Team “Do Something” Is Winning

do somethingForeign policy statists react to foreign crises the same way progressives react to mass shootings: demanding policy proposals that will do nothing to fix the problem, but will make them feel like they’re morally superior to the “Do-Nothing” crowd.

Fortunately for team “Do-Something,” they have home court advantage (saturating the greater Washington D.C. area as they do). Another advantage for the all-caps, strained-vocal chords DO-SOMETHINGs is that the very terms of discussion for the crisis—the shooting, the “superdrug”, the war, the hand-sanitizer drinking teenagers, etc.—presupposes its solvability and, in a political context, its solvability by elected (or unelected) political officials.

There’s no need for a media conspiracy to narrow the range of debate. The political arena itself narrows the debate. The “well-what’re-YOU-gonna-do-about-it” retort still has rhetorical force enough to manufacture pseudo-solutions by the thousands. Indeed, this linguistic device is the inventive power behind almost all political solutions.

Ultimately, politicians just want to look powerful, appear to be in charge, and say that they’re doing something about The Problem. So we’re told, “The most powerful and biggest and strongest nation in the world should have plenty of options,” as if it’s an inherent gift of the “most powerful” not just to have the moral authority, but the actual capability to remake the world as we see fit. And when told that we don’t have that capability, the DO SOMETHINGs exclaim, “Well, it just cannot stand!”

“In this protest and demand, of course,” wrote H.L. Mencken, “there is nothing but a hollow sound of words–the empty babbling of men who constantly mistake their mere feelings for thoughts.” Mencken continues:

The truth is that criticism, if it were thus confined to the proposing of alternative schemes would quickly cease to have any force or utility at all, for in the overwhelming majority of instances no alternative scheme of any intelligibility is imaginable, and the whole project of the critical process is to demonstrate it.

Debates about political “crises” have some equivalence to rubbernecking on the highway. As soon as cars begin crashing, traffic slows, even in the opposite lanes. Why? Certainly not because slowing down will keep the drivers on the other side of the median any safer. (Indeed, by looking away from the road and suddenly braking, it may make them less safe.) Political emergencies have a similar effect—we take a bit of time out of our lives to gape to no effect or negative effect, and then move on, forgetting all about it, including any damage we contributed (remember Libya?).

As we gape at this present emergency—and, indeed, it is an emergency just as a car wreck is one—here’s hoping that for once America considers its best and most forgotten alternative: stepping back and doing nothing.