October 11, 2004

Joan Didion Is Elegantly Shrill; or, "What rough beast, its hour come round at last..."

Opening the latest issue of the New York Review of Books is a disturbing experience. For under the deceptively wholesome title of "Politics in the 'New Normal' America" (cache) one finds reflections not on motherhood, the flag and apple pie, but the tormented cries of one whose mind, voyaging too far on the black, infinite seas of thought, has been shattered upon the rocks of things which common American humanity was never meant to know! Yes, the mendancity, malevolence, incompetence and disconnection from reality of George W. Bush and his administration (to say nothing of that of our national press corps) have finally accomplished what migraines, Haight-Ashbury in 1967, Los Angeles in the 1970s, New York in the 1980s, the movie industry, the Salvadoran death-squads and Iran-contra were unable to achieve, and driven Joan Didion into shrill, unholy madness. Fortunately, however, her prose --- the pen which wrote "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" while "the pain kept me awake at night and so for twenty and twenty-one hours a day I drank gin-and-hot-water to blunt the pain and took Dexedrine to blunt the gin", and so produced this ---

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vadnals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-person reports, then moved on themselves.

It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job, and because nothing else seemed so relevant I decided to go to San Francisco.

--- that pen is intact, though now the mind behind the pen forever gazes, alone, on vistas as blank and pitiless as the sun. Indeed, her style, circling around its subject, revealing the dreadful secret at its center only through hints and shadows, through daring the reader to find the unknown term that solves the equation, is wonderfully adapted to the topic. Never have shriller, more terrible, more forbidden blasphemies been more elegantly shrieked into the black, uncaring night between the stars.
During the spring and summer of 2004 some Americans, most but not all of them nominal Democrats, spoke of the November 2 presidential election as the most important, or "crucial," of their lifetimes. They told not only acquaintances but reporters and political opinion researchers that they had never been more "concerned," more "uneasy," more "discouraged," even more "frightened" about the future of the United States. They expressed apprehension that the fragile threads that bound the republic had reached a breaking point; that the nation's very constitution had been diverted for political advantage; that the mechanisms its citizens had created over two centuries to protect themselves from one another and from others had been in the first instance systematically dismantled and in the second sacrificed to an enthusiasm for bellicose fantasy. They downloaded news reports that seemed to make these points. They e-mailed newsletters and Web logs and speeches and Doonesbury strips to multiple recipients.

These Americans had passed the point of denying themselves broad strokes. They kept one another posted on loosened regulations benefiting previously obscure areas of the economy, for example snowmobile manufacture. They knew how many ringneck pheasants Vice President Cheney and his party had brought down during a morning's stocked shoot at the Rolling Rock Club in Ligonier Township, Pennsylvania: 417, of the 500 released that morning. They collected the vitae of Bush family associates named on the Web site of New Bridge Strategies, LLC, "a unique company that was created specifically with the aim of assisting clients to evaluate and take advantage of business opportunities in the Middle East following the conclusion of the US-led war in Iraq." They made Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 the most commercially successful documentary ever distributed in the United States, earning in its domestic theatrical release $117.5 million. (By comparison, Moore's 2002 Academy Award-winning Bowling for Columbine had earned less than $22 million.) They were said to be "energized," "worked up," motivated in a way they had not been even by Bush v. Gore, which had occurred at a time, nine months before the mandate offered by September 11, when it had still been possible to imagine the clouded outcome of the 2000 election as its saving feature, an assured deterrent to any who would exercise undue reach.

...

"On one level nothing happens, but it is nothing at the very center of the world you are part of," the Newsweek correspondent Howard Fineman said to The New York Times by way of explaining the apparently intractable enthusiasm of American reporters for covering political conventions. "You are immersed to the eyeballs in the concentrated form of the culture you cover." A perception of nothing at the very center of the world you live in might suggest that a change is in order, yet no change was in sight: we had reached a point in our political life at which the selected among the 15,000 reporters who attended each of this summer's conventions could dominate the national discourse by talking passionately to one another on air about, say, "strong women" ("There's no reason to attack Heinz Kerry for it, in fact I admire strong women." "I agree"), or about "women who could take very untraditional roles and yet transmit traditional values" (the subject here was Laura Bush, whose way of transmitting "traditional values" in the "untraditional role" of prime-time speaker was to address the questions "that I believe many people would ask me if we sat down for a cup of coffee or ran into each other at the store"), or about "missed opportunities," for example "putting Jimmy Carter out there to talk about foreign policy missteps" during a Democratic convention at which, Joe Scarborough decreed on MSNBC, "he should have talked about values."

We took for granted that we would learn nothing from these discussions that reflected the actual issues facing the country, nothing suggesting that in the world off camera "foreign policy missteps" might be understood as inextricable from "values." We recognized that by tuning in we entered a world where actual information would vanish: a single Firing Line or Hardball was capable of wiping the average human hard drive. No one who had ever fallen asleep watching C-SPAN and woken to find, say, Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media demanding to know why Michael Moore went after Halliburton ("but never tells you that the main competitor to Halliburton is Schlumberger --- a French firm --- do we really want a French firm? Why are we never told about that?") could be unfamiliar with the obliterative effect of watching people shout at one another on a small lighted screen.

Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media would give way on the small lighted screen to Lisa De Pasquale of the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute. Lori Waters of the Eagle Forum would be promised. Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham would be in the green room. Dee Dee Myers would offer "the other side." We knew that. We also knew that the election for its explicators would once again come down to "character," the "human connection," or what Laura Bush would tell you about her husband if you ran into her at the store. We were no longer even surprised that the ability of these explicators to read character seemed to have atrophied beyond conceivable repair: consider the way in which the raw fragility of Teresa Heinz Kerry was instantly metamorphosed into "strong woman," or her husband's pained shyness into "aloofness," or the practiced courtroom affability of the plaintiff's attorney who was his running mate into "sunniness."

Or, most persistently, the calculated swagger of the President himself into "resolve." I recall, shortly after September 11, at a time when the President was talking about "those folks," "smoking them out," "getting them running," "dead or alive," reading one morning in both The Washington Post and The New York Times about how his words were his own, the product of what the Post called his "unvarnished instincts." "Friends and staffers," the Post reported, lending a hand in what was already an ongoing effort, the creation of the President as commander-in-chief and intuitive manager of his war on terror, "promise that it is genuine Bush." The Post headline on this story was "An Unvarnished President on Display." The Times went with "A Nation Challenged: The President; In This Crisis, Bush Is Writing His Own Script." Yet every morning, according to the same stories, the President met with senior advisers, including Vice President Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes, and Andrew H. Card Jr., for a ten-minute "communication" session, the purpose of which was, in the Times's words, "to strategize about the words, emotional cues, and information Mr. Bush should be conveying."

There were two possibilities here: either the President was receiving his words, emotional cues, an information from his "unvarnished instincts," or he was "strategizing" them with Vice President Cheney Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes, and Andrew H. Card Jr. We no longer expected such contradictions t be explored, or even much mentioned. We accepted the fact that not only events but the language used t describe them had been reinvented, inflated, or otherwise devalued, stripped of meaning that did not serve political purpose. The 2001 tax cut, we learned from former US Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, wa described by its political beneficiaries in the White House as "the investment package." The words "invasion" and "occupation," previously neutral terms in the description of military actions, had each been replaced b the more educational "liberation," to a point at which the administration's most attentive and least war student, Condoleezza Rice, could speak without irony to the Financial Times about "the devotion of the US in the liberation of Germany from Hitler."

September 11, we were told repeatedly, had created a "new normal," an altered condition in which we were supposed to be able to see, as The Christian Science Monitor explained a month after the events, "what is --- and what is no longer --- important." "Government," for example, was "important again," and "all that chatter about lockboxes and such now seems like so much partisan noise." The "new normal" required that we adopt a "new paradigm," which in turn required, according to an internal White House memo signed by President Bush, "new thinking in the law of war," in other words a reconsideration of the Geneva Convention's prohibition against torture. "Torture" itself had become "extreme interrogation," which under the "new paradigm" could be justified when the information obtained by interrogation failed to tally with the information required by policy. "We're learning that Tariq Aziz still doesn't know how to tell the truth," the President told reporters in May 2003 about the interrogation sessions that were yielding, for reasons even then inconveniently clear, so little information about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. "He didn't know how to tell the truth when he was in office. He doesn't know how to tell the truth when he's been—as a captive."

As this suggests, the word "truth" itself had by then been redefined, the empirical method abandoned: "the truth" was now whatever we needed it to be, the confirmation of those propositions or policies in which we "believed in our hearts," or had "faith." "Belief" and "faith" had in turn become words used to drop a scrim, white out the possibility of decoding --- let alone debating --- what was being said. It was now possible to "believe" in one proposition or another on the basis of no evidence that it was so. The President had famously pioneered this tactic, from which derived his "resolve": he "believed" in the weapons of mass destruction, for example, as if the existence of weapons was a doctrinal point on the order of transubstantiation, and in the same spirit he also believed, he told reporters in July 2003, that "the intelligence I get is darn good intelligence and the speeches I have given are backed by good intelligence." The attraction of such assertions of conviction was the high road they offered for bypassing conventional reality testing, which could be dismissed as lack of resolve. "I do not believe we should change our course because I believe in it," Tony Blair was saying by September 2003. "I carry on doing the job because I believe in what I'm doing."

Similar use was found for the word "faith," originally introduced as a way to placate Republican bas voters while spending, since few elected officials are anxious to go on the line against faith, the minimu amount of political capital. The President could have "faith" in the Iraqi people, which in turn was how h could "believe" that "a free Iraq can be an example of reform and progress to all the Middle East," whic could even be (why not?) the reason we were there. Similarly, as he considered "problems like poverty an addiction, abandonment and abuse, illiteracy and homelessness," the President could again have "faith," in this case "faith that faith will work in solving the problems." As for faith's problem-solving role, o "compassionate conservatism," the specific promise to the Christian right of the 2000 campaign, the administration now spoke not only of "faith-based" schools and "faith-based" charities and "faith-based prisoner rehabilitation" but also of "faith-based" national parks, which translated into authorizing the sale in the National Park Service's bookstores of Grand Canyon: A Different View, the "different view" being that the canyon was created not by the continual movement of the Colorado River since the Tertiary Period but in the six days described in Genesis.

Peculiarities (faith-based national parks, say) that a few years before might have seemed scarcely possible now seemed scarcely worth remark. The more high-decibel political comment had become, the more blunted it had become, the more confined to arguments about "personality." "What a difference these few months of extremism have made," Jimmy Carter said in the Fleet Center on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention; on the cable shows that evening any potential discussion of what a former president of the United States might have meant by "extremism" got beaten back by the more pressing need to discuss his "cranky" refusal to allow his speech to be "scrubbed" of negativity by the Kerry campaign. We had seen the criticism of administration policy on Iraq doggedly offered by Senator Robert C. Byrd met with personal vilification, what Senator Byrd himself described in Losing America as "an ugly tone --- 'old man,' 'senile,' 'traitor,' 'KKK.'" We had seen, after the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks made a comment onstage in London that could only with imaginative interpretation pass for "political" ("Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas"), widespread excoriation, radio bans against including the Dixie Chicks on playlists, and organized bonfires (at the time widely described as illustrations of market choice) in which their CDs were burned.

...

What were we doing here? What kind of profound amnesia had overtaken us? How had it taken hold come to prevent the laying down of not only political but cultural long-term memory? Could we no longe hold a thought long enough to connect it to the events we were seeing and hearing and reading about? Di we not find it remarkable that the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to concentrate our intelligenc functions in the White House would have been met with general approval? That former members o Congress would urge action by executive order to enact a plan that would limit the congressional role t "oversight"? That the only reservations expressed would be those reflecting issues of agency turf

Did we not remember the Nixon White House and the point to which its lust for collecting intelligence had taken it? The helicopter on the lawn, the weeping daughter, the felony indictments? Did we not remember what "congressional oversight" had recently meant? Did we have no memory that the Reagan administration had been operating under congressional oversight even as it gave us Iran-contra? Had we lost even the names of the players? Did "Manucher Ghorbanifar" no longer resonate? Had we lost all memory of Ronald Reagan except in the role assigned him by his creators and certified by the coverage in the week of his death, that of "sunny optimist"? Did we not remember that it was his administration, through its use of Islamic fundamentalists to wage our war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, that had underwritten the dream of unending jihad? Was no trace left of what we had learned about actions and their consequences?

...

In this "changed world," then, one thing remained unchanged: the primacy, for this administration, of its domestic agenda, the relentless intention to dismantle or "reform" American society for the benefit, or "protection," since the closest model here was a protection racket, of those segments of the business community that supported the President. Everything said in Madison Square Garden on domestic issues was predictable. We knew what the domestic agenda was about. We had known it since the 2000 campaign, when the same messages got sent. We had seen clear-cutting our national forests described as "wildfire control," part of the "Healthy Forests Initiative." We had seen the administration distract us with arguments about whether our national parks should be "faith-based," even as that administration lifted the regulation on snowmobiles in the same national parks.

We had seen the President "right the wrong," as Senator Bill Frist put it in the Garden, of "miracle medicines denied by Medicare," and we had also seen who benefited from "righting this wrong": there would first be, since the law as enacted banned Medicare from negotiating the price of drugs, the pharmaceutical industry. Then there would be, still more meaningfully, since the drug benefit was to be offered only through private insurers and health plans (despite the fact that it cost Medicare significantly more to cover recipients through private plans than directly), the insurance industry. Finally, in the case of those Medicare recipients currently covered under their retirement plans, there was the considerable benefit to their former employers, who, by the government's own estimates, were expected to reduce or eliminate drug coverage for 3.8 million retirees. Those who lost coverage would then be forced, if they wanted a drug benefit at all, out of not only their retiree plan but also of Medicare's fee-for-service coverage, in other words into an HMO.

Such "improved benefits," like "personal nest eggs" and "healthy forests," had been since 2000 what was meant when the Bush administration talked about restoring "choices" to Americans. What made these misrepresentations seem more grave in 2004 was the larger misrepresentation: the fact that the administration had taken us, ineptly, with the aid and encouragement of those who had "never thought," or who had "misunderstood," or who "didn't realize," into a war, or a "noble expedition," or a "grand historical experiment," which was draining the lives and futures of our children and disrupting fragile arrangements throughout the world even as it provided the unending "crisis" required to perpetuate the administration and enact its agenda. "This is a great opportunity," the President was reported by Bob Woodward to have said in an NSC meeting on the evening of September 11, 2001. That large numbers of Americans continued to support him could be construed as evidence of their generosity, but it was also evidence of how shallowly rooted our commitment to self-government had turned out to be.

The Continuing Crisis; The Commonwealth of Letters

Posted by crshalizi at October 11, 2004 10:06 | permanent link

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