Preaching to the converted
A couple of Blogarian colleagues, whose powers of perception are otherwise acute, have mistakenly suggested a pharmacological cause for my recent lull in activity. In the comments on Language Hat’s pointer to Cor Kwant’s gingko site, msg wrote:
Ginkgo supplements for cognitive enhancement: daily use seems to be counter-productive, some kind of mineral depletion probably.
Every three days or so seems to be about it, for my metabolism.
To which Language Hat replied:
Aha, that explains why you haven’t been posting lately, Jonathon!
Jonathon, did you forget to blog?
Although I’ve certainly been preoccupied, I’m sure it’s not the MegaMemory™ pills that have had such a drastic effect on my output. One reason is that I’ve been reading a lot, and thinking a lot—as we introverts do—and writing a lot too, then finding myself reluctant to publish what I’ve written. Mainly, I suspect, because of Dave Rogers’ entry about his increasing reluctance to “speak up”. I tried unsuccessfully to summarize Dave’s insights so I trust he won’t mind my quoting his entire post:
I find I have less to say about things these days. Often I feel the familiar urge to say something, but now I’m as likely to keep quiet as I am to speak up. This bothers me a little, because I’ve always felt it was important to speak up when you felt strongly about something. Now I’m not so sure about that.
Sometimes the urge to speak up is the result of habituated thinking, a conditioned response. Someone writes something that triggers an emotional response, certain automatic behaviors kick in, and before I know it I’m writing some kind of negative response. I can’t think of a case where it did any particular good. I get to feel a bit of an adrenaline rush from the experience, and maybe a couple of people agree with me and I get a little validation; but most of the time, the target of my ire and indignation is unaffected. There is no change of opinion, no reevaluation of position. It’s all energy expended to no good end, other than perhaps to stimulate the already persuaded and generate a little titillation for the folks who like to watch. I also can’t recall a case when, finding myself on the receiving end, I’ve altered my point of view; especially if it was something I cared enough about to have an opinion that was likely to provoke that kind of response.
I suppose this is a kind of self-censorship, but I think it’s a good thing. One person’s self-censorship is another person’s self-discipline perhaps. Just as I’ve learned to pay attention to what’s going on inside my own mind when I’m behind the wheel, becoming a calmer and safer driver in the process, I’m learning to pay attention not just to what I write, but why I want to write it.
I’ve been working for a long time on a couple of related entries: about George W. Bush’s aircraft carrier stunt and the Private Jessica Lynch debacle. Obviously I’m convinced that I have something interesting to say about these subjects—despite the fact that both topics have been covered exhaustively by mainstream journalists and webloggers alike. What has held me back is a strong aversion to preaching to the converted, an aversion based on Lisette Model’s philosophy of photography (quoted in the Patricia Bosworth biography of Diane Arbus):
Photography is not about preaching a truth, rather it’s about discovering a truth.
The camera is an instrument of detection… when I point my camera at something I am asking a question and the photograph is sometimes an answer… In other words, I am not trying to prove anything. I am the one who is getting the lesson.
Model’s theory of photography translates easily to any form of endeavor, not just to aesthetic practice but also to how one approaches relationships or work or everyday life: with an attitude of curiosity, not certainty.
I suspect it might still be possible for me to write about George W. Bush and Pvt. Lynch but I’d need to eliminate the snarky tone that runs through what I’ve written so far. (I hasten to mention that, although I have a visceral hostility towards Bush and everything he represents, I feel only sympathy for Pvt. Lynch, who is a casualty many times over.)
All this was running through my mind when I read Jeff Ward’s post about Walter Benjamin’s May 1940 letter to Theodor Adorno, in which Benjamin outlined his hopes for starting work on a new project, despite his desperate need to stay one step ahead of the Nazis.
Within a few months Benjamin was dead. I cried when I read the letter, so full of ideas that were never completed. I thought about these fragments, and hoped that I might someday connect them. I get up each day and work, and hope that the Bush nazis will be deposed and my work will continue without interruption. There is a problem with projecting yourself onto tragic figures. It makes you no fun at parties at all.
Jeff’s final paragraph provoked in me a mixture of sadness, anger, and empathy. Sadness for Benjamin whose peerless criticism I’ve always admired, anger at the Bush cabal for their vicious assault on almost everything I value, and empathy with a kindred spirit who simply wants the nightmare to end so he can work without interruption.
Needless to say, Jeff’s characterization of the Bush clique as “nazis” provoked a response:
If there is one universal talent amoung human beings it is the talent (if you can call it that) for fooling ourselves, for believing what we want to believe. It’s not limited to only one side of the political fence. Those who refuse to look at Bush’s faults are as guilty as those who compare Bush to Hitler. Our current president, like those who came before him, is neither a saint nor a monster. He’s just an imperfect human, with his own natural biases, trying to do the world’s hardest job in the world’s biggest fish-bowl.
The great thing about America is that we are free to say whatever we think, no matter how ridiculous it is. We should criticize our leaders - when the criticism stops, then I will be worried - but the only useful criticism is that which originates in the here and now.
Well, actually, no. This is not an accusation made by the kind of idiot leftist who flings epithets like “Nazi” and “Fascist” at anyone slightly to the right of Stalin. The comparison with Hitler and the Nazis is apt, as Jeff Ward persuasively argues in a subsequent post. Your current president—admittedly neither a saint nor a monster—is however a corrupt, hypocritical imposter. And the most useful criticism is not that which “originates in the here and now” but rather that which draws on the experience of the past to better illuminate the “here and now”.
For those who doubt the similarities between the Bush administration and the totalitarian forces that came to power during the Thirties in Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan, I can only say “Come back after you’ve read Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 30s from cover to cover. Then we can talk some more.” A few weeks ago I sent a copy to a friend. This morning he emailed me, saying: “I’m on the penultimate chapter, “Nippon in China” — and I keep noticing echoes all around me.”
In the introduction, Brendon states the main theme of his book: the manipulation of perception and the distortion of reality.
Propaganda became part of the air people breathed during the 1930s. All the major occurrences of the day were the subject of organised deception which ranged from the big, amplified lie to a delicate economy with the truth. Moreover, many public spectacles were specifically mounted and choreographed with propagandist intent. King George V’s Silver Jubilee celebrations and his son’s coronation were a democratic riposte to Hitler’s barbaric pageants at Nuremberg. Stalin’s purge trials dramatised a new kind of tyranny. Mussolini’s aerial circuses advertised the virility of Fascism. The unveiling of countless war memorials in France not only marked the nation’s immense sacrifice but stressed its incapacity to face another blood-letting. Hollywood created celluloid myths to banish the Depression and affirm the New Deal. The machinations behind the scenes were at least as important as the performances acted out on the stage.
Of course, to lie is human and deceit has always been the element in which politicians, more than most people, live—their salamander’s fire. “Lord, lord,” said Falstaff, “how this world is given to lying!” Similarly the manufacture of illusion has invariably been part of the business of government. Rulers as remote as Rameses II, Augustus Caesar and Louis XIV have exemplified Montesquieu’s dictum that the splendour surrounding monarchs forms part of their might. Yet the Depression years witnessed the dissemination of falsehood on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Never had science and art so combined to promote earthly powers. Goebbels and others developed novel techniques of thought control. New media such as radio and talking pictures were mobilised to sway the masses. Leaders used aircraft to grab the limelight and they emblazoned their messages on the sky. Dictators imposed their version of the truth by means of dogma and terror. They created new cults and persecuted unbelievers. Russia and Germany, and to a lesser extent Italy and Japan, had their own reality. Facts were moulded like plasticine into the approved shape, whether Communist, Aryan, Fascist or imperial.
The defining characteristic of Bush and his administration is the gap between their words and their actions. Yet, despite the fact that Bush’s entire political agenda is built upon a foundation of manipulation and deceit, he manages to evade the consequences of his actions—as Ray Davis explains in his entry titled Causal Fallacy:
To a more extreme extent than we’ve ever known before (the bloated Republican puppets of the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties being more openly pulled by the strings of their puppet-masters), the United States is under the power of the consequence-free. Bush went AWOL, and speaks as a patriot; he failed in business, and remains rich; he snorted and drank and raised those who snort and drink, and pushes life imprisonment for dabblers; he lost an election, and became President; he dragged the FBI off his Saudi business associates and some of them attacked our country and Bush hid and bin Laden still hides, and Bush was praised for his bungling; he squanders our national treasury and destroys our tax base and increases government spending on anything that might profit his domestic business associates, and I still don’t see the so-called fiscally responsible turning against him. He keeps inviting disaster, and retribution keeps passing harmlessly through him and onto the nation.
To which I would add that Bush is the allegedly devout Christian who, far from driving the money-changers from the temple, has instead encouraged their rapacity whilst facilitating the relentless destruction of the natural environment that is, for Christians of his fundamentalist ilk, God’s own creation.
Louis Menand, in a New Yorker article titled The Devil’s Disciples, quotes Hannah Arendt’s belief that “totalitarian rule… is predicated on the assumption that proving that a thing is true is less effective than acting as though it were true. The Nazis did not invite a discussion of the merits of anti-Semitism; they simply acted out its consequences”.
For Bush & Co, finding evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction or establishing a plausible link between Saddam and Osama bin Laden or proving that Saddam was in a position to supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorists was less effective than simply acting as though all of those dubious assertions were true.
Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin’s cousin by marriage and a pupil of Martin Heidegger, established her reputation as a political theorist with her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she argued that Fascism and Communism are regimes of essentially the same type, with shared origins in 19th century anti-Semitism, imperialism, and nationalism, as well as a methodology based upon the systematic deployment of terror. Menand explains that Arendt was interested in the politics of totalitarianism,
…but she was also interested in the metaphysics, in totalitarianism as a mode of being in the world. Terror, she argued, may be experienced as arbitrary, but it is not arbitrary and it is not lawless. Every despot exercises power arbitrarily; all dictators are outside the law. The distinctive feature of totalitarian societies is that everyone, including (in theory, anyway) the dictator, can be sacrificed in the name of a superhuman law, a law of nature or a law of history. “Totalitarianism strives not toward despotic rule over men but toward a system in which men are superfluous,” she said. In Nazism, everyone is subordinate to the race war; in Bolshevism, to the class struggle. Man-made laws and political institutions are temporary shelters for vested interests, to be flattened by the winds of destiny. And the winds never cease. Hitler did not talk in terms of his own lifetime. He talked in terms of “the next thousand years.”
“In Nazism, everyone is subordinate to the race war; in Bolshevism, to the class struggle.” And, under Bush, everyone is subordinate to the war on terror. As he boasts of bringing “freedom” to the people of Iraq, a majority of Americans meekly succumb to his sustained attack on the freedoms he swore to uphold and protect.
Like Jeff Ward, I wake up hoping that the Bush nazis will be deposed so that my work can continue without interruption… but I have little optimism that this will happen. For all his rhetoric about liberating Iraq, it’s clear that Bush’s overriding concern is maintaining his grip on power. His exit strategy from Iraq will turn out to be no more principled than, in Joe Duemer’s words, “Nixon’s (non-existent) ‘secret plan’ to end the Vietnam war”. I agree with Joe that there isn’t “any realistic choice in Iraq but to stay—to stay while doing everything possible to internationalize the occupation under NATO & the UN.”
The war in Iraq was unnecessary & like the war in Vietnam was fought for domestic political purposes; the problem is that when geniuses like McNamara & Perle come to recognize their intellectual & theoretical limitations, it is already too late to avoid the debt of responsibility that genius & intellect & theory has incurred. In for a dime in for a dollar.
But that debt of responsiblility won’t be paid by Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, Perle, Wolfowitz or any other members of the consequence-free elite. The debt will be paid by all of us, Americans or not, for years to come.
I apologize for doing exactly what I promised not to do: preaching to the converted. This was not the post I set out to write. Yet, as Brecht understood, “production is the unforeseeable. You never know what’s going to come out.”
I particularly apologize to Dave Rogers, for citing then ignoring what I still believe to be the best course of action when faced with the temptation to write about politics. I don’t think this post will do any particular good. I didn’t get any adrenaline rush and, even if a couple of people agree with me, I’m indifferent to whatever validation I may get. The targets of my ire and indignation will be unaffected. There will be no change of opinion, no reevaluation of position. It was all energy expended to no good end, other than perhaps to stimulate the already persuaded while irritating those who are convinced that people like Jeff Ward and myself are “fooling ourselves”.
But, as Jeff himself said, “I just had to get this out of my system”.