St Patrick's Dinner + The Cycle Begins Anew + Happiness and Helplessness
All-day faculty retreat on Saturday means no gas in my tank for much else over the weekend, but I did manage to make my annual corned brisket plus potato pancakes and cabbage slaw on St. Patrick’s Day.
The corned beef generally turns out really well—I always look for reference’s sake at Sam Sifton’s recipe from the NYT but I do my own thing when it comes to the pickling spices that sit in the liquid along with the brisket. (Usually some dried chiles, some stronger aromatics like black cardamom and star anise, but I fiddle around depending on what gets my attention.) The bag of pink curing salt I bought about eight years ago will likely last me another eight years or longer, since I don’t cure anything else in a year of cooking.
The pancakes I got a bit hasty with so they were a bit too dough-like and hence gummy. Not bad, but not my best batch. Cabbage is something I’ve really come around to over the years, so where I once would have glumly accepted its March 17th appearance, I now welcome it. There was at least some Writer’s Tears to soothe any disappointment in the potatoes.
Oh god, the utterly predictable takes on the Iraq War that popped up over the last week to mark its twenty-year anniversary. On one hand, the video produced for the New York Times that reconnected with soldiers who fought in the war and were featured in an earlier documentary was great. They already knew during the war that it was unnecessary, with no achievable goals, and that it was doing harm to innocent Iraqis. Of course, that was news that the Times and its peer newspapers actively suppressed during the war because their editors had decided that they had to prove their loyalty to America or something like that. (A point surprisingly (not) left out of most of the recollections in this last week.)
On the other hand, there was a flood of “gee, why did we go to war given how little clue anybody involved had about the strategic objectives we were pursuing?” and “hey, what lessons did we learn?” that portrayed these as questions that we are only now beginning to fully answer because it was too hard or something back then. I have an entire shelf of books published from the first year of the war up to 2010 that answer those questions pretty well. The answers were in plain sight. There were a lot of answers, mind you, but there wasn’t anything hidden or mysterious about it. We went to war because people inside the Bush Administration were determined to prove that they could act unilaterally—and prove that they didn’t need the vast body of experts that their own government employed. It was as much about a war on the State Department as it was a war on Saddam Hussein. We went to war because a few sharp-elbowed long-serving Republicans wanted to test their pet theories about military force, about the Middle East, about state-building, about supporting Israel more effectively. We went to war to create some opportunities for profiteering for favored client businesses and individuals. We went to war because Bush Junior wanted to get the Bad Guy who threatened Daddy Bush while also proving that he could outdo Daddy Bush by actually winning the war in Iraq for good. We went to war because a group of unmoored ideologues had this belief that you ought to defend liberalism through military action because something something this would spread liberal values even if it took illiberal actions like detaining random civilians for no cause and torturing them in a military prison to do it.
We went to war because we got played for patsies (very successfully) by Iran. We went to war because empires that are eating themselves alive at home with political dysfunction and oligarchic corruption try to distract themselves from the pain by lashing out at some perceived source of challenge at their frontiers, often only to prove to potential challengers that the dysfunctions of the imperial core have rendered its empire vulnerable. We went to war because a bunch of middle-aged male leaders of establishment organizations felt bizarrely guilty for having protested an earlier equally stupid war—a Presidential candidate who had every right to pride in his earlier convictions ran away as fast as he could from his own past.
But no, we’re just learning that wow, this was a mistake! Just learning that maybe there were some things that didn’t work right about our government! The disgusting thing is that this is not the beginning of a reckoning, it’s the beginning of preparing to do it all over again. When the fake retrospection is done, at the next ten-year anniversary, there will be a wave of articles about how we’ve reformed, we’ve improved, we’ve learned better. They might come in the usual style or they might come with a bit of extra fascism on top depending on how 2024 and beyond sorts itself out, but they’re coming anyway. When that’s done, we’ll be ready to finish the usual cycle of self-congratulatory forgetting, just in time for everybody who was involved in making all those mistakes to be dead. And it will be time to pick another frontier to distract us from our other failures.
Of which there will be so many, unless something else changes. Yes, David Brooks, liberals and progressives are unhappy. Not because we want utopia, just because we want basic competency of the kind that 20-30 other nations in the world achieve with seeming ease, competency that Americans—both leaders and citizens—regard as fantastical, otherworldly, impossible. Just read about the homeless crisis in Phoenix and the revolting stranglehold of James Dolan has over New York’s governments and over the suffering travellers who pass through Penn Station. These are problems that have solutions, and not in some other timeline. They’re at least partially solved in other parts of the world. Not here. Red state, blue state, the whole fucking country: wherever we go, the only thing we have handled pretty well is making sure that billionaires don’t lose any money no matter how idiotically they handle it or how much damage they do to the rest of us.