Monday 10 March 2003

Political (a)morality?

My former wife believed that by marrying me she’d meet a superior class of people. When we met she was working for IMG, a leading sports management agency, in a job that brought her into contact with many of the world’s most talented and highly paid sportspeople. At that time, I was a professional photographer with a specialty in photographing art for books, catalogs, and magazines—and I exhibited my own work.

Driving home one night after an opening at the Art Gallery of NSW, Francesca suddenly confessed: “I can’t believe how naive I was. It’s been such a shock to realize that artists are even more arrogant, self-indulgent, status-conscious, paranoid, and obsessed with money than the sports stars I deal with every day.”

“Why do you think art politics is so bitterly contested?” I asked her (reworking the joke about academic politics).

“I’ve no idea,” she replied. “Tell me.”

“Because the stakes are so small.”

She let out a peal of laughter. “I can’t wait to tell Simon that,” she said, “he’ll love it.” Simon was her immensely charming (and likeable) boss, who’d have made mincemeat out of any artist, curator, or gallery owner in the Southern Hemisphere, in less time than it took him to tie a Windsor knot.

The joke relies for its impact on the widely shared belief that artists (and academics)—disconnected, as they are, from the “real world”—spend an inordinate amount of time and energy arguing about trivialities. While that may well be so, the joke neatly sidesteps a couple of truths about art: firstly, that art politics has nothing to do with actually making art; secondly, that an artist’s personal behavior has little, if anything, to do with the quality of the work they make.

Even more surprising to me than Francesca’s general observation about artists’ preoccupation with the inconsequential was my discovery—based on spending time with every important Australian artist as well as many from the US and Europe—of an inverse correlation between the work of art and the character or behavior of the artist who had made it. The art I admired most had frequently been created by men and women whose conduct or personality I found repulsive whereas the most decent and engaging artists made work I regarded as dull, trite, or derivative.

Richard A. Posner makes a similar point in his review of Bruce Allen Murphy’s Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas. Here is Posner’s vivid characterization of the former Supreme Court judge:

Apart from being a flagrant liar, Douglas was a compulsive womanizer, a heavy drinker, a terrible husband to each of his four wives, a terrible father to his two children, and a bored, distracted, uncollegial, irresponsible, and at times unethical Supreme Court justice who regularly left the Court for his summer vacation weeks before the term ended. Rude, ice-cold, hot-tempered, ungrateful, foul-mouthed, self-absorbed, and devoured by ambition, he was also financially reckless—at once a big spender, a tightwad, and a sponge—who, while he was serving as a justice, received a substantial salary from a foundation established and controlled by a shady Las Vegas businessman.

After another seventeen paragraphs summarizing Murphy’s account of Douglas’s career and numerous character flaws, Posner notes that the author “does not try to extenuate Douglas’s failings as a human being, or to excuse them, or even to explain them, but he greatly admires Douglas’s civil liberties decisions, and (without his actually saying so) this admiration leads him to forgive Douglas’s flaws of character.”

Posner then observes:

Murphy is right to separate the personal from the judicial. One can be a bad person and a good judge, just as one can be a good person and a bad judge. With biography and reportage becoming ever more candid and penetrating, we now know that a high percentage of successful and creative people are psychologically warped and morally challenged; and anyway, as Machiavelli recognized long ago, personal morality and political morality are not the same thing.

Nor—as my experience suggests—is there an equivalence between personal morality and aesthetic worth (although the controversy over whether or not Roman Polanski should receive an Academy Award for The Pianist suggests a widely held belief that such a nexus should be established and followed).

In the case of William O. Douglas, Posner argues that it was not the Supreme Court Justice’s personal failings that made him a poor judge but rather that he didn’t like the job—or, more exactly, there was another job he wanted badly, that of Roosevelt’s running mate in the election of 1944:

If passing over Douglas was an error (which we shall never know), it was an error of statesmanship. With his intelligence, his toughness, his ambition, his leadership skills, his wide acquaintanceship in official Washington, his combination of Western homespun (a favorite trick was lighting a cigarette by striking a match on the seat of his pants) and Eastern sophistication, and his charisma, Douglas might have been a fine Cold War president.

A fascinating proposition: that a thoroughly loathsome and reprehensible person might make a worthy and capable President of the United States. To test the validity of Posner’s suggestion one need only contrast decent, ineffectual Jimmy Carter who was humiliated for the 444 days of the Iran hostage affair and the morally ambiguous Nixon/Kissinger team who extricated the United States from the Vietnam war and established diplomatic relations with China.

It was difficult not to be reminded of this paradox when I followed Stuart Langridge’s link to John Perry Barlow’s essay, Sympathy For The Devil, an astonishing portrait/analysis of Dick Cheney, whom Barlow assisted in getting elected “to his first public office as Wyoming’s lone congressman,” conspiring with Cheney to close down an environmentally dangerous copper smelter.

Barlow has the highest regard for Cheney’s intelligence:

With the possible exception of Bill Gates, Dick Cheney is the smartest man I’ve ever met. If you get into a dispute with him, he will take you on a devastatingly brief tour of all the weak points in your argument. But he is a careful listener and not at all the ideologue he appears at this distance. I believe he is personally indifferent to greed. In the final analysis, this may simply be about oil, but I doubt that Dick sees it that way. I am relatively certain that he is acting in the service of principles to which he has devoted megawatts of a kind of thought that is unimpeded by sentiment or other emotional overhead.

The rest of essay is devoted to the problem that Barlow believes Dick Cheney is trying to address: “How does one assure global stability in a world where there is only one strong power?”

He notes that prolonged periods of peace have resulted from one of two conditions—a “symmetrical balance of power” or “unequivocal domination by a single ruthless power”—and suggests that Cheney has decided “that it is in the best interests of humanity that the United States impose a fearful peace upon the world” by establishing “dominion over the Middle East through the American Protectorate of Iraq.”

In other words, it’s not about oil, it’s about power and peace. Well, alright. It is about oil, I guess, but only in the sense that the primary goal of the American Peace is to guarantee the Global Corporations reliable access to all natural resources wherever they may lie. The multinationals are Cheney’s real constituents, regardless of their stock in trade or their putative country of origin.

There are many reasons for the widespread opposition outside America to a war on Iraq. One that comes up over and again is a lack of trust in the Bush administration’s motives. In other words, there is a perceived mismatch between the US government’s actions (and those of its British and Australian lackeys) and their stated reasons for going to war.

John Perry Barlow’s essay suggests that this lack of congruence flows inevitably from a strategy that seeks to convince

every other nation on the planet that the United States is the Mother of All Rogue States, run by mad thugs in possession of 15,000 nuclear warheads they are willing to use and spending, as they already are, more on death-making capacity than all the other countries on the planet combined.

“By these terrible means…the Great American Peace will begin.”

One should not imagine, from my synopsis, that Barlow is defending Dick Cheney and his associates. It’s clear that he believes, as many of us do, that the United States has fallen into the grip of an amoral cabal. The real value of Barlow’s essay is its unsentimental gaze into the heart of darkness, through the eyes of someone who knew Dick Cheney at a time when a veteran Washington journalist described him as “the most dangerous person I’ve ever seen up here.”

“But,” Barlow admits, “if I’d been in charge back in 1983, there might still be a Soviet Union and we might all still be waiting for the world to end in fifteen nuclear minutes.”

In other words, an amoral cabal could be exactly the right team for the task at hand. Just as the morally challenged William O. Douglas “might have been a fine Cold War President.”

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A truly disturbing piece, or is it peace? Is the U.S. acting as a bully really a better solution than the rule of international law, represented by the U.N.?

Posted by marius on 11 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

That's about the best explanation I've heard for white house behavior, and matches a statement about Cheney made in an OpEd piece in today's New York Times ( ) (though I disagree with the editor on Bush's motivation).

I'd rather the world go up in flames then to have dissenting voices scared into silence by my country.

Posted by Burningbird on 11 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I could not help but think of this post today. I'm San Francisco at present and had lunch with an old friend, RM. After a long lunch about the usual business topics, the topic turned inevitably to War. He asked what Australians thought. I replied that I couldn't speak for all Australians and but that I was sure that our Prime Minister did not either.

I said that my own perspective was that this was the point in history where the US assumes dictatorial control of the world. I asked him how he would enjoy having a dictator rather than living in a democracy where democratic processes are supreme.

He said "Democracy? Bush was not elected, he did not win the election".


Posted by marius on 18 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Sad and dispiriting... a couple of weeks ago I watched in disbelief a documentary that detailed how Bush "won" the election by disenfranchising sustantial numbers of Florida voters -- with the aid of his brother (the Governor) and Katharine Harris (the Secretary of State). It's incomprehensible to Australians that Ms Harris, whose responsibility was to ensure that the vote was fair, was also working for the Bush campaign.

African American voters (more likely to vote for Gore) were improperly purged from voter rolls and not given adequate access to polling booths.

Thousands of potential Democrat voters were rendered ineligible to vote when the state Republican administration had them falsely identified as having criminal records.

Postal votes from members of the military stationed overseas (more likely to vote Republican) were counted even though the postmarks showed that the vote had been cast one or two days *after* the election had closed.

The United States is not a democracy. The guy with the most votes lost. The guy with the most Supreme Court votes won.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 19 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour