Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Andrew Sullivan takes on the Joan Didion article I talked about yesterday.
Reading Joan Didion's recent essay-cum-speech in the New York Review of Books is an enlightening exercise. It's enlightening not because it persuades. There is no argument in it, no prescription for American foreign policy now, no alternative proposed for countering the murderous terrorism that has already killed thousands of Americans. In this, Didion perfectly represents a certain type of decay in thinking on the intellectual left. Their argument about where we should go from here is essentially, "We shouldn't be here in the first place."
Still, you can glean a few hints from Didion's prose about what she actually proposes for our current predicament. Among them: allow Saddam Hussein to get nuclear, biological and chemical weapons; abandon Israel to its fate; withdraw from Afghanistan; have a national discussion about how America is the real source of the world's current problems. I don't want to put words into her mouth; but since she won't explicitly state what she thinks -- a style that seems far more appropriate when she's observing pop culture than foreign policy -- I don't have much of a choice.
I am reminded by this of one of the frequent complaints I have about movie reviewers: they often spend more time criticizing a movie for failing to be the movie they wanted to see instead of reviewing it for what it is. I am guilty of the same fault. I was vaguely unhappy after my first viewing of The Two Towers because I was jolted by some of the liberties Peter Jackson had taken with the source material. But I went and saw it again with the resolve to take it for what it was and review it on that basis alone. I was much happier with it on my second viewing. Andy makes the same mistake. He wants any article of the kind that Didion wrote to be of a certain type: prescriptive. But Didion's article was not meant to be prescriptive. That's not and, as far as I know, never has been her style. She uses the country's reaction to 9/11 as a jumping off point for an analysis of the way our modern political state often fails to come to terms with some of the broader implications of terrible tragedies like the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon. She is not prescribing what should be done. She is pointing out the deficiencies in the prescriptions that have been made. Particularly, Didion notes that our political life has become more and more a kind of "why solve today what can be put off until tomorrow" philosophy. The "moral clarity" philosophy is incompatible with this approach, yet few of its advocates want to acknowledge or even appreciate the disruptive impact this change in philosophy will have. I don't think Didion so much asserts that this disruptive impact is an argument against change so much as she is saying that those who advocate the change shouldn't be surprised when the disruptive impact becomes manifest. Andy seems to believe that reflecting on the failures of leadership and the society being lead is nothing more then a sign moral squishiness, especially when those reflecting on it are liberals and the ones being reflected upon are conservatives. A muscular political leadership does not waste time on self-examination that might otherwise weaken its determination. And anyone who advocates that they should do so is just trying to sap the leaderships strength, weakening them to the point where they can then be vulnerable to political overthrow. I once made the observation that there is a class of individuals who believe that the natural state of man is conflict and that anyone who works to reduce or eliminate conflict is, wittingly or unwittingly, working to undermine mankind and make it more vulnerable to destruction. This is why people like Andy can assert with a straight face that people who waste time on reflection are the beginnings of a "fifth column" and thus worthy of ridicule. There really are people who believe that the mere act of questioning strong leadership is just the outward sign of a subversive conspiracy to undermine America so that it can be destroyed by outside forces. Of course, Andy goes on to completely miss the point of Didion's article when he asserts that Didion is arguing that:
...those who actually do not blame the United States for the 9/11 massacre are somehow historically illiterate or incurious. She bemoans a culture of stupidity and jingoism that allegedly puts some topics off-limits:
"There was the frequent deployment of the phrase 'the Blame America Firsters,' or 'the Blame America First crowd,' the wearying enthusiasm for excoriating anyone who suggested that it could be useful to bring at least a minimal degree of historical reference to bear on the event ... Inquiry into the nature of the enemy we faced, in other words, was to be interpreted as sympathy for that enemy."
Of course she does not say that the anyone who is historically literate will blame America first. She is arguing that the reflexive dismissal of any attempt to understand America's role in its own travails is itself a failure on America's part. Reflection is as essential to the formation of a healthy political state as is muscular leadership. They are not incompatible with each other, even if they are often at odds. Didion is not arguing in favor of reflection over strong leadership so much as she is suggesting that one without the absence of the other will ultimately be as destructive to the state as any outside attack. At least, that's the conclusion I come to from reading her work.
She approvingly quotes a Berkeley professor (yes, there are self-parodic moments in her essay) to the effect that "On September 12, the shelves were emptied of books on Islam, on American foreign policy, on Iraq, on Afghanistan." But she's horrified when the result of that reading and thought turned out to be a consensus that the problem lay with Islam's closed universe of growing extremism, not the evil lurking in America.
Horrified? Sounds more like she is saddened by the reflexive desire of some to shout down any attempt at reflection. If, after reflection, people come to the conclusion that the fault lies more in the stars then in ourselves then so be it. But what Didion is arguing is that that natural reflective state was not allowed to run its course. It was instead shouted into silence by the muscular types who view any type of reflection as a sign of weakness. The initial rush to answer the reflective question "why do they hate us" was turned into the cowed question "what's wrong with them that they don't like us?" Remember that Andy was one of the first to scream about potential "fifth column" activity. How are people supposed to come to reasoned conclusions about how we should respond with people like Andy calling into question their patriotism? It is precisely this kind of attack that Didion is talking about. Is it any surprise then that Andy doesn't get it? For me Joan Didion's thesis couldn't be clearer: the desire of some to shout down certain questions because they might weaken the muscular resolve of the United States will, in the end, weaken our country. It will sap us of the vital faculties that make us rational human beings and will, instead, turn us into mindless minions of the muscular maximum leader. Andy seems to think that there has been a full and healthy debate on these matters already and that the time for questioning has passed. Didion (and I) disagree. Further, she asserts that the debate has been squelched in favor of the illusion of solidarity behind the sweaty leadership of the current resident of the White House. Living a lie only makes the liar weaker in the long run.

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