First, read this.
A couple of little news items that have stuck in my mind in the past few days:
1. Walter F. Murphy, a Princeton poli sci professor and former Marine colonel, found himself on a no-fly list while traveling to an academic conference:
"I presented my credentials from the Marine Corps to a very polite clerk for American Airlines. One of the two people to whom I talked asked a question and offered a frightening comment: "Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that." I explained that I had not so marched but had, in September, 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the Web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the Constitution. "That'll do it," the man said. "
As they say, read the whole thing. Since this has been out there for a few days without anyone disputing it in any major way, I'll assume this is for real.
2. A couple of weeks ago Lurita Doan, the head of the GSA -- one of those dull government agencies that, in other times, we had the luxury of not having to think about -- got in hot water for having held a meeting during which Karl Rove outlined a strategy for defeating house Democrats in the 2008 elections. This would be a violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits civil servants using their offices for partisan ends, and in any event would be yet another example of the Bush administration sleazily attempting to co-opt a part of the government that presidential administrations formerly left alone. Rep. Bruce Braley grilled Doan and showed her slides from Rove's PowerPoint presentation. Her answers induce something akin to the existentialist notion of nausea -- a kind of hermeneutic nausea, a sense of the yawning chasm that can open up between two people who live in the same society and speak the same language and yet somehow can agree on none of the epistemological warrants that underlie the language they share. For example (at about 3:25 into the Youtube video):
Braley: (After showing a PowerPoint slide, titled "2008 House Targets: Top 20", listing electoral information on 20 vulnerable Democrat-held congressional seats) You would agree that a reasonable interpretation of this slide is that it was a political attempt to try to target the top twenty democratic candidates for defeat in 2008?
Doan: No I would not say that, I would say that this is a slide that says "2008 House Targets: Top 20" -- I do not want to try to speculate on what was intended by Mr. Jennings on this slide . . ."
You have to admire the hermeneutic radicalism of this response, although it's also possible, just possible, that she knows what the slide means and is trying to evade responsibility for breaking the law. Who knows? What is truth, anyway?
Here's a useful word for you: kakistocracy, meaning "rule of the worst." Here is my fun new coinage: hackistocracy, rule by a cabal of venal, self-dealing, cynical, sanctimonious, lying, bumbling, bullying hacks.
The thing is, these are hardly the worst things I could have used to condemn this presidential administration, this political culture, this low, lying, contemptible age in which we live. These examples are interesting precisely because they're sort of normal. Another day, another lying hack scuttling for cover after being flushed out from under her rock. Another day, another American targeted by some shadowy, unaccountable extra-judicial mechanism, profiled as an internal enemy, and subjected to petty harassment. Assuming that everything happened just as it was described, the most interesting detail is the clerk's tone of friendly professional assessment. Lesse, attend any peace marches? No? Oh, you said something bad about Bush. There's your problem! It's just sort of normal, a puzzling anomaly to be figured out, like when a supermarket scanner says your bag of peas will cost $15. Is anyone taking to the streets over this? Well, maybe some are, but the point is, nothing appears outrageous enough to warrant it anymore.
I mean, let's do a thought experiment and imagine that we found out that, oh, I don't know, just for a crazy hypothetical parallel-universe example, the US government was holding prisoners indefinitely without charges in secret prisons and subjecting them to torture. Perhaps there was once a time when the phenomenology of such a revelation, an essential aspect of how it comes into world, would necessarily entail spontaneous mass outrage. In a free and democratic nation, torture and secret prisons are inherently outrageous: they exist as boundaries to our very identity, telling us what we are not. But if this was ever true before, it surely isn't now. When outrage at torture and secret jails is simply another political opinion, all the lesser abuses this government heaps on its citizens will appear, too, as things about which reasonable people may differ. On a much more modest scale, the revelation, in the course of your workaday life, that a decorated war veteran and eminent professor was put on a terror watch list for delivering a speech critical of the President, should also automatically come into the world with a shock, with the sound of rending and tearing, a sense that a hole has opened up in your moral understanding of the world in which you live. But after Abu Ghraib, it doesn't. It's just One Of Those Things.
This, I think, is the hallmark the age in which we live, rather than the more straightforward notion of "crushing dissent." I mean, here I am, dissenting, on this blog. The hallmark of our age is the way in which state authority treats dissent -- and speech and expression in general -- with total contempt. It is the way speech and expression have been systematically devalued, by intention and by neglect, by example and by precept, within all spheres of public discourse. I have offered two small example, though one could multiply them endlessly. There is, of course, the cruder kind of state imposition on speech, like the FBI rounding people who kind of look like they might be anarchists. There is the eerie, creeping feeling that settles into your life as you come to realize that you can no longer assume your telephone conversations are private. There is the daily drumbeat of propaganda words, of "surges" and "mixed messages" and "cultures of life" and "extraordinary renditions," etc. And from here flows a more abstract and pervasive debasement of thought and speech, a sense that personal expression counts for nothing; power, everything. Speech matters only in the service of power, and it ends up with no autonomous features, no identity apart from the power to which it is harnessed.
It's time to dust off George Orwell's Politics and the English Language. Academic player-haters like Louis Menand and Stanley Fish might snark at this essay, but Orwell's point still stands:
In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.
I don't like writing about politics, though that's not to say I don't have political opinions. I dislike writing about politics for political reasons, if that makes any sense. As I've said elsewhere, I like to describe myself as an anarchist with a mortgage, which means I'm a small-l libertarian, or, if you like, a minarchist. Like Orwell, I believe that politics is "a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia." To be sure, I'm fascinated by politics, but the way an oncologist is fascinated by cancer: politics may be fascinating, but, at the end of the day, it is a force of destruction. For me, power (and politics, which is the systematic administration of power) -- is, like the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, inherently evil. Until Frodo came along no hero, however well-intentioned, ever got up the nerve to destroy it, or even renounce it, because he always convinced himself that its great power could be turned to a good end. But of course that never happens; the power of the Ring always perverts those who use it, whatever their intentions. The only way to deal with the Ring is to throw it away.
So I think it would be a good idea to throw away the Ring, or at least to renounce the notion that I, an intellectual-type person, can make the world a better place as an old-school mandarin Public Intellectual, making lofty ex cathedra statements that the Little People ought to heed. I do not believe that politics would be better if people like me were in control; I only believe things would be better if no-one was in control. No-one, that is, except individuals, making decisions about their own lives. So I believe in those things that minimize the power of politics in people's lives, in personal choice and self-government, in the basic right of people to make decisions about their own lives. Which means, among other things, that I resent blowhards who insist that there is no outside of politics, you have to take a stand, you're either part of the problem of part of the solution, you're either with us or against us, etc. And if you're with us, get in line and start marching. This is why I don't like to write about politics. It is the birthright of every individual not to give a damn about politics -- either my politics or anyone else's. As much as I despise the hackistocracy, even more I despise the idea of turning my blog into its negative image, a hectoring, whinging polemic delivered to people whose assent is extorted by the moral force of "community."
But at the same time it is true that, as Orwell wrote, there is no keeping out of politics. My defense of your right to not give a damn about politics is itself political. And, to continue my politics-as-cancer metaphor,no-one decides to get cancer. Cancer gets you. Likewise politics: this age is marked above all by the politicization of everything, the metastasizing of politics into ever nook and cranny of our lives. This lies at the bottom of the present-day debasement of speech and expression, and anyone who writes about present-day culture has to reckon with this fact.
So what is the experience of living in this culture? How would we tell this story in hindsight? Are these rather abstract things I've ranted about at the front of my mind when I have a drink with my wife at the end of the day, or when I go to a concert, or when I read a book? Are they at the back of my mind? Are they anywhere? What, in short, is the intersection of public and private life? Imagine a future historian writing a cultural history of American in the years immediately after 9/11/2001. What would that look like? More later.