A 10th anniversary is always a big deal. Right now, there is a bit of 10-years later love traveling through the US media and political talkers, as the pundit class remembers the start of the Iraq War. It’s an important anniversary for them, too. The American people were sold the Iraq War not only by President Bush and his friends–Cheney and Dick Perle and David Frum–and his opponents in politics and government–the Clintons, et al–but also, and most importantly, by the media who took up the reigns on their behalf. It’s been edifying and shocking to see just how many of our public intellectuals supported the Iraq War, and how they are grappling with it 10 years later.
Ezra Klein is about my age. A few years younger, actually, but close. I’ve been reading him since a friend sent me a very thoughtful bit of his blogging at the American Prospect, in 2007 or 2008, during the first Obama Campaign. I don’t remember these details and they’re not important. Klein is a smart man; I’ve benefited from reading him. Wonkbook’s on my daily round up, and has been for years.
Ten years ago, Ezra Klein didn’t qualify as a public intellectual. But he is now, and he supported the war, so he says. Klein was a kid at the time; shit happens. So. I’m not picking on Klein; many bloggers got Iraq wrong; war was in the air. He admits his mistake now and I respect that. But I think it’s worth a moment to look at how Ezra Klein thinks about it his error, and why we work so hard to maintain the common knowledge of our era.
Klein’s argument for supporting Bush’s War is essentially this: Ken Pollack made a case for war that I could support, so I did, but that wasn’t the war that George Bush engaged in. Later, it turned out that both Pollack and Bush were wrong and it was a mistake to support either. That’s it. There’s a bunch of stuff in between, talking to Pollack about how what matters now is not who believed what then but what lessons we have learned, etc. But that’s the gist. Klein says: “Rather than looking at the war that was actually being sold, I’d invented my own Iraq war to support — an Iraq war with different aims, promoted by different people, conceptualized in a different way and bearing little resemblance to the project proposed by the Bush administration.”
A few weeks ago I wrote a 10th anniversary piece of my own. The piece was not about the War but about my college graduation. Yet the war and the culture it created couldn’t be avoided, and it’s had me thinking about these issues of late. I went to a private Christian college, a conservative pro-Bush, pro-Iraq War environment. Not entirely of course, but largely Bethel College was pro-Iraq War.
In 2002 I was 21. The run-up to the Iraq War occurred during my senior year of college. My peers and I were politically engaged; we devoured the news. We were informed, watched the debate, read it, partook in it, listened to Colin Powell at the UN, heard the case made by Bush and Clinton and France and Britain and everyone that Klein names. We all received the same information the rest of the country did. At that time in that place my friends and I all reached the same conclusion: we should not embark upon this war, it’s a mistake. This seemed beyond obvious. Why did we make that realization, I wonder, when so many of the country’s intellectual, political, trend-setting thought-leaders, so many people that I admire, got everything so wrong?
Perhaps it’s simply that we weren’t looking to be “taken seriously” by an audience? We didn’t need to find a fit in the popular demand for war. There was no reason to “Invent our own Iraq War to support” as Klein did. Perhaps we just wanted to run against the tide of our environment. We weren’t any more intelligent, or privy to any secret cabal that told us what the future held. We just looked at what has happening, listened to the arguments that were actually being made, and realized, pretty quickly, that all these folks are getting this wrong. The common knowledge of 2002-2003 was that Iraq War was justified. The common knowledge of an era need not be mistaken. But when it is, look out.
In Klein’s Bloomberg piece he lays out the lessons that he learned, and they are good lessons, hopefully our nation has absorbed them. The most important of which is probably this: “Don’t trust what ‘everybody knows.’ There is, perhaps, nothing more dangerous than a fact that everyone thinks they know, because it shuts down critical thinking.” This is the lesson of a college education in liberal arts, like the one I received at Bethel: think critically. It is what should have kept us out of the war. It is what should keep our most thoughtful public intellectuals from having to apologize for supporting unnecessary wars 10 years after the fact.
I didn’t support the Iraq War, ever. And I’m glad to have gotten it right. But I can’t tell you just why it happened that I opposed the war (pacifism helps) while others didn’t. I like to think it was an ability to think critically and separate my own opinions from the rising tide of groupthink. To stand up for what’s right regardless of the popular opinion. It probably wasn’t. Either way, I’m sure some day I will forget the lessons of the past 10 years, forget to think critically and take up the mantle of what ‘everybody knows.’ Then I’ll have a whopping mea culpa of my own to issue. Such is life that we get the big things wrong, from time to time. What everybody knew 10 years ago was disastrously incorrect. How hard our public intellectuals and mainstream media and bloggers worked to ensure that everybody continued being wrong: that’s still a mystery to me.