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Himalayan Self-Righteousness
March 14, 2003.

By the time these words are published, the United States will, by most estimates, have gone to war with the vile Iraqi régime of Saddam Hussein. God willing, the war will be over. Although I was never quite persuaded that anyone outside of Iraq itself had as much to fear from those fabled "weapons of mass destruction," which the administration went to so much trouble to adduce as its casus belli, as from the effort to eliminate them, I didn’t see how it was possible for any ordinarily decent person not to regard at least with sympathy and admiration any effort of diplomacy or military intervention which promised to end the dictatorial reign of a man who deserves, if anyone alive in the world today deserves it, the adjective "evil." Saddam Hussein’s long career of murder and torture and attempted genocide against the Kurds is well-documented and hardly in dispute even among opponents of the war. Yet those opponents don’t seem to care very much about this.

On the contrary, many of them, to judge from the demonstrators who came to Washington in January, are much more exercised about the evil of what the spy-novelist John le Carré, in an astonishingly intemperate and ill-written piece in the Times of London, called "the Bush junta." Where do such ideas come from? "Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld: The Real Axis of Evil," read one of the signs brandished by the demonstrators. Oh really? Do they suppose that fair-minded observers will simply assume that they missed the news reports of Bush’s having had Gore supporters taken out and shot, or tortured the close relatives of Colin Powell or gassed the Muslims of Detroit? Surely they can’t imagine that such preposterous claims will be taken seriously by anyone who knows anything about the geopolitical realities of which they purport to speak?

My guess is that they do not. The worst of them — those belonging to the organizing group ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) which, as Byron York pointed out in National Review, is a front for a Stalinist splinter group called the Workers World Party — are presumably embryonic Saddams themselves (only one, as both the Stalinist and the Saddamist examples teach, could hope to succeed) and take the attitude of the King in Huckleberry Finn who said, "Ain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?" The best of them, motivated by a sentimental disinclination to violence of any kind, simply mouth slogans in the hope, perhaps, that having stayed the hand of justice they might inspire an answering clemency and gentleness in one of the world’s most brutal thugs. As one of several accounts of the demonstrations in the Washington Post reported, "‘War is not the answer,’ said Mary Appelhof, 66, of Kalamazoo, Mich."

Not, perhaps, coincidentally, this was the slogan spelled out in black sequins on the T-shirt of Sheryl Crow at the American Music Awards a few days before. The Post’s reporter, Manny Fernandez, apparently did not think it worth his while to ask Mary Appelhof, 66, what she thought was the answer. Or even what she thought was the question to which war was not the answer. Did Mary have any particular experience in military or diplomatic affairs which might have made her views, either of questions or of answers, of interest to the Post’s readers? Perhaps Mr. Fernandez thought that some such question would have been embarrassing to her. Though naturally she was entitled to her opinion like anyone else, usually that opinion has to be better informed and put into some terms other than a T-shirt slogan to make it into the papers.

But of course the central truth that lies behind the idea of "demonstrations" in the first place is that those who otherwise have no natural claim upon the attention of the American public acquire not only a claim but a right to such attention by making public nuisances of themselves in certain prescribed ways. The logic of the media culture, whether that of the Washington Post or TV news or the supermarket tabloids, is that Middle Eastern scholars who have studied the Iraqi régime for years may or may not make their voices heard, depending on how original or unusual their message, but that Sheryl Crow, or a group of women who take their clothes off and spell out "Peace" on the beach, as they did in California and Australia, will always be heard.

You might think that the media themselves would resent being used in this way. After all, most reporters, even those who cover demonstrations, have had to mug up some of the relevant history and intelligence data on the basis of which America’s leaders would be basing their decisions about war and peace. They know enough to know that glib talk of their elected leaders as a "junta" or an "axis of evil" — or leftover slogans from the 1960s like "war is not the answer" — is incommensurate with the gravity of the problems which the administration, however fallibly, has been trying to address. Why, then, should they risk their own credibility by lending space on their platform to ninnies like the naked peaceniks or poor Ms. Appelhof? The reason, it seems to me, is the same as the reason for most of the ills of journalism in the third millennium: the myth of journalistic "objectivity."

Let me explain. Having acquired, at least in his own mind, a measure of moral authority through mythic and triumphalist accounts of the role of his forbears in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and the Watergate affair, the contemporary journalist craves more of it. And he sees that this authority depends absolutely on his status as a higher arbiter to which both sides in any political debate must appeal. That status in turn depends on preserving at all costs the fiction of the journalist’s neutrality and objectivity. In order that this fiction may be preserved, it is absolutely essential for the journalist to treat with complete seriousness even views that he knows to be foolish or idiotic. No matter how ridiculous, stupid or ill-informed the position of one side or another in any political debate, or whether it is expressed in sober speech or print in a recognized forum or in the Grand Guignol of street theatre he must treat it with exactly the same respect as he does the other side.

Knowing that by the logic of his own self-conceit the journalist must give equal weight to the views of, say Paul Wolfowitz and Mary Appelhof, 66, of Kalamazoo, Mich., fringe groups like ANSWER push themselves forward as spokesmen for what might, in other hands, be a sensible and responsible alternative to current policies, and recite in complete confidence of being safe from contradiction except from those they oppose, blatantly absurd charges against and characterizations of their country’s leaders. And, so accustomed have we become to intemperate language on both sides of our public debate, with charges of corruption and dishonesty now almost routine even in serious journals of opinion, that even those anti-warriors who on their own would be intelligent, judicious and well-informed think it not worth their trouble to rebuke their fellow-marchers on occasions like these, figuring that that is just the way the game is played.

As indeed it is. The ineffable rightness of the anti-war protestors of the 1960s acts as a kind of indemnity for any amount of wrongness on the part of their heirs and successors. Hence the boilerplate of editorial writing minds is that the country is benefitted and even strengthened by the "tradition of protest" or the "right to dissent." Even the Administration has taken this line, inspiring the New York Times to editorialize:

Mr. Bush and his aides, to their credit, welcomed the demonstrations as a healthy manifestation of American democracy at work. We hope that spirit will endure in the weeks ahead if differences deepen and a noisier antiwar movement develops. These protests are the tip of a far broader sense of concern and lack of confidence in the path to war that seems to lie ahead.

This is typical of Times writing and editing these days, like calling the older protestors "grayheads" so as to avoid the sexist implications of the more familiar "graybeards." That "tip of a far broader sense" is a fractured metaphor, broken off from the old, expected "iceberg," which is here transmogrified, incomprehensibly, to a mere "sense." Though senses may be broad, they do not have tips. And of course any adverting to the more traditional view that marchers in the streets, so far from being a manifestation of American democracy are a contradiction of it, or to the mere point of information that the "obvious mainstream roots" of the protestors extolled by the Times were consistent with their being organized by Stalinists, was deemed unnecessary.

Underneath the surface, one supposes that this kind of thinking takes a perverse sort of pride in public slanders against elected officials. Yet, as Byron York pointed out there was little reporting in the mainstream press of what the protestors were actually saying as

speaker after speaker condemned the United States with ancient Communist rhetoric: "revolution", "struggle", "oppressed peoples", "imperialism", and "liberation." One speaker even addressed her fellow protesters as "comrades." Given the impressive strength of the public-address system, it felt like a literal blast from the past. And if the subject had not been so serious, it might have seemed almost quaint.

Though generally sympathetic to antiwar protest, the media may well have been embarrassed about such rhetoric. In any case, more interesting to reporters than any underlying political tendency of its own was the evidence of ANSWER’s organizational skills. David Montgomery in the Washington Post wrote that

Mass movements typically make their pilgrimages to that Sweet Land of Tourists between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. Marching up and over to the other side of Capitol Hill is rare, if not unprecedented.

The savvy organizers of the International ANSWER coalition — who last brought 100,000 peace demonstrators to Washington on Oct. 26 — may realize that the national march as a form of public expression is teetering on the brink of cliché and self-parody. They’re adding a couple of twists:

When the marchers reach the Navy Yard, their "people’s inspection team" will demand to search for weapons of mass destruction. And the route itself — to what the organizers call a "working-class" neighborhood — may help bring the peace movement closer to The People.

Who, that is, cared about the marchers’ antique rhetoric in comparison with their kicky, po-mo street theatre and their cleverness in evading "cliché and self-parody"? Unable to comment on the substance of the speeches, or on scurrilous characterizations of our leaders, for fear of compromising their neutrality and objectivity, the media found it easy to retreat into what for many of its younger and more highly-educated personnel is in any case the more comfortable role of literary or cultural critics. And in sizing up the effectiveness of the theatrical elements, the really sophisticated ones among them can be relied upon to point out that the workings of government are also theatre. Thus, when a miscellaneous group of "Green" protestors turned up for a counter-demonstration to the President’s State of the Union address with music and allegedly "satirical" video clips presented on a giant screen on the National Mall, Mr Montgomery wrote that "From start to finish, it was a sometimes brilliant, sometimes ragged piece of political performance art. It wouldn't have worked without the foil of the establishment theater going on inside the domed building."

The establishment — what was that again? Well, let’s let Professor Montgomery explain it to us:

The State of the Union is itself highly ritualized political performance art. The House sergeant-at-arms sounds Elizabethan as he heralds the arrival of the commander in chief. While the vice president, in his big chair, seems to slumber with his eyes open, the president's soliloquy follows strict rules. The last innovation came in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan perfected the homey salute to carefully planted real Americans in the gallery. At the end, God's blessing is requested, the scene cuts to Statuary Hall for the dueling spin doctors, then network correspondents sum up it all up in ways that never quite match your own impressions sitting at home.

Well sure. Don’t know why it never occurred to us before. So in other words, Bush’s tightly argued presentation of the case for war before the "establishment" forgathered in the Capitol was the same kind of thing as the hippies outside with their "video collages of warplanes, corporate logos, oil derricks, Ronald McDonald, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, bombed cities, dead bodies and the question: ‘Is this the world you want?’" As one of the organizers outside told Montgomery with unconscious humor, "We want to make sure the American people know that people are thinking critically and they have an alternative to the Bush agenda." Though alternatives that were not merely negatives were markedly thin on the ground, thinking critically was, after all, what Montgomery himself supposed he was doing.

But if you think that the mountainous self-importance of journalists is a revolting spectacle, try the positively Himalayan self-righteousness of poets, which seems to grow in inverse proportion to the volume of the general desire actually to read anything they write. When the First Lady invited a group of them to the White House in February to celebrate the poetry of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson (hm, a gay man, an African-American and a woman; I wonder if there could be any significance in that?), one of them inevitably tried to turn it into an occasion for showing off to his hostess his finely-honed moral and poetic sensibilities with respect to her husband’s war-mongering and managed to get the thing cancelled. Naturally, the outcry at this "suppression of dissent" from "the poetic community" was immediate. "I think there was a general feeling that the current administration is not really a friend of the poetic community and that its program of attacking Iraq is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the center of the poetic impulse," said Stanley Kunitz, a former "poet laureate."

It takes a certain — shall we say? — self-confidence to characterize one’s own as the only "humanitarian position," even when the alternative position is not, as it is in this case, the lifting of the yoke of a terror-state from off the necks of its subject peoples. Such smugness is not the self-evident outcome of a life spent counting syllables. Or not counting them, as the case may be. But the mystery of its provenance is solved for us by Jay Parini, who was quoted by Martin Arnold in the New York Times as saying that poets’ greater insight into the moral and ethical implications of international affairs is owing to the fact that "our language is pure, and politicians abuse language." Arnold himself is very much of the same mind, noting that "The common theme among poets seems to be their belief that the beauty and precision of their use of language can make a difference."

Oh! So that’s it. In "beauty and precision" lies their title to moral superiority. Well, here’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s idea of beauty and precision, from a poem posted on the Poets Against the War website:

And a vast paranoia sweeps across the land
And America turns the attack on its Twin Towers
Into the beginning of the Third World War
The war with the Third World
And the terrorists in Washington
Are drafting all the young men
And no one speaks

That’s five declarative statements packed into forty-six words of admirable clarity and every one of them demonstrably false. There’s precision for you. Or consider Hayden Carruth’s apostrophe to President Bush:

. . .To recapitulate your
wrong-doings is unnecessary; the topic
is large and prominent and already
occupies the attention of historians
and political scholars, whose findings
will in the near future expose your
incontinent and maniacal ambition
for all to see. Let it suffice to
say that you have warped the law and
flouted the will and wisdom of the
people as no other has before you.
You have behaved precisely as a tin-pot
tyrant in any benighted, inglorious
corner of the earth. And now you are
deviously and corruptly manipulating
events in order to create war.
Let us speak plainly. You wish to
murder millions, as you yourself
have said, to appease your fury. We
oppose such an agenda—we, the people,
artists, artisans, builders, makers,
honest American men and women,
especially the poets, for whom I dare
to speak. We say, desist, resign,
hide yourself in your own shame,
lest otherwise the evil you have
loosed will destroy everything
and love will quit the world.

Let us speak plainly! Let us let those words of "beauty and precision" sink in for just a moment. Having said that he wishes to murder millions (I really must start reading the papers more carefully), Bush must resign in shame "lest otherwise" his evil will destroy everything and, as if that weren’t bad enough, love will quit the world. Mind you, once everything is destroyed, there doesn’t seem much point in love’s continuing to hang around anyway, does there? But though illogical, these are presumably the kinds of words that Martin Arnold hails for their beauty and precision. "Poets have been clearing away sloppy thoughts since the beginning of literature," he assures us happily. This is true enough. But as our contemporary anti-war bards remind us, they have also been committing more of their fair share of sloppy thinking, and for approximately as long. Carruth’s "political scholars" of "the near future" may find themselves shocked to discover that, in our time, it was the politicians who told the truth and the poets who lied.

 




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