LIBBY NO BADDY?
Nick Bromell has an article in Salon (www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/01/24/scooter_libby/print.html
). He had previously had a longer article on the same subject in “The American Scholar”, later published on Alternet (www.alternet.org/story/46756/
). I’ll comment on the Salon article first, and then move on to the longer American Scholar article.
He is a thoroughly modern university professor in the Humanities, given to reflection and deliberation. And who cannot encourage more of it? Our modern American reality is shot through with the electric surges of Passion and sentimentality, at the expense of Reason and thought. All to the great detriment of The People and of this Republic. It’s as if – The horror! The irony! – we are being electrocuted in our own chairs … an unintended consequence, surely.
He is also a long-time pal of Scooter Libby, since prep-school daze. And on the basis of that long association, Professor Bromell is exercised by the fact that Scooter – who is himself “easygoing, tolerant, humane, balanced, modest and witty” (surely there’s a merit badge for this panoplium of virtues) – could reconcile his fine self to the demands of the Bush administration that is “precisely everything” that Scooter is not.
Well, first, that last bit is a tad overstated. They all have two legs and no tails – presumably – over there in Unitary-Executive Land. But beyond the realm of surfaces and appearances, why yes indeed – the similarities between the Bush Gang and the phenomenon formerly known as ‘decent people’ end, and abruptly.
The Professor seems headed for the old – but hardly irrelevant – questions that form a penumbra around Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”. Scooter – Jewish, by the by – was no gutter ruffian, no Party hack, no frothing revolutionary nor stiff-armed romantic nationalist. Indeed, with the exception of the Jewish bit, he sounds much like the young Albert Speer, although without the kinda gay attraction to the Leader’s personality that more accurately describes Herr Rove (remember the shape of the young Bush-butt, stuffed into its jeans, with the chaw-can making that unique bulge in the back pocket, the whole achieving a remarkable rump-ish gestalt ..? And we fancy ourselves a mature culture.) But we digress.
The Professor considers the oft-given answer of “naked ambition”. He does not reflect on the fact that a personality driven primarily by “naked ambition” and thence driven to get in bed (if we may) with such reprehensible treachery as is the quotidian ethos of the Bush Gang, can’t be quite as reely reely swell as the Professor would like to imagine. But the Professor does consider that Scooter could have made his bundle in corporate law (another playing-field of the truly virtuous) and avoided the swamplands of Washington City altogether. Yet he did not.
Considering Scooter’s need – as a child of Jewish extraction – to ‘fit in’ at prep school, yet stoutly describing much of the prep school ethos as composed of “absurd values and hypocritical institutions”, the Professor dismisses Scooter’s Jewishness as a cause. Indeed, the country has to start facing up to the passage of Time: in our national myth-memory, the quintessential “American Jew” (I do not like that shortcut word for persons who are Jewish) is the kid of immigrant parents or a very young immigrant himself, who lived on the Lower East Side of the very early 1900s, then pulled up the old bootstraps and went on to writing novels or music, or to running large business enterprises, or to running a movie studio or acting for one, all in constant fruitful contact – of alternating positive and negative valence – with others of his kind. The remaining folk to whom this general description still applies are few and far between. But Scooter’s generation may have been one of the very last for whom that script (and the condescending, still-valorized discrimination that was its bugbear) held formative power. Certainly, since the overt late-‘60s shift to exalting the U.S. relationship with Israel, the script has increasingly lost much of its accuracy.
No, the Professor thinks. The true cause is “a kind of innocence about Scooter”. And it was Scooter’s “humility to bow before a master warrior and undertake a life of apprenticeship to figures mightier than himself” that did him in, ensnaring him into a tragedy of truly Greek proportions (one would expect no less of a preppie’s debacle, no?).
Well … good grief. To consider a grade-A manipulator as a "warrior" and then want to attach yourself to him as an apprentice is both witless and dangerous enough. To assume that the will and the ability to manipulate is a sign of strength “mightier than” oneself belies a grave immaturity of judgment – or at least it did until university ‘humanities’ programs adopted the Theory that everything is equal to everything else and therefore you cannot pass judgment on anything or anyone. If Scooter is “innocent” it is of a certain fundamental moral and characterological maturity. But then, in our modern American reality, such a deformity is so widespread – either as an achievement or as an aspiration – that most do not see it for what it really is. And wrapped in the still-untattered cloak of Theory, this unlovely situation bids fair to go on.
And – when you get right down to it – Scooter was indeed ambitious. He was ambitious not just to make money and get his piece of the pie, but to affect – or effect! – History. This is the type of innocence that is the incubation phase of Hubris, and that plague has long since carried away not only the inmates of the Unitary Executive but much of the higher-paid levels of the population of Washington City.
When you’re doing it in a Good Cause, then Heaven itself demands that you carry on. Gott mit uns! And when the Advocacies flattened our Lifespace in the service of their various agendas beginning back there in the ‘70s, and there was no more Beyond and indeed no more Vertical even within the individual (you don’t wanna ‘judge’ who’s more mature than who – it’s insensitive/hateful/male/oppressive/fill-in-the-blank), then the only remaining Guarantor of the Good was the State (acting ‘in loco Dei’, perhaps as His Deputy or perhaps – like the female praying-mantis – having sawed off His head but still keeping up appearances for its own convenience). And Scooter fell right into this, went along with it, declared his allegiance to it and all its pomps, and did its work.
So to Arendt’s “banality of evil” the Professor adds the “innocence of evil”. And in a way it is accurate to describe it as an ‘innocence’: there was no desire for an Evil outcome and indeed there was every desire for a Good (however defined) outcome. But there was a willingness, and an intensely-applied calculation, to successfully deploy evil methods to achieve that ‘Good’. And there was no truly deep effort to carefully define ‘Good’.
Of course, in our modern American reality, flattened as it now is and luridly overlit by the consuming force of government and of political power, then how ‘deep’ can any analysis go? What depth and breadth and height and width can be perceived? We are at sea with a radar that only scans the surface of the ocean, able to probe neither above nor below that surface. And, granted the generations of young now schooled in this flatness – this Flatness – they may be unequipped even to perceive their lack. And our lack. And Our lack. At least Custer knew he was dealing with the ever-capable Sioux, even if he was a little off in his intel and kinda hasty in his plans.
And as Richard Slotnick so acutely and deeply documents in his book “Gunfighter Nation”, it has been the conceit of postwar ‘westerns’ that true Americans allow themselves to be lied to and manipulated by the Strong Leader With A Gun In A Good Cause, and in so doing they prove their patriotism and their manhood – or at least their man-ness. So the ‘salaryman’ of the late 19th century blended into the ‘patriot’ of the mid-20th century and after decades of assault by the Theoried hordes of the late-20th century, eagerly leaped at the chance to prove his man-ness by affecting, effecting, and otherwise even creating History in the early-21st. And the world – and now this Republic – staggers on.
The Professor wrote at greater length and breadth in “The American Scholar”, although the burden of his argument is the same.
“We should try to experience what happens to us without judging it”, intones the Professor. Gosh that takes me back. But it also – achingly – thrusts us violently into the present. It was no doubt hoped that after decades of PC indoctrination we – We – would not ‘judge’ the claims of WMDs smoking and rocking on the launch pads of Iraq. We would not ‘discriminate’ between truth and untruth, between fact and assertion, since after decades of PC indoctrination we would have inhaled enough of the fumes of Theory’s miasm to presume that there is no difference between truth and untruth because there is no Truth, and therefore no need for Thinking, and therefore no reason for Objectivity; and Reason is an oppressive guy-thing anyway.
No, rather We would allow ourselves to be stoked by the Passion for righteous revenge against the fundamentalist whackjobs who abused so many children by killing their parents and relatives and neighbors on 9-11. Left and Right, we would race together, arms locked, at the future – On To Baghdad! For all their stentorian brays about patriotism, did no one in Washington City bother to rent the DVD of “They Died With Their Boots On”? Or did they watch it just to get the melody of that regimental marching tune? And does the Marine Band now play it at White House soirees? Or when the Unitary Deciderer is going for a jog?
Speaking of his own professional tribe, Professor Bromell explains “[W]e do not maintain that there is no such thing as truth. We believe, rather, that there is no such thing as the truth, no such thing as truth conceived of as an eternal verity standing apart from power and outside the push and pull of human history.” So – as Mark Twain would say – there it was. Here is the Theory that flattens, and leads to the awefull Flatness its acolytes call ‘progress’.
We should stop using ‘truth’ as if it could have several optional and variant meanings. It’s only confusing us, just like using ‘love’ to denote both sex and Christian charity only confuses things, and just like using ‘charity’ to denote both voluntary giving of alms and the caring-respect-owed-to-other-humans confuses people. After a while, such confusions, amplified and echoing like richoeting bullets, either polarize people or discourage them from thinking about things at all. So either there is Truth, or there is no Truth. Either Truth is ‘out there' to be found as best we can manage the job and maybe even is ‘up’ there, or it is not anywhere. In which latter case there is no ground for calling something a ‘fact’ or ‘true’, and there is no reason to keep up the skills that would be able to find or explore things to sift out ‘facts’ and ‘truth’.
But if there are ‘experiences’ that one person might ‘see’ or ‘feel’ or choose to believe are true, which another person might ‘see’ or ‘feel’ or choose to believe are not-true, well then a world is created with all water and no solid ground. Hard to build a house, let alone a factory or –nowadays – an office building. I say that we call differing opinions something other than ‘truth’ such that it could be said in English that a situation holds ‘different’ or ‘opposed’ truths. This sense of what a ‘truth’ is would be better handled by the concept of ‘priority’. One person looks at a phenomenon with ‘x’ priority and another person looks at the same phenomenon with ‘y’ priority, and so we have differing, perhaps opposed, ‘priorities’. But we do not have differing or opposed ‘truths’.
The concept of Truth – for political purposes – has been dissolved because it “provokes hostility rather than understanding” and “provokes righteousness rather than tolerance”. Now I ask you: In what sort of mind would the search for Truth be perceived as a hostile act? What sort of purpose would be moved to hostility by an encounter with the search for understanding?
Has Truth provoked “righteousness” in some? Yes, the human self – due to Original Sin, the Kathliks would have said – is prone to seek certainty and then clothe itself with certainty’s authority. Fundamentalism makes its money off that fact. But Truth and the search for it, the sifting for it, has yielded great and lasting benefits. And more, the search for Truth has provided a wonderfully efficacious trellis for the wild-root vines of the human mind and spirit.
Should one ‘tolerate’ un-Truth? Not in oneself – and that task should keep one busy for all of one’s natural life, especially if one is also trying always to improve one’s ability to come closer to Truth. In others? How urgent is it to exercise violence in any form – overt or subtle – to bring others to Truth? Surely Christ in the Gospels did not use violence. Governments sorta like violence – that much we know, and a good praying-mantis might saw off the head and hide behind the body … could that be true? Hmmm.
There is no such thing, the Professor goes on, as truth “conceived of as an eternal verity standing apart from power and outside the push and pull of human history”. Well, well. Here is the great Flattener at its core: there is nothing that stands apart from power – then how can you speak Truth to power, as Fred Siegel acutely asked almost 15 years ago? If there is no high ground, no ground standing apart from “power” (and once there was also ground ‘above’ the powers-of-this-world), then on what grounds can you speak or act against the powers-of-this-world (which, in our Theoretically Flattened reality, is the only world)?
And the correct answer is: “the push and pull of human history” … or … politics. Lenin’s reduction is now truly our own. You ‘make’ truth (like the Bush Gang was going to ‘make’ History) by exerting more political clout than the other side – that’s it bare-assed and naked. And how do you get that political power if you have already gotten people out of the habit of thinking (so they can’t notice the huge holes in and consequences of your plan?) and only possibly deciding to agree with you: you whip’em up to Passionate peaks of Outrage and Anger so that they work out of their primitive limbic brain parts and not their more evolved prefrontal cortex. Oops. Did we just judgmentally call the limbic system ‘primitive’? Did we just use the concept ‘evolved’ in relation to people?
But isn’t it dangerous to have all these people running around living life out of their limbic brain-parts? It’s OK, because the vanguard elite who have mastered the Theory will lead these poor unruly sheep. Vladimir Ilyich, we heard you was dead, but that was obviously exaggerated. What does it do to human beings when they are no longer using the old prefrontal cortex on a regular basis? What does it do to a Republic? I think this: your citizens are no longer able to function as The People, and if you don’t have a People to protect, then you don’t need a Constitution, and if you don’t have a People, why then the government can take over the doing and the thinking – so lefty Theory’s eradication of the prefrontal saws off the People, and then the gummint saws off the political clout of the lefties, and … they wrote a lot of B-grade horror movies about the future 50 years ago using stuff like this.
So you get rid of Truth and the prefrontal capabilities and what happens? As if by inadvertence, the Professor reports that Lynne Cheney “worries that without the pole star of a fixed conception of truth, we will lose our bearings and descend into chaos”. Y’a think? So we are at sea in a world with no solid ground, with radars that only scan surfaces and can’t ‘see’ above or below those surfaces – or behind and beyond those surfaces, of course – and now we don’t have a fixed point to navigate by; we don’t have what Starfleet calls “prime coordinates” by which the navigation supercomputer can know where your ship is at all times, without which the supercomputer can’t even back you out of spacedock.
The Professor – leaving ‘optimistic’ in the dust and going straight for whistling-by-the-graveyard – asserts that this is the new adventure, sorta the New Frontier of our times: Theory blesses us with the adventure of trying to shape a Self, make a life, and live a common life together – without any way of knowing what’s right or wrong, except to take a vote on it – or, more likely and actually recommended, get enough people on your side mad at the other side so you can grab power and decide for everybody what’s right and wrong. Didn’t they try this in Russian a century back? Will it work any better in English now?
We will navigate by “dead reckoning” blurbs the Prof. Not to worry. What’s not to like? Yes it’s an adventure, but real manly men (and womyn) like adventure. After all, what’s a life without Meaning and Purpose and Role and Status and Identity? Adventure gives you all that good stuff. So then: underpowered (we’re only working on the limbic system), unable to scan except on the Horizontal axis, no fixed navigational reference (so – tee hee – why have compass and radar anyway, right?) … this is not the recipe for naval adventure, but rather the recipe for re-making the adventures – well, there was only one – of the “Titanic”. But like those two lovers hugging in the water just before the end, we’ll all be able to “communicate with each other”. Sigh. The wondrous gifts of the modern university. Then again, surgical air strikes and pre-emptive invasion are a form of communication too, and perhaps – if well-intentioned – a mitzvah. Who’s to say no?
But it is to Professor Bromell’s credit that he admits that upon reflection, he’s a fundamentalist too. Because since there is no Truth, then whatever he and his team decide is the most important stuff in life – well, they have to ‘believe’ that, because there’s no way that the Truth of the stuff could compel their minds to affirm its status. And doesn’t believing make them – fundamentally – Fundamentalists? Like those frothing whackjobs in the Middle East? Like those fine upstanding patriots in the Great State of (fill in the blank)?
This failure to reveal their own fundamentalistic core is, the Professor rightly admits, “a failure of nerve” on the part of “we liberals”. I’d like to tell him to speak for himself, but it looks like the ‘liberals’ have indeed for all practical purposes invited the vampire of Theory into the house, so …we all know how those movies end. To regain Liberalism with a capital “L” – that Enlightenment trust in Truth and Reason as realities upon which one could trellis a Self and a Life and a community, that trust in those two no-longer needed human ‘bits called the ‘soul’ and the ‘prefrontal cortex’, that respect for all human beings not because of their outrage or their pain but because they are created in the image and likeness of God and disrespecting them will have to be Answered for sooner or later – to regain all that is going to be a job of work. And are We up to it any longer? May it be so.
But then the “failure of nerve” is also a shrewd act of self-preservation. Because if folks are actually allowed to kick the tires of Theory, well – they may decide that this shiny jalopy isn’t worth the huge price. And then where would the vanguard elites be? And what if then folks started toting up all the damage that’s been caused? And how do you tell the troops that one of them will be the last one to die for a mistaken Theory but you hope the rest have a reeeel nice day? The Theoristi know what Nixon knew: once you admit you did wrong, then you’re done for. And who wants to join the dustbin of History? From the makers of History to being un-made by History?
No. Better to hang on – to ‘ausharren’, to ‘stick it out’ – and either help will come (although there is no Beyond from which it could stage a landing) or the elite vanguard will go on until the whole thing caves in, complaining to the end that the people were not worthy of the great Vision. Ja. That’s been tried before. And finished. And filmed – in re-creation, anyway.
So Professor Bromell has written a tremendously worthwhile couple of pieces. I can’t quite agree with him about Scooter being a noble though fallen angel, but I can respect the Prof's honesty about his own intellectual position. I hope his colleagues benefit from his example.
Meanwhile the Great Question abides: What then is to be done?
Labels: American culture, American society, Libby, politics