Saturday, November 11, 2006

Swords vs. Machine Guns

(above, American flags in Rockefeller Center last Tuesday night)

I'll just say, for now, that I remain a political doubter. Being an existentialist (see: somewhere not too far below), I firmly believe that the most we can do is struggle to wade through the muck of human motivation and action. I've yet to come across a better summary of my broadest opinion than this passage from The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus, which I read in college: "If I see a man armed only with a sword attack a group of machine guns, I shall consider his act to be absurd. But it is so solely by virtue of the disproportion between his intention and the reality he will encounter, of the contradiction I notice between his true strength and the aim he has in view."

It's sad but true to say that I see that disproportion in many areas of life, both in mundane activities and grand schemes. I agree with many that this administration has been shameful. My greatest initial disappointment was not with the decision to go to war -- a decision I tepidly supported, perhaps partly because of the fog September 11 left me in, but for less hazy reasons as well -- but with the lack of eloquence in talking to us about that war as it unfolded. Early on, I satisfied myself with Tony Blair’s ability to speak to what was at stake. As time wore on, though, our country’s highest leaders went from just frustratingly inarticulate to arrogantly obscurant.

If he were capable of communicating his policies on even the simplest level or expressing even a shred of humility or accountability, I could manage some empathy for President Bush. After all, even among those who debate whether he’s the worst we’ve ever had, there’s very little discussion of context. The events of 2001 certainly made this one of the toughest moments in our history to be president. Not tougher than Lincoln’s time, but in some ways tougher than Roosevelt’s, because World War II was fought between clearly defined nations in a time of far less postmodern cynicism, with no fear of escalating weapons technology falling into the hands of the equivalent of Timothy McVeigh. In short, the current problems we face (even leaving aside the very large issue of Iraq and focusing on the problems that we faced before the invasion) are not new in nature, but almost certainly new in scale.

I still give little credit to theories about us having gone to war solely on behalf of certain corporations (as my father sometimes says, my cynicism has its limits), and I still maintain that the larger failures of the venture do more damage to idealistic liberal notions than to any traditional conservative theory. (We are only at war in Iraq now to the degree that Iraqis are at war with each other, and to see so many liberals essentially doubting the inherent ability of that country to manage itself -- and it’s hard to argue -- is a startling turnaround, philosophically.)

Mostly, the recent election proved little to me other than that Americans tend to be centrist and materialist at the end of the day, and to correct any very strong swings in ideological directions. (This is something I’ve been telling friends here for years, but some of them have a hard time realizing that even the most conservative strongholds in the U.S. are not easily drawn away from the center of debates, much less states with large moderate-to-liberal populations, of which there are many. That reality doesn’t jibe with the attitude many here like to have that they’re somehow holding up the pillars of civilization against the mouth-foaming insanity of the rest of the country.)

I’m happiest that we’ll now have divided government, because I think the majority opinions of the country -- especially in the younger generations -- are not reflected by the likes of Rick Santorum and others who seem to think less that Jesus’ law should rule the land than that they bodily represent Jesus in much the way Jesus claimed to represent God.

But do I buy all of the “new dawn” talk that’s making the rounds in New York (and elsewhere, I’m sure)? Please. Have any of you heard Nancy Pelosi? This is not Voltaire, people. Some things are bound to improve, from a blue perspective, but I don’t think our knottier global problems -- many of them, gasp, not lovingly crafted by W. -- are going anywhere. It will just be harder now to blame them on straw men. And that’s an improvement, too.

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Anonymous Dave said...

"The events of 2001 certainly made this one of the toughest moments in our history to be president."

Which is why this president is a colossal failure. Every time the nation has been threatened or attacked, our presidents have risen to the occasion to eliminate the threat or defeat the enemy. On September 11, we were attacked and this president's response has made us weaker militarily, internationally, and domestically. I can think of no other failure that equals the magnitude of President Bush's response to 9/11.

Unless, of course, you would like to argue that the terrorist threat has been greatly exaggerated. This would require you to invoke your cynical mind.

7:47 PM  
Blogger lmha said...

Can you refrain from linking all of Christiandom to Rick Santorum? His political rhetoric is the furthest thing from my moral and religious beliefs. You have a bad tendency to overreach with your Christian references. We're not all mindless assholes. Most aren't. In fact, you could give even evangelicals a little credit for not remaining the lapdogs Republicans assumed they'd be.

Finally, I even beg to differ with Camus. When I read that passage, I immediately thought of the Chinese protestors standing (swordless, gunless) in front of the tanks in Tiennamin Square. Sure, he died. But can you think of many other visual images of freedom that so impacted the world? I'd say he achieved his aim, or close enough.

5:22 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Did I link all of Christiandom to Santorum? I don't believe I did. That said, my bad tendency to overreach with my Christian references (a tendency I deny) is matched by the overreach of many Christian politicians (and many of their constituents). I do not put all of these people in the same boat as all Christians. But they exist. I'm going to write about them from time to time, and it doesn't mean I disrespect my friends who are Christian.

As for disagreeing with Camus, the Chinese protestors only prove his point. They may live on as a symbol of freedom to other people, but the immediate result of their actions IN CHINA was a greater crackdown on democratic reforms, etc.

6:57 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Oh, and Dave, welcome.

Part of my point, which I should have expanded, was that to "eliminate or defeat" this threat is not as likely as in the past (see the "clearly defined" part of my hasty rant). The administration's response was not always smart, that's an understatement; but the task they had (and have) is a big, unconventional one. I just wanted to factor that in, before calling them names, which I'm happy to do.

7:00 PM  

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