7 – The Clean Slate Illusion(18 Jan 09)

     “When it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed [to] looking at what we got wrong in the past”, so said president elect Barack Obama when commenting on possible investigations of wrongdoing by the CIA and other American government agencies. I read this in the train to Tokyo (having just arrived from Shanghai) in the Daily Yomiuri. That paper, despite erratic editorial ups-and-downs, has probably been the best instant English language guide to Japanese editorial preoccupations and simultaneously carries most of the editorial pages of the Washington Post, thus serving as a pretty good substitute browser when the internet is not within reach.
     Taken out of context, one cannot on the basis of that one phrase be sure what Obama actually thinks. But what jumps from the page right at me, as the empty rice paddies and stands of bamboo pass by under that unsurpassed cobalt blue sky (a well-kept secret: the Tokyo area is the place to be in January) is David Ignatius’s praise of Obama’s remark as a display of realism, of a kind that “will disappoint liberal score-settlers”. This is a new category for me. There must be some “score-settlers” among Americans who abhorred the acts of the Bush entourage, but do they deserve being singled out and implicitly berated for their vindictiveness? Are there not many many more “liberals” who are fully aware that “getting things right” is inseparably linked with looking at what has gone wrong before?
     Ignatius is a voice in what is now a huge chorus pleading for a view of history not as a source of knowledge, but as a depository of things that are over and done with. Members of such a chorus can be found anywhere, but in the United States they are tuned to a temper that survives all hardship because it can be very bracing. It has in fact been a preferred antidote to hardship.
     It is summed up in the assurance that “today is the first day of the rest of your life” – a quintessential American phrase, entirely understandable for a migrant population having left a less promising old world, and still inclined to pack their bags for a new life somewhere else. It has given Americans that wonderful understanding that they need not be captives of their own biography. But the truly uplifting effect comes with a less desirable compulsive optimism and frequently an inability to recognize tragedy.
     The optimistic temper tends to lead to a grand illusion of the clean slate. This is an illusion because we never have those. The scribblings on our slates come with being human. Not being enslaved to your biography requires a detailed awareness of it. (Which is why the “veil of ignorance” introduced by the theorist John Rawls, widely considered the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century, is so hopelessly politically and morally useless as a thought experiment).
     Ignatius wants a clean slate for his country, and not in the least for himself, as Glenn Greenwald, who fell over the same line as I did, notes in Salon (Jan 15: Establishment Washington unifies against prosecutions). Ignatius, along with Thomas Friedman and a majority of his colleagues in the mainstream media, and a majority of Democratic representatives in Congress, have too much to answer for to want an honest accounting. Hence we are already, and will be more, inundated with positive remarks about the “postpartisan attitude” of the about to be born administration. In the context of the question of holding politicians to account “non ideological” is becoming an expression of praise.
     In recent years I have frequently wondered how Americans in general would digest their George W. Bush years, given their ahistorical media. The history of the George W. Bush government and its works, is too big a story for an essayist or a scholar writing an academic treatise, a journalist carefully constructing the first sketch of history with open eyes or the summing up in a pamphlet of a dismayed political activist. All these laborers in the public sphere if they are honest deserve praise, but they will not satisfy. The story is too big to do justice to it in normal discursive prose. Its depth and what it portends cannot be conveyed without bringing forth what only human intuition is capable of making intelligible. Layers of tacit understanding need be prodded. Future generations may have a late twentyfirst century Gibbon to serve them with this history. But in the meantime, we must hope for some great playwrights.
     As I tried to convey aspects of it, in writing and talks, the thought kept recurring that this overwhelming subject requires a Shakespeare. What we can do, you and me, is to prepare ingredients for a twentyfirst century Shakespeare. This is shorthand, of course. Neither the characters nor the dramatic moments are necessarily Shakespearean. The playwright who may be inspired by them may perhaps write like Racine, Goethe, Schiller or Arthur Miller, or create a style that establishes him or her as one of the greats in this list of distillers of the human experience. On this website I will try to offer some of those ingredients, as I see them, for any of those brave playwrights who rise to the very hard challenge of ultimate political understanding.
     Which particular bit of essence of the human condition will the tease the brain of these playwrights most, as they regard the George W. Bush years? They will have much to chose from.
     A prominent main theme, no doubt, will be hubris: Arrogant pride that destroys rational thought; the greatest human failing in Greek plays. The American government inaugurated in January 2001 had by the end of that year no less an aim than re-making the world. It said it would eradicate the evil of terrorism, and a little later that this would include forcing democracy upon the Middle East. It went about all this nonchalantly, with little if any thought to causes and effects making big and awful history. And if the eradication of evil was a rhetorical mantle seducing a population but merely covering more opportunistic political purposes, it was still hubris that blinded the administration to what it inadvertently was bringing about. Whatever the true goals that drove its policies, there can be no doubt that they were pursued from the outset in a manner that undermined them.
     When playwrights get to work quickly on the first nine years of this century, a controversial question will arise for some of them: were the fateful events in the midst of whose effect we now live set off by innocents or maniacs? These two states of being need not, of course, exclude each other, but emphasis on either one will help determine our view on what may come next. Innocence can be cured by violent impact on reality. The cavalier manner in which the world was told that an invasion of a country in the Middle East would be followed by a metamorphosis of that country into a democracy, and that this would be the beginning of a wave of democratization washing over a large part of the Arab world suggests innocence. A good chunk of America’s political class, apparently seduced by this claim as justification for the belligerence of their government, probably did not have a clue as to what such a project would entail.
     This type of innocence had its charm in the past, and should not be dismissed out-of-hand by non–Americans. Like the “today is the first day of your life” approach, American optimism, the widespread “can do!” mentality, may have an invigorating effect on political figures whose dull routines and lethargy can otherwise infect entire societies. But it has made the American popular imagination gullible to the idea that the nation confronts a world with unfinished business for it to clear. There appears to be a fate that comes with American existence, embedded in the conception of the American colonies and later the United States as a much better alternative than the Europe left behind, which contained an apostolic task to bring revolution to the human condition. At least from president Woodrow Wilson onward, democracy has often been made to seem something requiring little more than simple political will to bring it about: a matter of choice for a population given such a choice, once tyrants were shoved aside, with the help or nothing more than the example of the United States.

     The properly suspicious will argue with good reason that the battle for freedom and against evil has been little more than hogwash with which to fool a public that naturally required grandiose explanations. That is another theme the drama could be about: Deep and relentless mendacity. A system of lies was created and with those at least a million of lives were terminated, and more millions displaced, while they brought the world’s most powerful country to the brink of political decomposition – and that all for the selfish purposes of a small group.
     But what then was the actual motivation of the main players? We do not know. We can speculate and make educated guesses. A dramatist will have various possibilities to work with: war profiting as motive, or simply the fanaticism born of a desire for total control becoming a driving force. This fanaticism could also be in the service of what these players, with their hidebound imagination and essential ignorance of the world, saw as the future security of their country. Was much of it part of a misconceived scheme ultimately meant to redirect global traffic in energy resources?
     Perhaps not hubris, but criminality raised to rarely seen levels, will inspire our future playwright. The two, again, do not exclude each other, and for playwrights this may merely be a matter of emphasis. Greek playwrights, haunted by the possibility of hubris, believed in words attributed to Euripides that “whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad”. And there is an inescapable aspect of madness attached to the fantasy world that the American president and his entourage inhabited for much of their duration; the cocoon that effectively cut them off from common sense political discourse. Even in his latest utterances, a month, weeks, days, before his departure, George W. Bush continued to give the impression that he has simply been cut off from reality. This insanity factor appeared to me to be the main explanation of the unfolding of events for several years. But I was cautioned by a friend, a wise American patriot, who remarked: “but remember, in a court of law the insanity plea, if successful, will let them off the hook; they are criminals, and we all know that criminals will commit a new crime to cover up the earlier ones”; it should be a line in one of the plays.
     Repetitive mention of criminality will almost inevitably irritate numbers of readers beyond measure and undermine my “credibility”. We have a problem here, one that might provide another big theme for our future playwright. I know journalists and scholars who are aware of how far things have deteriorated in the United States, but who will hold back talking about it for fear of “losing their credibility” – once they lose that they will never get it back, even when with the passage of time they are proven to have been right. Fate again. This means that many of those in positions that come with “credibility” and who could help remove ignorance from a terribly ill-informed public are not doing this. See Jotting # 5. The themes thrown up by this experience are without question part of the essence of humanity: gullibility and self-deceit. Denying what on a deeper level one knows to be true leaves us, again, off the hook. Gullibility and self-deception cause mendacity to flourish in political cultures.
     The huge-scale mendacity that we have experienced since the George W. Bush administration introduced the fantasy that the United States was at war has triggered a proliferation of untruth infecting the politics of European countries as well. It has made the basis of much political discourse everywhere untrustworthy. Untruth on the scale and pervasiveness that has now become common is nothing less than the greatest threat in our lifetimes to our political civilization. And it lingers on. What bigger theme for a drama could there be?