Some Thoughts on A Tragic Legacy

(Updated in a subsequent post here.)

I'm not sure that I can agree fully with the estimable Glenn Greenwald's thesis in his new book, A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency. I haven't read the book -- which is not out yet -- but have read the excerpts, and Glenn's own pieces about it, and some of the comments by other writers on the book. For example, Glenn quotes this analysis by Paul Curtis:

Right-wing Manicheanism has taken over the national debate on security matters, operating as a literally totalitarian thought system, in that it subsumes all discourse into its own unanswerable internal logic. We've become familiar with the notion of framing in political discourse: well, this is the meta-frame. It quashes every attempt by liberals and moderates to raise rational points and does tremendous damage to constitutional liberties, the national interest, and global well-being. . . .

Because it is a totalitarian framework of logic, the only way to defeat it is to attack it at its foundations, to root out its very premise, as Greenwald is doing. Conservatives have often gained the advantage in American public discourse because they build and re-enforce these meta-frames with great care; for liberals to bring reason back to the debate we'll need to do a considerable amount of foundational work of our own. This means, in the present case, repeatedly making the argument that Manicheanism is foolish and destructive, that we cannot afford to make policy according to a worldview defined by a simpleminded division of Good v. Evil.

Something here seems slightly off-kilter to me. For example, when has a strict Manicheanism not "taken over the national debate on security matters"? The "simpleminded division of Good v. Evil" reigned in all-triumphant glory throughout the decades of the Cold War, as anyone who was there for all or most of it can readily attest. Anything that could remotely be associated with "communism" (however plausibly or implausibly) was irredeemably evil; anyone who opposed communism -- by whatever draconian or murderous methods -- was on the side of the "good." This "meta-frame" also struck a deep chord in vast swathes of the public, which is why it was so effective in militarizing our republic and its economy over the course of half a century -- a process that James Carroll's remarkable Pentagon history, House of War, chronicles so well.

If anything, the Cold War "division of Good v. Evil" was far more "simpleminded" than what we see today. Imagine a Cold War president stating in public that Communism was a worthy doctrine, dedicated to human betterment, but had unfortunately been hijacked by extremists and rogue states, etc. Yet Bush has consistently made such remarks about Islam (for public consumption, at least). And of course, many of his allies in his "Terror War" are Muslims: the Saudis, the Pakistanis, the Egyptians, the Kurds, the militant Shiite factions he has empowered in Iraq, the warlords and drug kings and woman-hating clerics he has empowered in Afghanistan, etc. While in no way defending Bush's policies, his alliances or his murderous Terror War, there is simply no way that this murky, chaotic, shifting miasma can be compared, ideologically, to the rigid fault lines of the Cold War. (I'm speaking here of those who are actually in power, making policy, not the innumerable bootlickers, sycophants, extremists, cranks and idiots on the ideological right, who are cynically used -- and occasionally dropped -- by the power-players as needed.)

The point here is not that Greenwald or Curtis are wrong in asserting that "Right-wing Manicheanism has taken over the national debate on security matters." Of course it has. They are entirely right about this, and Greenwald especially has done great work in delineating the deeply sinister effects and implications of the Bush gang's thuggish rule. But the fact is,  such Manicheanism has been long been operative in American history. What else but a simpleminded division of Good v. Evil, a rampant and uncritical exceptionalism, could have "justified" the decimation of the Native Americans and the theft of their land? Or the existence of slavery -- and its incorporation into the Constitution itself? Or the mass-slaughtering conquest and "pacification" of the Philippines, which the Manichean McKinley saw as a holy crusade to "Christianize" the benighted natives (many of whom were already Catholics)? Wasn't this same kind of Manicheanism -- this automatic assumption that whatever we do is "good," that whatever serves our interests (or rather, the interests of those who rule us) is right and honorable -- operative in the CIA's overthrowing of government after government throughout the Cold War?

I suppose the main problem I have with the thesis -- and again, it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to disagree with someone whose work I admire  -- is that I don't believe that human beings are as rational as Glenn, and Paul Curtis and Digby and many others, seem to think. For example, Glenn writes that his book takes on:

"the irrational and fact-free propositions at the root of our political decisions. Uprooting those premises -- beginning with the binary moralistic imperatives we use to determine America's role in the world and the power we vest in our political leaders -- is a prerequisite for the vital goal of restoring reason to our political process."

I agree completely that we should try to uproot the many "irrational and fact-free propositions" driving government policy. But I do wonder about the idea of "restoring reason to our political process." When was this golden age of reason and rationality in our political process? Certainly it has not existed in the past 60 years, when we have spent untold trillions of dollars to build a globe-engulfing empire of military bases and bristling arsenals of weapons of mass destruction and annihilation, when we have subverted and devoured whole nations, armed and empowered vicious tyrants and violent extremists, and practically had to fight a new civil war on our streets in order to secure even a modicum of civil rights for a fiercely repressed and widely despised African-American minority. Were reason and rationality really the animating principles in all of this?

They have reared their heads from time to time, of course, lessening some of the dangers of the prevailing irrationality: in the nuclear arms treaties, for example, which put a few strictures on the literally insane policy of building weapons that could destroy the entire planet, or in the Church Committee reforms, which sought to roll back some of the overweening power of the security organs and our ever-lawless presidents. Even these mild mitigations have been obliterated by the Bush Regime, putting both our liberties and the great globe itself in dire peril. This is monstrous indeed, and should be fought with all our strength. But there is nothing very new about it -- except perhaps for the technological advances that have allowed this particular manifestation of our historical Manicheanism to spread more rapidly and quickly and thoroughly via the all-pervasive forms of media, and to arm itself with ever-more sophisticated weaponry, and to impose itself on a far more distracted, ever-more diverted, ever-more atomized citizenry, and to draw upon the decades of ill-gotten gains pouring into the military-industrial complex and its many corporate and ideological outriders. One reason that the Bush Regime has been able to push so far with its depredations is that we were way down that road already. I think what we face today is a technological and financial amplification of many long-running, pernicious trends in American politics and policy -- but not a new fall from some past state of grace and reason.

I certainly support any and all efforts to broaden our political discourse beyond the simpleminded national narcissism that has afflicted it for so long, with such disastrous consequences. I agree that we need a far more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the world to inform our government policy. I'm just not sure that this emphasis on "Manicheanism" takes us very far. I'm not quite sure what a "simple-minded division of Good v. Evil" actually means in this context. If it is just another way of saying what I said above -- let's not be so narcissistic, let's not be ignorant and narrow-minded, let's not be simplistic and stupid, let's be more nuanced in our approach and understanding -- who would disagree with that? That seems self-evident, and hardly worth using the considerable talents of Glenn Greenwald to re-state at book length.

But if it is some more fundamental proposition, that we can somehow eradicate the inherent irrationality and imperfection of the human mind through "foundational work" and disseminating new "meta-frames" amongst the populace, then again, I'm not sure how far we'll get with that.

Maybe I'm reading something into these excerpts and commentaries that really isn't there; maybe we're all thinking along the same lines, just expressing it differently. It's certainly not my desire to enter into the lists against Glenn in any way, or to detract from the goal of his book: bringing more sanity, clarity and understanding to a political system that is hurtling the nation toward disaster. But there's just something in the discourse on this topic that has bothered me, and this has simply been one rather unsatisfactory attempt to get at what it is.

But having critiqued Glenn Greenwald's philosophy here, it's only fair that I offer up my own for examination. I wrote it out some time ago, and used it as the epilogue of my book. Below is the gist of the matter; the whole piece can be read here: Broken Light: Work, for the Night is Coming. The excerpt:

So do we counsel fatalism, a dark, defeated surrender, a retreat into bitter, curdled quietude? Not a whit. We advocate action, positive action, unstinting action, doing the only thing that human beings can do, ever: Try this, try that, try something else again; discard those approaches that don't work, that wreak havoc, that breed death and cruelty; fight against everything that would draw us down again into our own mud; expect no quarter, no lasting comfort, no true security; offer no last word, no eternal truth, but just keep stumbling, falling, careening, backsliding, crawling toward the broken light.

And what is this "broken light"? Nothing more than a metaphor for the patches of understanding – awareness, attention, knowledge, connection – that break through our darkness and stupidity for a moment now and then. A light always fractured, under threat, shifting, found then lost again, always lost. For we are creatures steeped in imperfection, in breakage and mutation, tossed up – very briefly – from the boiling, chaotic crucible of Being, itself a ragged work in progress toward unknown ends, or rather, toward no particular end at all. Why should there be an "answer" in such a reality?

This and this alone is the only "ideology" behind these writings, which try at all times to fight against the compelling but ignorant delusion that any single economic or political or religious system – indeed, any kind of system at all devised by the seething jumble of the human mind – can completely encompass the infinite variegations of existence. What matters is what works – what pulls us from our own darkness as far as possible, for as long as possible. Yet the truth remains that "what works" is always and forever only provisional – what works now, here, might not work there, then. What saves our soul today might make us sick tomorrow.

Thus all we can do is to keep looking, working, trying to clear a little more space for the light, to let it shine on our passions and our confusions, our anger and our hopes, informing and refining them, so that we can see each other better, for a moment – until death shutters all seeing forever.