US: Iran Contra Addair


Cameron Sawyer says: What makes John Heelan think that I condone the Iran-Contra affair on the basis of the "patriotism" of the perpetrators?  I never said that, and I would be grateful not to have words put into my mouth.  For the record, I think that it is quite pernicious when employees of the government circumvent the expressed will of the legislature in such a dishonest manner, even in a case like this where the policy swung wildly from year to year (what the Iran-Contra gang did was specifically authorized by Congress the year before, and the year after, the events took place).

Nor do I think that George H.W. Bush believed that the motives of the perpetrators nullified the crimes.  He merely noted that the severity of the crimes was mitigated by the unselfish motives at play; a normal precept of criminal justice; an uncontroversial commonplace. The very phrase quoted by John contradicts his thesis; Bush himself does not say that the motives make the actions right.

Cameron Sawyer said: What makes John Heelan think that I condone the Iran-Contra affair on the basis of the "patriotism" of the perpetrators?  I never said that, and I would be grateful not to have words put into my mouth. John replies: I sincerely regret that Cameron thinks I tried to put words in his mouth as that was not my intention.  I was merely emphasising  that the dictum "in politics the end justifies the means" is not limited to Marxism alone, as Cameron suggested, but has been applied by the capitalist world as well. [I should have realised from experience in WAIS discussions that expressing  ideas in an ironic tone is fatal when discussing serious topics - apparently irony does not play well in Houston, Texas or Moscow for that matter!] Cameron continues: Nor do I think that George H.W. Bush believed that the motives of the perpetrators nullified the crimes. He merely noted that the severity of the crimes was mitigated by the unselfish motives at play; a normal precept of criminal justice; an uncontroversial commonplace.  The very phrase quoted by John contradicts his thesis; Bush himself does not say that the motives make the actions right. John concludes:Perhaps Cameron is being a little generous with his interpretation of G.H.W. Bush's words.    Personally, I find it very difficult to interpret them ["The common denominator of their motivation.... whether their actions were right or wrong.... was patriotism" ] as saying other than "they did wrong, but it's OK because they did it for patriotic reasons."

RH: It seems to me that the interpretations by Cameron and John are not very far apart. Patriotism?  Unselfish motives?

Cameron Sawyer writes: Well, John Heelan quoted G.H.W. Bush as saying: "The common denominator of their motivation.... whether their actions were right or wrong.... was patriotism."

This is a pretty plain statement, I think, that the motives were o.k., in GHWD's opinion, although the acts may have been wrong.   In short, he does not deny that the acts were wrong, and says explicitly that he is not denying it.  Bush is therefore saying something very different from "the ends justify the means" -- if the acts were wrong, as he admits they may have been, then they have not been justified.   

In criminal justice (thank you Professor Israel, I can still hear your wonderful lectures almost word for word, twenty-two years later), the definition of some crimes requires neither motive nor intention; others do require particular types of intention; a very few require a particular motive.  But in sentencing for a crime which has already been determined to have taken place, the motive of the criminal is almost always relevant.   And motive is exactly the sort of thing a president would properly consider in deciding to grant a pardon -- the grant of a pardon does not necessarily mean that the grantor believes that the crime was not committed, nor that the act, although a crime, was justified; it simply means that some grounds exist for mercy.  Thus even a murderer might be properly pardoned, say, after serving 20 years of his sentence, because he is dying and has been a model prisoner.  The pardon doesn't "justify" the murder or mean that "it's OK"; it just means that there are grounds for leniency.  GHWB said no more than this in the statement John quotes.
 
As to John's irony, I apologize if I missed some nuance of tone in his post.  Irony is currently a fashionable pose in popular culture, but I eschew it myself and therefore probably often miss it in the writing of others.  My definitely very far out-of-fashion position on irony in writing follows Fowler's magnificent The King's English from 1908, whose entry on irony reads as follows:

"A well-known novelist speaks of the resentment that children feel against those elders who insist upon addressing them in a jocular tone, as if serious conversation between the two were out of the question. Irony is largely open to the same objection: the writer who uses it is taking our intellectual measure; he forgets our ex officio perfection in wisdom. Theoretically, indeed, the reader is admitted to the author's confidence; he is not the corpus vile on which experiment is made: that, however, is scarcely more convincing than the two-edged formula 'present company excepted'. For minute, detailed illustration of truths that have had the misfortune to become commonplaces without making their due impression, sustained irony has its legitimate use: tired of being told, and shown by direct methods, that only the virtuous man is admirable, we are glad enough to go off with Fielding on a brisk reductio ad absurdum: 'for if not, let some other kind of man be admirable as Jonathan Wild'. But the reductio process should be kept for emergencies, as Euclid kept it, with whom it is a confession that direct methods are not available. The isolated snatches of irony quoted below have no such justification: they are for ornament, not for utility; and it is a kind of ornament that is peculiarly un-English--a way of shrugging one's shoulders in print.

He had also the comfortable reflection that, by the violent quarrel with Lord Dalgarno, he must now forfeit the friendship and good offices of that nobleman's father and sister.--Scott.

Naturally that reference was received with laughter by the Opposition, who are, or profess to be, convinced that our countrymen in the Transvaal do not intend to keep faith with us. They are very welcome to the monopoly of that unworthy estimate, which must greatly endear them to all our kindred beyond seas.--Times.

The whole of these proceedings were so agreeable to Mr. Pecksniff, that he stood with his eyes fixed upon the floor..., as if a host of penal sentences were being passed upon him.--Dickens.

The time comes when the banker thinks it prudent to contract some of his accounts, and this may be one which he thinks it expedient to reduce: and then perhaps he makes the pleasant discovery, that there are no such persons at all as the acceptors, and that the funds for meeting all these bills have been got from himself!--H. D. Macleod.

Pleasant is put for unpleasant because the latter seemed dull and unnecessary; the writer should have taken the hint, and put nothing at all.

The climax is reached by those pessimists who, regarding the reader's case as desperate, assist him with punctuation, italics, and the like:

And this honourable (?) proposal was actually made in the presence of two at least of the parties to the former transaction!

These so-called gentlemen seem to forget...

I was content to be snubbed and harassed and worried a hundred times a day by one or other of the 'great' personages who wandered at will all over my house and grounds, and accepted my lavish hospitality. Many people imagine that it must be an 'honour' to entertain a select party of aristocrats, but I...--Corelli.

The much-prated-of 'kindness of heart' and 'generosity' possessed by millionaires, generally amounts to this kind of thing.--Corelli.

Was I about to discover that the supposed 'woman-hater' had been tamed and caught at last?--Corelli.

That should undoubtedly have been your 'great' career--you were born for it--made for it! You would have been as brute-souled as you are now...--Corelli."

(See Fowler, op. cit., p. 307; also http://cyberspacei.com/greatbooks/authors/hw_fowler/307.html#1)

Priceless!  And at the same time an object lesson in itself that scathing wit is possible without irony or other such insults to the reader!  But alas, a hundred years out of date.



Ronald Hilton 2004

Top

last updated: February 28, 2005