While briskly thumbing through the pages of the not-so-conservative Conservative Chronicle, a curious headline to a Jeff Jacoby column caught my eye: “The News In Iraq Isn’t All Bad“. What a relief! Not all bad, mind you. The implication was that the overwhelming majority of news really was bad, because the situation was simply awful, but Mr. Jacoby did dredge up a few exciting, positive items. The most striking (and untrue) claim was this:

Freedom of speech is alive and well, especially at Baghdad’s Radio Dijla, the first independent all-talk radio station in the Arab world. Launched just three months ago, Radio Dijla now gets 18,000 calls a day — far more than its small staff can answer. Everybody from laborers to ministry officials tunes in, and callers are free to speak about anything at all (only incitement to violence is taboo). Under Saddam, criticizing a government minister could get you beaten, jailed, or worse. Today government ministers go on Radio Dijla so ordinary Iraqis can give them a piece of their mind.

Real conservatives have become accustomed to parsing liberal invocations of “freedom of speech” over the years, understanding that liberal conventions of free speech allow for all speech and thought that aids their interests while they try to condemn, censor or outlaw speech they find not to their liking. The same rules seem to apply in Iraq, though here it is the U.S.-backed government, rather than ideological pressure groups, that is blocking dissenting or unwanted voices. In light of the month-long ban on Al-Jazeera in Iraq (at the behest of the “sovereign” Iraqi government, of course!), it is impossible not to conclude that voices the “Iraqi government” does not find suitably servile or obedient will be shut down arbitrarily on the pitiful pretext, as in this case, of incitement to violence.

‘Incitement to violence’ is becoming the codephrase for any form of political view or journalism that does not reflect the Iraq that Americans are spoonfed daily by their papers and television reports. This is the free speech where any point of view is tolerated, except for all views that do not endorse the official program of “democracy” and “unity” and so on. Genuine incitement to violence is something that could be legitimately banned, but the concept here has been stretched beyond all recognition. The Iraqi interior minister made the laughable claim that reports about criminal activity encouraged crime and violence!

The Iraq Interior Minister justified the closure of al-Jazeera’s Baghdad office in the following way: “Government ministers have been critical of the Arabic-language network, saying it has been airing dangerous, inciteful images and reports. Among those images are videos of people abducted in the recent wave of kidnappings.” Of course, our cable networks broadcast these same images. Are they inciting people to acts of violence? Are they encouraging terrorism? Clearly they are not by any standard that Americans could understand, but in the “free Iraq,” where “free speech” flourishes, they just might be.

The minister went on: “Al-Jazeera has accepted to be the mouthpiece of terrorist and criminal groups thus contributing to attempts to impair security and achieve aims of terrorism in spreading terror in the minds of peaceful Iraqi citizens with activities that have nothing to do with acts of violence. In so doing, it has contributed to hindering the Iraq reconstruction process by justifying kidnappings and killing of foreigners working here. It has also subjected the security, safety and property of citizens as well as government facilities, security and safety of national armed forces to danger.” This is the equivalent of saying that reporting the aims and tactics of terrorists is itself conducive to terrorism. Presumably, whenever our news networks have reported the goals of kidnappers in the past they have also been encouraging more kidnapping. This is simply disdain for a free press, and it tells us all we need to know about the “liberation” that the U.S. government has tacitly approved this ban.

What other good news can we find? “Gradually, civic order is replacing chaos,” Jacoby tells us. He then proceeds to mention an encouraging story of increased respect for traffic police. How charming. Meanwhile, the significant facts are that kidnappings and killings are spiralling out of control in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country. Robert Fisk has reported that the July death toll of ordinary Iraqis topped 700 in Baghdad alone, after a regular monthly figure of 500 deaths in Baghdad from kidnappings and murders. I’m sure that Mr. Jacoby means well and he is trying to provide some perspective for his readers, but talking about respect for traffic cops while there is bloody mayhem in the streets demonstrates a complete loss of perspective.

“The destruction of saboteurs notwithstanding, the Iraqi oil industry is making a comeback.” Of course, actual oil exports have dropped to remarkably low levels. If there is no certain means of export, the industry will gradually break down and with it goes the Iraqi government. But, in spite of this inaccurately optimistic picture, Mr. Jacoby concludes that Iraq is heading back towards “normalcy,” that it will “make it” (make it where?) and that the invasion (sorry, liberation) was a “great and historic good.” How can he possibly guess at whether it is an historic good when he clearly has no sense of history?

The current “conservative” fascination with finding good news in Iraq reflects a surprisingly unrealistic (and, I daresay, temperamentally unconservative) attention to the small, everyday matters of life which, in most genuinely conservative views of history, are not the highly significant or decisive events in history. It is for this reason that the history of Nigeria is considered far less important in America than the histories of England or Germany, and it is why the history of private life, while important, is not a college requirement but Western Civ is. Some events are far more significant than others, and a thousand bits of good news can be wiped out by a few incidents of violence. Historians of, let’s say, 1930s America will pay rather more attention to the Depression and the actions of the major political players than they will to the small, quotidian successes of some small businesses during that same time, and it is right that they should. The historian can determine with hindsight much better which events proved to be really decisive, and which were not, but very few contemporaries properly attribute so much significance to small, quotidian events.

These small events are perhaps intrinsically interesting to the later historian, and like many minor specialisations these matters are worthy of study, but when historians attempt to judge events they try to focus on the most significant and powerful events that had the greatest impact on the institutions or peoples they are describing. It is frankly ridiculous to take solace in the few, isolated tidbits of good news, when the prevailing trend is negative and seriously so. The neoconservatives and their fellow travellers who venerate this war pride themselves on a kind of steely-eyed realism and a hard-bitten freedom from wishful thinking and illusions, but at each stage of the pre-war arguments and during the post-war debacle these are the very same people who have engaged in the most wishful thinking and Pollyannish prattle.