Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The War on Reality

The Welsh actor Richard Burton once wrote in The New York Times about what it was like to play Winston Churchill in a 1974 television production. He described the experience this way:

“In the course of preparing myself . . . I realized afresh that I hate Churchill and all of his kind. I hate them virulently. They have stalked down the corridors of endless power all through history. . . . What man of sanity would say on hearing of the atrocities committed by the Japanese against British and Anzac prisoners of war, ‘We shall wipe them out, every one of them, men, women, and children. There shall not be a Japanese left on the face of the earth?’ Such simple-minded cravings for revenge leave me with a horrified but reluctant awe for such single-minded and merciless ferocity.”
Watching President Obama speak last Tuesday night, I was reminded of Burton’s words. Listening to all the self-congratulatory bleating, it was impossible not to be overcome by that same “horrified but reluctant awe.” How else is one to react to a man who dares to praise “respect for the rule of law,” even as he shields Bush Administration war criminals from prosecution, and himself presides over an international regime of torture, imprisonment without charge, show trials, and assassination?

What Obama lacked in ferocity, he made up for in audacity. This is a man who had the temerity to declare, straight-faced, “The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.” What he failed to say was that before the United States stood with the people of Tunisia, it stood with their dictator, and stood with him until the moment popular revolt sent him packing. Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to the events in Tunisia knows this. Certainly the Tunisians know it. Did Obama believe that such words would endear him to the people of that country? Did he believe that the Egyptians, engaged in their own revolution, would ignore the “Made in USA” labels on the tear gas canisters fired at them by riot police? Such brazen contempt for truth is simply breathtaking.

Yet Obama’s address was not merely an assault on truth, or intelligence, or decency, although it was all of these things. It was an assault on reality itself. He may as well have been addressing a parallel universe, for all the relevance of his soaring rhetoric to the world we live in. Repression of democratic movements has been the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy for the last century. It will remain as such well into the next. Obama knows this – knows that the only U.S. support for protesters will be a throwaway line in a speech full of such lines.

But then supporting democracy means nothing next to the appearance of supporting democracy, and one must keep up appearances. This level of vacuousness permeated the entire speech. When preaching about “America’s moral example,” Obama did not speak of freedom or justice or dignity, but Freedom and Justice and Dignity – cheap and hollow imitations of those concepts, empty slogans with all the meaning of the average corporate logo, and thus perfectly suited for our mass consumer society. Indeed, one half-expected a procession of ™ symbols to appear on-screen as he listed them. And so we are treated to the spectacular sight of Obama reading his script of lies to tumultuous applause, a third-rate actor performing in the theatre of the absurd.

To such meaningless proclamations there can be no meaningful response. One cannot laugh, although such statements are laughable. The consequences are too dire for faraway peoples for this sort of insanity to carry any real humor. And yet the lies are too expected, too predictable, to provoke any new sense of shock or contempt. One can only marvel at the total moral bankruptcy, or massive self-delusion, required to utter such absurdities before an audience of millions.

In her Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt noted the link between corruption of language and general moral corruption. Covering the trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi official responsible for organizing the deportation of Jews to the death camps, she observed that the career bureaucrat had a propensity for speaking in clich├ęs and stock phrases. Eichmann himself apologized to the court for speaking in what he termed “officialese” – trite and meaningless jargon. Arendt concluded that this poverty of imagination was indicative of larger failings:
“The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.”
In a time when reality itself is under attack, beset on all sides by meaninglessness and triviality and dumb spectacle, these words – written nearly fifty years ago – are more relevant than ever.

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