt the special sting of such a term in a world where the human animal when in herd are not pacifists historically speaking. I can understand Pilger doing that blunting with his defence of Pol Pot while condemning Truman's actions as he has an agenda in that regard.

As far as Obama being a warmonger, he will be one to a lesser extent than McCain as a lesser of two evils. That is something that Pilger has not really expounded on and I find his lack of voice on that subject rather petty in that regard. No human being who is inspired to be a leader for any length of time can measure up to Pilger's yardstick and survive in office. As someone who voted Perot and Ralph Nader in previous elections, I know the danger of protest voting without there being a large third party candidate voting block.

English Jerk said...


(1) Again you’re repeatedly indulging in a false dichotomy (see above).

(2) Yes, every political leader who wages war is a mass murderer. Notice that ordinary people, unlike political leaders, are usually averse to war (see the link in my first post above for some data on Americans). This is why political leaders are always a bad idea and it would be better if ordinary people had direct control over the political and economic structure they inhabit.

(3) Pilger has never to my knowledge “defen[ded] Pol Pot”, and it strikes me as rather unlikely that he would do so, given that he was one of the main people who made the rest of the world aware of the atrocities being committed by Pol Pot’s regime (see his 1979 film Year Zero). If you have a citation, provide it.

(4) Voting for a third-party candidate, or not voting at all, can only be deemed “danger[ous]” if you think Big Business Party #1 and Big Business Party #2 are substantially different. And if you think that, you should vote for one of those two parties. If you think they are substantially the same and that their aims are malevolent, no amount of voting will fix things.

(5) Just because something has always happened does not mean that it will always happen, particularly in the case of willed human actions (as opposed to, say, the rotation of the earth). And anyway, no-one who makes the claim that x has always happened ever makes a serious attempt to prove it. Claims about all of human history are invariably cant.

(6) Both inaction and murder are ultimately motivated by the fear of death or harm. Being just involves doing what is right, regardless of death or harm. You can defend murder as pragmatic, or as ‘natural’ if you can provide some serious account of human nature, but it is obviously and categorically morally wrong in every circumstance. Virtue demands courage.

729 said...

Dear English Jerk,

Are we to take you as being in earnest now, or joking? For if you are in earnest, and these things you’re saying are really true, won’t this human life of ours be turned upside down?


English Jerk said...

729: I am in earnest. But if I weren't in earnest, and if your question about my earnestness also weren't in earnest, would that make your question a double negation of the predicate "in earnest," and thus itself in earnest?

729 said... seems like you didn't get the reference, although you got a part of the joke by analysis. I didn't say that. Plato wrote it. It's a line from the Gorgias. Following your debate with Santa up through the culminating (6) that could have been lifted directly from Plato's Apology, my post quoting the Gorgias was simply "'accusing" you of being Socrates. (That's a compliment, by the way.)

Callicles' question gets it right. If Socrates isn't joking, and what he says is true (and people did the right thing), human life as we experience it would be turned upside down. (Rhetoric would *never* be used to defend injustice and the just person would have no use for it, and it would be believed it's better to suffer injustice than to cause it, and we would never return a wrong for a wrong.) The Socratic answer to Callicles is "Yes, I'm in earnest. Let's turn everything upside down!"

English Jerk said...

729: I see your Drats, and raise you several Dammits. I thought that nom de plume looked familiar, but it’s been a shameful decade since I read Gorgias. Mea fucking culpa, dude.

729 said...

English: Well, you know, you make your reference, you take your chances. I think there's enough nostrae culpae to go around. (Although, I really have no clear sense if 'dude' is non-gendered, or we go with [*cringes*] 'dudette'.)

English Jerk said...

729: Well I’d always thought of dude as gender-neutral, and (729 being as gender-neutral as they get) I’d intended it as such here. But now you’ve got me looking into it. According to the OED, its exact origins are obscure, but it first seems to be attested in 1883 as a term for a specific kind of young, male dandy in New York, subsequently being applied out West to a city-slicker who slums on ranches. In a parallel development, from which current usage seems to stem, it appears in black urban vernaculars ca. 1918 as a term for a (presumably male) member of one’s circle, and it drifts from there toward increasing neutrality, referring, it seems, in the most recent quotations just to some male, but otherwise unspecified, person. In any event, if isn’t gender-neutral, it should be, both because it lacks any productive inflectional morphology marking gender and because, as you say, dudette is intolerable.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the real point--and this is hopelessly outdated I realize, and no one will ever read this--that McCain's slogan literally put "country" first? That is, there were no words before it, making the slogan a performative of what McCain promised to do? Sort of stupidly clever, right?