In the last hundred and fifty years, we have taken to heart Thoreau’s perspective: “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.” And we learned much from Emerson and Thoreau. But, now our culture often seems limited to the subjective; ask Sokal, now even physics is “personal.” I wonder what Thoreau, who treasured the “fact” that cuts like a cimeter, would think of, say, the Washington Post.
The Washington Post reviews a novel excoriating the president and discussing assassination. Interesting? Perhaps. The novel’s spokesman contends it “is a portrait of an anguished protagonist pushed to extremes. Baker is using the framework and story structure as a narrative device to express the discontent many in America are feeling right now.” Anguish. Discontent. These “affections” are what’s important. The specific, the personal, the heart – how we feel. The deaths over the last twenty years, the muttered fatwas from bin Laden and threats from Saddam, these are facts. But the real “fact” – the important one – is how the author feels. Exactly how a superpower (indeed, a hyperpower) responds to provocations, uses its force in chaotic states – these are not the reason someone would write such a book. It is to express “the discontent” he feels – people like him feel.
I’ve begun (yes, quite belatedly) to read The Federalist Papers. I’m struck how in the introductory sections, Publius returns again and again to a definition of “human nature.” But these writers work with their heads, generalize, pursue what they consider truth. To reach that truth, the writers synthesize history, acknowledge experience, note traditions. Through history, they argue, this “works” and this does not. These writers understood that human emotions are powerful but their goal was to understand them, to become (and help us become) more conscious.
They say: We realize some interpret these events differently; here are their arguments; here are ours. We believe ours are better because we have found precedent, we have noticed truths, we have become more conscious of who we are.
Of course, these arguments came, as would any from wise adults, from soul-searching by these writers – this is what has been my experience, I feel, others feel. But the reasoning is always from the head, the acknowledgement of counter points is always gentlemanly, the respect for history, for facts is always real. They were writing to convince but it was with logic and not emotions they pled. The long view requires addresses to the head. They took the founding of our country very very seriously.
They thought of the future. We turn from them to the present. We don’t seem to take ourselves, our responsibilities, seriously. This is especially worrisome because we have become a “hyperpower” and need very much to take ourselves seriously. But our “superpower” comfort has let us become dilettantes. We can ponder whether we can will ourselves to be other than we are (a man if we are a woman, a woman if a man). We can contemplate our choices in bearing children – early, late, artificial insemination, in a “rented” uterus. We have the luxury of spending our whole lives as adolescents, trying to define ourselves.
And we can ignore the deaths in the Sudan, the children’s prison in Iraq, the protestors jailed in Cuba. John Kerry may believe the Varela project is “counterproductive” and his opinion is a blip on the screen of his campaign. Some, of course, take such things seriously. But we are so interested in how we “feel” we sometimes forget that there is a world out there, beyond our selves, beyond debates that begin with us.
Let’s look at a “fact”: indeed, that is one Iraqi’s response to a fact. We’ll begin with an earlier post, in which I quoted the moving tribute to Bremer by Ali on the wonderful “Iraq the Model” blog. Bremer’s farewell speech made a deep impression on him. This is a fact—it did move him, but it is a subjective one—we can believe but need to see in time its broader importance. An equally forceful description later on the same blog by Mohammed describes a friend who wants somehow to tell Bremer; “I was never surprised when none of the western media broadcasted your impressive speech because I doubt their interest in showing the world the nature of the relation between you and the people of Iraq. But I’d like to tell you this: Iraq loves you just as you love her.” As Jessica’s Well observes, the American press was interested neither in the subjective nor the objective fact. The Washington Post denied Bremer gave a speech at all:
When he left Iraq on Monday after surrendering authority to an interim government, it was with a somber air of exhaustion. There was no farewell address to the Iraqi people, no celebratory airport sendoff. Instead of a festive handover ceremony on Wednesday, the date set for the transfer, an improvised event occupied five minutes on a Monday morning.
The secrecy and brevity of the ceremony were in keeping with the precarious future of the Iraq that Bremer built. Setting out with a vision to transform Iraq into a model of Western democracy and capitalism for the rest of the Arab world, he has left behind a country freed from a tyrannical past but also with grave security threats, a sputtering economy and an appointed government with little popular support.
In the pages of the Washington Post, Baker’s “discontent” is real; Bremer’s speech is not. And we look at the opinion of this report. Even in America, a serious person might ask exactly how fast do such reporters think the world changes. Do these people have any historical perspective, any knowledge of engineering, culture, politics, any knowledge of anything? Most of us would believe that the ceremony, simple as it may have been, was news. And the juxtaposition of the blog and the “report” supports Eric M. Johnson’s criticism of Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post (in a post turned editorial–blogs rule).
We might ask, if a farewell ceremony happens in Iraq and the Post doesn’t cover it, does that mean it didn’t happen? But this isn’t a philosophical question—to those dependent on the Post for facts, that ceremony didn’t become a dot, but we can’t connect dots on an empty field; it has to be reported before we can decide. And for all our feelings that blogs have taken up some of that slack, even bloggers are likely to go to their newspaper each morning and expect some version of history.
To reinforce this fact, repeated again and again in the Blogosphere, but worth repeating, let’s finish quoting Mohammed:
These are the verses which Mr. Bremer used in his farewell speech. They are too difficult to translate (in fact they’re difficult to understand even for Arabs, as it’s an old verse with difficult vocabulary that’s no longer used in daily life) and I’ll post them in Arabic, but they generally say:
I’ve left my heart in the hands of God in Baghdad
I said good bye to him when I wished instead..
That I would say good bye to the days of my life.
أستودع الله في بغداد لي قمرا ….. بالكرخ من فلك الأزرار مطلعه
ودعته وبودي لو يودعني ….. صفو الزمان وأني لا أودعه
عاش العراق ..عاش العراق ..عاش العراق
(And happily for this particular fact, it is impossible to stay ahead of Instapundit or other bloggers. Reynolds now notes not only several of these links, but Power Line’s summary of the L A Times not only mis-reporting Bremer’s speech, but turning their own error into a major theme of the paper’s “news” report.)
Let’s move on to another “fact” or group of “facts” – the documentary by Michael Moore. A local newspaper describes a coffee and talk after the latest Michael Moore movie hosted by academics. An education professor who hosts the gathering discusses its “educational” nature. We are left with a sense that some people haven’t the gravitas that one might expect from adults. They view the world, the world for which they might take some responsibility, the world in which their children are going to live and bear children and work, without much seriousness. To take Michael Moore seriously is to seriously misunderstand him. He doesn’t take himself seriously. And, of course, without that, there is no proportion, no sense of the tragic and little sense of the comic. Sentimentality takes the place of affection, shock of engagement.
Michael Moore has taken the measure of his audience and he is quite frank about what he thinks. The elitists think he is one of them, and he is – the most vulgar of elitists. David Brooks’ column simply lets Moore talk – and we are not surprised by what he has to say. Those that watch his movie may believe they are not the ones about whom he speaks, but they are fooling themselves. We complain that Michael Moore is a blowhard, but those are not so hard to come by. O’Reilley and Hannity are blowhards—albeit more restrained and attractive. Michael Moore is a cynic and he is no less a cynic because of how he looks, the bluster with which he talks. He is Lonesome Rhodes, that wonderful character Andy Griffith plays in Face in the Crowd. But the people he is fooling are the people in ivory towers and getting the big bucks in Hollywood. The workers in Flint, the blue collar workers – few of them are impressed. They know the difference between the subjective and the real; they are pretty sure there is a real and he isn’t it.
Moore ignores our history (and I don’t mean just the breadth of it, the Hamilton/Madison/Jay depth of it, I mean now, here, today). Does he speak of the ten year patrols of the no fly zone? (Were any of the people that find Michael Moore so effective flying in those zones? Were their sons?). At one time, we could speak of Iraq in abstractions. But these were also years when people died in our place – some of them soldiers (Beirut, the Cole) and some of them from other nations (the Embassy bombings). Those are the years of the mass burials, the rape squads, the children’s prison. It is not Bush who thinks American lives are more valuable, it is not he who has forgotten how powerful and terrible the death of one man is. But Bush, like leaders throughout history, some venal and some courageous, has had to take a bigger picture. That he has goes unnoticed if we are too busy examining our own navels.
Now, if we are serious, we realize that the attacks from 1983 to now have shown that some people would like us dead. Their desire is to destroy us all, the more civilians the better, cut off children and destroy pregnant women. The terrorists’ motive, we dimly realize as we notice their targets (an office building in New York, a dance club in Bali, men standing in line to become policemen and protectors of their people). The fact that we would never call it genocide has little to do with our opponents’ motives but much to do with their power. We can destroy them – if we wish to unleash our arsenal. Even restraining those lethal machines, our wars against the states that protect them are over in weeks. We have the ability to commit genocide; they do not. That is why we should be held to higher standards, but we shouldn’t ignore their motives. We can become villains because of our power, but the terrorists are not victims because of their impotency.
It is not pleasant to think that others want our deaths. It is far easier to take Michael Moore’s attitude. It is far easier to turn our anger and resentment and pure emotions where we won’t have to think, won’t have to do. The inimitable Mark Steyn, reviewing the current movie but going back to the Moore of 2001, describes Moore with the wit of true seriousness:
Bush has always been the issue for Moore. On September 11 itself, his only gripe was that the terrorists had targeted New York and DC instead of Texas or, indeed, my beloved New Hampshire: “They did not deserve to die. If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who DID NOT VOTE for him! Boston, New York, DC and the plane’s destination of California – these were places that voted AGAINST Bush!”
The fellows at the controls of those planes were training for 9/11 when Clinton was president and Gore was ahead in the polls, and they’d have still been in the cockpit had Ralph Nader been elected. Though Mohammed Atta took flying lessons in Florida, he apparently wasn’t as exercised about its notorious hanging chads as Michael Moore. Mr Moore is guilty of what I believe psychologists call “projection”.
Moore could be comforted by his belief; it simplifies. No one, he is arguing, wants to kill him. They are only mistaken – the real person they want to kill is Bush. And if he is loud enough and sufficiently charged with energy, he won’t have to face the truth. The truth is that some people out there want him dead. And they want him dead for their own reasons. He prefers that they want Bush dead for his reasons. If he is sufficiently outrageous, maybe we will respond to his outrage and ignore the facts. The facts are that life is unpredictable and tragic.
Their hatred of us is a “fact” and a fact; it need not lead to our hatred of them (being conscious, being serious is something we can will). Lincoln was serious, but when he wrote his Second Inaugural he demonstrated both a ruthlessness (“Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk. . . so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether,’” he tells us) and a charity (for all). In the midst of that bloodiest of all American wars, Whitman (crusader for the Union, no pacifist) could still say, “For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead.” It is this that we need to remember, always – this is what our culture has painfully taught us over many centuries. Ultimately, we are not a tribe; we are individuals tied together by our human nature. And each of us is divine. It is not our “feelings” that can give that divinity its due, but our head that sees more broadly, more thoughtfully.
It is for our safety – a more “connected,” more “ordered” world for our children – that we have let lose those bombers. But those who see the world with seriousness do not see only the people dying today. They were dying – they were, indeed, dying in large numbers two years ago. The point was not that the people in Afghanistan, in Iraq weren’t dying; the point is that they weren’t living, living as we want our children to be free to live. That is what Mohammad and Ali are trying to tell us. That is what we would know if we were serious.