Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Plea for Moderation

Courtesy of Santi Slade

Considering Billy Joel and Seth Meyers entertained my last two visits there, I walked into Bailey Hall last Thursday unusually attentive. No professor’s lecture can compete with hearing “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” live for the first, and likely only, time. By honor of association, I was all ears during Dr. Paul Wolfowitz’s ’65 lecture on U.S. foreign policy. Wolfowitz, along with Secretary Rumsfeld, was perhaps the most strident advocate for invading Iraq, the ignominy of which follows him to this day. So why the hell did I agree with most of what he had to say?

I despise where Wolfowitz pushed our malleable country after 9/11, and in this column I often insult predominantly right-leaning political figures like ol’ Ricky Santorum. But that doesn’t mean I am not going to listen to what this man traveled here to say.

As Wolfowitz walked to the podium after a rather rousing introduction from Prof. Barry Strauss, history, I forced a scowl and gingerly stabbed my right hand’s fingers into my other palm so as to not approve of his presence and yet not bring contentious attention to myself at such a Cornell Republicans event. It was pretty pathetic. Well, he started by praising the opportunities his Cornell education, through its world-class faculty and commitment to diversity, granted him. I stared him down from six rows back — I convince myself our eyes met — and telepathically told him, “You’re making it really hard for me to hate you right now.”He went on to recount the progression of 20th century international relations and America’s mostly positive role in that shift — an opinion open for debate on all sides, but that’s for another column. Basically, I found myself nodding in agreement to his active but non-domineering stance on how our country, with all its historic and present-day influence, can help steer the Arab Spring, Southeast Asia and Iran-Israel tensions to bright conclusions. “Non-lethal aid” in Syria, for instance — “not tanks, but the tools to take down al-Assad’s tanks.”

While Wolfowitz seemed to acknowledge the failures of his Iraq war — or at least that the perception of failure was just — he asserted that such missteps do not justify isolationism. But nor are we prescribed to dominate the world — the simple calculus in China and India’s growth rates prevents that. It is more difficult than going all in or all out; there’s no “formula,” as Wolfowitz calls it, for finding that middle ground.

I am not here to preach politics or even to talk politics. There are countless writers — many on The Sun — who can tackle the topic with more conviction than I. But maybe that’s the point. The fringe Capitol discourse of today has become a blood sport, with little to gain from extreme partisanship. As Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert demonstrated with measured voices during their Rally to Restore Sanity (slash Fear yeah yeah), the silent majority lies in between. We may register as Democrat or Republican — two parties closer in ideology than you might think — but we are likely moderates or variable independents at heart. Gay marriage? Of course! $500 billion bailouts? Eh, not so sure. Our people need health care. But there are problems overseas, don’t forget them too.

It is funny because President Obama has made a controversial moderate of himself on that last point, something Wolfowitz was willing to commend. His handling of Libya’s uprising was acceptable, he admitted, though he was quick to add he didn’t think the same about the Administration’s role in Syria. Wolfowitz acknowledged Senator Henry Jackson and Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Reagan as his role models — one Republican among three Democrats. Clearly this man is not running for higher office.

Oh, you poor reader. You turn to Arts to get away from all this. This section is supposed to be an escape, however brief, from the real world. I apologize for rattling off my diplomatic opinions, as innocuous as they may be. I can relate this to the current state of the arts: The “I only listen to shoegaze,” or “I only listen to metal,” or, and this is the worst, “There’s no good music anymore” camps. If you have some aesthetic obsession over a certain style, knock yourself out, but you’ll get exhausted. And to you blind extremists espousing such lies that “everything sucks,” music / film / art has always been good and will always be. It is easier to obtain now more than ever. You obviously aren’t abusing your broadband connection.

This column lacks that aforementioned conviction so many more persuasive — and widely read — writers possess. This column is more of a stern shrug. When it comes to dialogue on this macro scale, I rather dislike such certainty. Consider a little relativism. Consider that even those we call evil, Wolfowitz chief among them, may still offer valuable advice. Consider that there are no 90-degree angles in nature (quiet, crystallographers): How likely is it that billions of DNA pairs, forming a organism wholly unique to this universe and a conscious mind seeing the world from an elsewhere-unseen perspective, will end up constructing a body built by Democratic or Republican blueprints? The late Christopher Hitchens, a nuanced independent who would challenge me to a debate over semantics if I labeled him a “liberal” or “conservative,” captured this struggle with brash efficacy:

“My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line and kiss my ass.”

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and be viewed at its original location via this link.