Firehouses, or "Christopher Hitchens, are you wilfully obtuse or actually stupid?"
on Slate by Christopher Hitchens (who wrote a vitriolic, rambling, and self-contradictory attack on "Fahrenheit 9/11" for the same online mag). Hitchens discusses the "false alternative" that he claims Kerry proposed last night when he "quite needlessly proposed a contradiction between 'opening firehouses in Baghdad and shutting them in the United States of America.'" Summary of the argument -- Kerry is wrongly implying: a) that foreigners don't deserve our money; and b) that foreign aid is a "zero sum game" in which a dollar spent in Iraq is a dollar less spent here. According to Hitchens, "Could anything be more short-sighted than that? Have we not learned that failed states turn into rogue states, and then export their rage and misery?"
A fine straw man, Mr. Hitchens. And an excellent job knocking it down.
But let's look instead at what Kerry actually said
, why don't we?
Here's the segment of Kerry's speech
that ended with the applause line quoted, in part, by Hitchens:
And the front lines of this battle are not just far away ? they're right here on our shores, at our airports, and potentially in any town or city. Today, our national security begins with homeland security. The 9-11 Commission has given us a path to follow, endorsed by Democrats, Republicans, and the 9-11 families. As President, I will not evade or equivocate; I will immediately implement the recommendations of that commission. We shouldn't be letting ninety-five percent of container ships come into our ports without ever being physically inspected. We shouldn't be leaving our nuclear and chemical plants without enough protection. And we shouldn't be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them down in the United States of America.
Taking the paragraph in full, it's clear that Hitchens is either wilfully or stupidly misinterpreting Kerry.
Kerry's point: Iraq and the Middle East are not the only battlegrounds in the war against terrorism. Terrorism could happen here. And therefore, "national security begins with homeland security." Kerry then proposes that we follow the 9-11 Commission's recommendations on homeland security and notes some of the homeland security issues that Bush has not addressed: security at our ports and our nuclear and chemical plants. And then the money line, "And we shouldn't be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them down in the United States of America."
On its face, this statement does not mean what Hitchens claims. Kerry is saying that we should not simultaneously open firehouses in Baghdad and close them down here. This does not mean, as Hitchens suggests, that we should do the absolute opposite, and open firehouses only in America and close them down only in Baghdad. Rather, Kerry also could mean that we should close them down here and in Baghdad or open them both here and in Baghdad. To determine which of these alternative Kerry is advocating, we need only look at the context. The whole section is about devoting more resources to homeland
security. So, he's saying that we should open firehouses here, but nowhere is he saying that we should close them down in Baghdad.
Indeed, all of this talk about "zero sum games" and "false alternatives" are inventions of Hitchens' own mind, borne of his obvious desire to assume the worst about Kerry and the Democrats. Admittedly, Hitchens does cite two instances where people involved on "the left" have in fact complained that money spent in Iraq should be spent here instead: one a leaflet distributed by the Service Employees International Union and another a statement by the mayor of San Francisco. But who reasonably can attribute those feelings to Kerry, when Kerry's speech, when read in context, does not say that at all?
No one can. But Hitchens is more than happy to go on his partisan way, even calling for a "senior Democrat" to "disown" this sort of thinking. It's a great thought, politicians from both parties going around "disowning" the more radical or unpleasant statements made by their parties' supporters. If we're going to expect that, though, let's be fair about it: Bush or a "senior Republican" should disown Sen. Santorum's likening homosexuality to bestiality or the claims by Rush Limbaugh that the Abu Ghraib prison abuses were akin to a fraternity prank.
That's not going to happen, though, and Hitchens' call for Kerry and the Democrats to do it, based on his blatent misreading of Kerry's speech, is nothing more than blind or stupid partisan vitriole.