Indignity Vol. 1 No. 46: Have you ever been wrong?
THE WORST THING WE READ THIS WEEK™
The Editorial Line
SHOULD WE BE judged by our mistakes? The former Washington Post publisher Donald Graham, writing about the sudden death Monday of the paper's opinion editor, Fred Hiatt, tried to bulldoze his way past that question:
I should add that Fred’s editorial page endorsed—vigorously endorsed—the war in Iraq in 2003. As publisher, I was 100 percent behind him. Fred wrote at length about that decision years later. The war worked out very, very badly for our country and Iraq. I would paraphrase the Economist (which took the same side) and say: “If we had known more, we might have done better.” And I think Fred’s views—our views—deserve the ringing condemnation of everyone who has never been wrong on an important occasion.
Hiatt was, as the responses to his death made clear, a personally and professionally beloved figure to many journalists, remembered by those who knew him as a generous and thoughtful boss and colleague. So Graham made it a little easier to respond to this argument by wrapping himself in it along with his late editor. Donald Graham is alive and able to take criticism. (Disclosure: I still have a check from Graham Holdings on my desk I need to deposit in the bank, from settling my accounts after I left my previous job, at Slate.)
I was going to say "able to take responsibility," but the passage is a study in how to do the opposite of that. Graham starts off by owning up to the fact that he supported the invasion. But then he declares that the war "worked out very, very badly"—not that the invasion was ill-conceived, let alone that he was wrong to have wanted it to happen. Merely that events unfolded afterwards in a way he would have preferred they didn't.
This was, is, and evidently will continue to be the preferred story for the architects of the butchery in Iraq to tell. It's a lie. The war was launched for bad reasons, with bad planning, by people who didn't care what harm it would do to Iraq and who childishly believed that America's killing power was so strong nothing could thwart it. If we had known more, we might have done better? If people like Graham and Hiatt had done better, they could have known more.
And with 18 years and counting to reflect on this, the closest Graham could come to saying he was wrong was to bury it in a negative hypothetical, as a taunt to his critics: that he and Hiatt "deserve the ringing condemnation of everyone who has never been wrong on an important occasion." As if it were sanctimonious and hypocritical for one fallible human being to criticize other fallible human beings, just because the latter happened to use their positions and influence in this world to help bring about the untimely deaths of something like a million other human beings.
The cynicism behind this—to reduce the revving up of a trillion-dollar war machine to a matter of humble personal opinion—was a cynicism that ran through the opinion section Hiatt built under Graham. Everything was merely an argument. Any person could have their say-so, without reference to whatever substantive power that person might be wielding off the page.
In principle, it's good for an opinion section not to be squeamish. "Folks in D.C.—not only today but years ago—don't want independence," Graham wrote. "They want unwavering support."
But there are other principles to consider. Here was how Graham praised Hiatt's pursuit of the full range of opinions:
When he started as editor, The Post printed columns by two great conservatives, George Will and Charles Krauthammer. When both of them were appalled by Donald Trump’s nomination and turned against him, Fred quickly enlisted three columnists who wrote (in my view) intelligently in support of Trump (all three then felt he disgraced himself by refusing to concede).
Wherever the power goes, the discourse must follow. It's the theory of the Overton Window, turned into conscious editorial policy. Under this formulation, if Hiatt had survived to see Trump return to power in a coup in 2024, he would have been obligated to hire three more columnists who supported the regime.
Among the three columnists the paper brought in for the Trump era just past was Marc Thiessen, a George W. Bush speechwriter best known for publishing a book in support of the government's torture program. Thiessen wrote his own tribute to Hiatt, praising him as "a bulwark against the culture of contempt":
He didn’t hire me despite my holding heterodox opinions, but because of it. He didn’t agree with me—quite the opposite, he authored passionate editorials condemning the CIA program. But he wanted The Post to publish well-argued opinions from all sides, even opinions with which he vehemently disagreed.
What does it mean to claim to be the voice of heterodox opinion, when what you're defending is an actual government policy of unaccountable brutality and violence? How does a White House speechwriter get redefined as a valuable underrepresented voice? (How, in the most absurd extension of that worldview, did the Post decide it was worthwhile to publish "In my first 100 days, I kept my promise to Americans" by then-President Donald Trump?)
"He insisted that we talk to one another—and do so with civility," Thiessen wrote of Hiatt. Here, for comparison, is how people talked to Majid Khan, an al Qaeda prisoner in the CIA's global network of black sites, after suspending him by his wrists from a ceiling beam. Khan testified:
I was just left alone, hanging, naked, and shivering at the American Torture Place. I was forced to urinate in a bowl. The cuffs on my ankles cut into my skin. My feet and ankles were swelling terrible as I hung, which in turn caused the shackles to rub my skin off even more. I have the scars today on my ankles to show you. I thought that I was going to die....While I was hanging for these three days, I recall one instance where I saw a guard or interrogator's face. This man sexually assaulted me while I was hanging naked. He touched my private parts while we were alone. I told this man to stop and that I wanted to see a lawyer. He responded, “Are you kidding, a lawyer? You are in no man’s land. No one even knows where you are.”
When Marc Thiessen complains about a "culture of contempt," what he means is a culture that dares to express contempt for people who hang a human being up for three days, starving, and taunt him for his helplessness—or for a person who chooses to praise the brutality. The Post shielded Thiessen from the incivility of being judged by that standard.
Correction: This item originally included a second disclosure: “(Disclosure No. 2: The Post's opinion section gave me a platform to pop off a rude opinion of my own, about rudeness, which people still dig out and get mad at me for and which I'm glad I got to write.)” That opinion was written for the Outlook section, an opinion section of the Post that is independent of the Opinion section run by Hiatt. Indignity regrets the mis-disclosure.