In the old days, when I had more time, I would contribute four or five essays to an issue of the Spectacle. These days I barely have time for one. This month, there were several things bothering me, each of which seemed a separate topic: the appointment of Henry Kissinger to head the 9/11 commission, Trent Lott's statements at Strom Thurmond's birthday party, Justice Thomas' extraordinary advocacy, during a Supreme Court hearing, of a law banning cross-burning. Then I realized that these incidents had a common theme: the extraordinary cluelessness of the people who are running things today. Each involved a person in a position of leadership forgetting some over-arching social agreements which are applicable to the position they took.
Something which is quite startling and, in a weird way, refreshing about today's politics is the degree to which the thought processes (such as they are) are exposed. In a review of Bob Woodward's new book on the Afghanistan war in The Sunday New York Times for December 15, Thomas Powers comments, "Far from being deeply hidden, what these men" [Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, and despite the use of "men", Condoleeza Rice] "believed and wanted was so close to the surface that even the newspaper-reading public knew roughly how the argument was unfolding."
The Bush administration is, speaking metaphorically, the President's face: one of those faces where every reaction to a new fact-- surprise, doubt, distrust, confusion, and, finally, revelation--is visible in the expression. I never saw this before, but President Bush is remarkably like the character of Joey on Friends, in one of those signature moments where, for example, Joey has just been told that Phoebe's twin sister has the same birthday as her. Given the tendency of administrations as far back as Roosevelt's to engage in deep misdirection, a factor which became paramount during the cold war and Vietnam, where we rarely knew the truth about what was going on, President Bush's shallowness is refreshing. In that sense, he's easy to write about: you may rarely agree with him but at least you always know where he stands. The only other presidents of the last sixty years who shared this honesty, though in their cases it was probably not accidental, were Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter.
Given the limpidity of the Bush administration--and I am using the adjective in the way I would to describe a pool of shallow, clear water--it was a fascinating act of cluelessness and of political theater to select Henry Kissinger as the chair of the commission to investigate the events of 9/11. Kissinger is the opposite of the President in every respect-- he is deep, crafty, dishonest, opportunistic and craven, a classic right hand man and adviser who can fashion policy to meet any end and then hire the hit men to get the job done. Nixon and Kissinger were the perfect pair and really understood one another; it is hard to imagine Bush and Kissinger getting through a conversation without being mutually silenced by the perception they do not speak a common language. When Nixon complained about someone, you could validly infer that a wiretap, forged letter discrediting the target, or burglary to steal damning documents, would not displease the president, as long as it was not traceable back to him. Kissinger thrived in that kind of environment. By contrast, Bush probably would like the freedom to rant about people who have annoyed him--Senator Jeffords or Senator Lott, take your pick-- without the people around him immediately setting shadowy forces in motion to destroy them.
Kissinger in his glory days had a hand in many political murders. This may sound extreme but there is no other way to characterize the U.S.'s secret involvement in the coup in Chile and in the massacres and assassinations carried out by other Latin American regimes than as the financing and encouragement of murder (also of torture, rape and the stealing of children). My favorite Kissinger story is about the meeting at which his team was trying to come up with a political cover story for U.S. support of General Pinochet's overthrow of a democratically elected president. Someone suggested that Chile was of profound geopolitical importance to the United States. Kissinger, laughing, replied that Chile "is a dagger aimed at the heart of Antarctica." The anecdote fascinates me in its confirmation of Kissinger's realism and complete lack of ideology, coupled with his ability to laugh at a time when the bodies of thousands of murdered young people, including some Americans, were lying in stacks in warehouses in Chile.
This is a good time to inquire whether Henry Kissinger is a war criminal. The answer is that in a perfect world, he would be judged to be one. I enjoy his discomfiture and the restrictions on his travel, for fear of visiting countries where he may be subpoenaed or even arrested for his role in the subversion of Chilean democracy-- but I don't think that Spain or any other country (not the United States either) has the right to set itself up in judgment of the acts of others carried out outside their own borders. Spain unilaterally pursuing investigations of war crimes carried out elsewhere, on the thin excuse that Spanish citizens were harmed too, is an entertaining but strange spectacle. In this realm of justice--if in fact we want justice to exist in this realm--there is no substitute for international law applied by an international criminal court. I would be happy to see Henry Kissinger stand trial before a properly constituted international tribunal. Our refusal to endorse one is described as a fear that it will wrongly indict and try American military personnel. In reality, it is a fear that we will be held responsible for the war crimes we find it convenient to commit in pursuit of American goals.
Kissinger is the last person you would hire to get at the truth, but the first you would think of when you wanted to cover something up. I am guessing that he was not the President's choice--W. left to his own devices would have appointed a college buddy, or an oil executive who was an old friend. Cheney, Rumsfeld et al. certainly persuaded the president to select him as the perfect operative to run cover for the administration, perhaps to veer as close to the truth as possible without allowing the commission to do anything to embarass the President.
I was very disappointed that there was not more of an outcry from the 9/11 families about the hideous inappropriateness of picking Kissinger to lead the investigation. Why would a man who spent so much of his time in office covering up trails of blood be the right choice to investigate the crimes committed September 11? It would be like hiring John Gotti to investigate the Russian Mafia. He might have an insider's view of how things are done there, which could be useful. But how could you ever trust him to tell you the truth?
During the Nixon administration, there was a clear understanding that when you didn't particularly want prompt action on a potentially embarrassing issue, but there was too much pressure simply to disregard it, you named a commission to investigate it. The National Guard's killings of four students at Kent State University in Ohio took place in an extremely polarized atmosphere created by the President himself, who, as we now know, had even ordered the Secret Service to beat up antiwar demonstrators. If anything, Nixon would have thought that killing a few rock-throwers--or people you could tar as rock-throwers--was a good thing. After the killings, he called the parents of one victim--a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps who was in the wrong place at the wrong time--but failed to express condolences to the parents of the victims who were demonstrating against the war. When public pressure proved to be too great to merely forget about the blood on the quad at Kent State, he appointed a commission. Commissions are a great way of dealing with irritants because it looks like you have done something; they take a year or more to investigate, by which time the fickle American public has forgotten the issue it was so exercised about; and then they issue four hundred page reports no-one reads.
So a 9/11 commission was not much of a machine for truth-finding in the first place. The administration's naive resistance to the idea is therefore a wonderful illustration of the president's cluelessness. The eventual appointment of Henry Kissinger, without any anticipation that he would be a controversial choice, was another. Finally, there was some justice in the fact that the first thing demanded of Kissinger, as he sought to step in to his new role, was that he tell a truth--about his client list. He couldn't do it, and he quit.
The Trent Lott fiasco was a fascinating example of double cluelessness. Lott apparently never thought he would be called to account for remarks made at Strom Thurmond's highly public 100th birthday; it may be that he was clueless about the impact of the comments themselves, or the public nature of the forum in which he made them, or both.
While racism in movies tends to be a highly simple, polarized and obvious affair (good guy FBI agents chasing horrible violent redneck KKK murderers, as in Mississippi Burning), racism in life tends to be much more complex and subtle. American society is in an in-between phase. White folk work side by side with black people in offices, go to lunch or out for a drink after work with them, no longer in most cases questioning their right to be there or their utility as contributors, then return to white neighborhoods where almost fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education there is still really no question of a black family buying a house. And in the safety of those sanctums many still utter statements revealing wholly undigested, unexamined racist assumptions. The portrayal of a succession of white people in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, proclaiming how much they admire and enjoy black entertainers and athletes, while disdaining black people, was a dead-on and deadly funny snapshot of American white racism.
And this is the racism of people who are not consciously hypocritical but have never confronted the inconsistencies in their own lives and beliefs. Add politics to the mix-- the art of focused hypocrisy--and you come up with something much more complicated still.
There seems to be a consenus interpretation that in the 1960's the Republican party, once the party of Lincoln, reached out to the South's racist voters just as the national Democrats were abandoning them. In the early years, this led to a certain amount of national race-baiting--of which Bush pere's Willie Horton ad was the last, notorious example. However, once the Republicans saw that they could also pick up some black votes--a trend represented most visibly by Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, also by Ward Connerly--it became necessary to keep the white racist votes in the fold through deeply encoded and symbolic behavior rather than baiting. Bush jr's visit to Bob Jones University at the outset of his campaign was an example of this.
In the midst of all this thrived Strom Thurmond, one of the last of the dinosaurs and overt racists in a position of power--a local hero imposed on the Senate and the American people by adoring voters trapped in a time warp. Thurmond was judged in the Senate by the power he had acquired and not by the beliefs he expressed. There is great irony and a delightful ethical spectacle in the fact that last week's scandal did not result from the fact that the Republican party has harbored a racist like Strom Thurmond for so many decades. It resulted instead from Trent Lott's clueless statement that this powerful racist could have done the country even more good if he had been elected president in 1948 (when he ran, as Lott evidently forgot for a moment, on a segregationist ticket).
Lott may also have been stung by a common belief, one that many of us share and that politicians especially are prey to, that life is conveniently compartmentalized and that statements made in one compartment can never spill over to haunt you in another. Thus the shock and indignation many people feel when intemperate statements they make on public Internet mailing lists are retrieved and used against them elsewhere. A week after September 11, Jerry Falwell appeared on Pat Robertson's 700 Club show and they spoke about how God had sponsored the attacks to punish America for the sins of the ACLU, gays, etc. When there was national outrage over these comments, one of the lame excuses initially offered was that they thought they were speaking only to a narrow audience which agreed with them. Lott certainly must have had the same warm feeling: what was the harm in saying something which would make Strom feel good on his birthday?
In an editorial which ran in the Times on Christmas Day, a political analyst discussed the use of the Web in campaigns. The Web has not revolutionized politics yet--most voters don't get their information there, and a candidate's web site is mostly read by the already convinced, the media and his adversaries. Therefore, it is used--this is the remarkable part--mainly to disseminate information that you don't want to reach a wide audience: reassurances to your core group that you are still deeply conservative through running a moderate campaign ("fake left, run right," one anonymous politico said), and attacks on your opponent calculated to make him spend money and resources defending himself, without running the risk that you will look mean to the masses.
Politics in a fragmented electronic age gives us Schrodinger's Party: racist and racially inclusive as well as many other opposites simultaneously, in a fluctuating quantum state until after the election when the box is opened and the boys in the back room go on with business as usual. Anything we can do to break down the walls of the compartments, make sure all information travels everywhere (what the Internet was supposed to do) is a Good Thing and will reduce the general level of cluelessness (at least by washing away the clueless, like Trent Lott).
A different kind of cluelessness was recently demonstrated by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. For many decades, the Supreme Court has, reluctantly but correctly, recognized that cross-burning is a form of symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment. The Bill of Rights, after all, must guard quite hateful speech in order to guard all speech; once you start making holes in it, the entire structure eventually collapses, and speech valuable to you gets shut down because it is considered hateful by someone else. The slippery slope (where the ACLU skis) is a real place; there are people out there, once the first hole is made, ready to ban speech about abortion, evolution, tolerance, and so on.
Justice Thomas should know this. He is famous for rarely speaking up during arguments of cases--he is the most silent Justice. A week or so ago, when the latest cross-burning case was before the Court, Thomas suddenly spoke--not as an incisive questioner of the attorneys before him, but as an advocate for the law being challenged. He made an argument that appeared to sway the other justices, who were skeptical that a law against cross-burning could survive First Amendment review, that cross-burning was a uniquely hateful expression, responsible for mass murder and destruction. But the First Amendment similarly guards, as it must, other statements and philosophies linked to murder and bloodshed--from Marxist doctrine to Nazism and inclusive of Thomas Jefferson's statement that the tree of liberty is watered with the blood of patriots. If we follow Thomas's lead and start creating exceptions, we have left the world of broad-ranging protections and entered a world in which we must trust men, such as Justice Thomas, to decide when to stop chopping holes in the structure. Once we have finished deciding that particular forms of speech are particularly hateful, the range of permissible speech will be very narrow. By that time, instead of the Constitution sliding down the slope, it is the slope itself which will be sliding.
Justice Thomas could have drawn some insight from the Trent Lott debacle. From Truman's integration of the armed forces in 1948 to the present day, we have agreed to ban racist action such as discrimination and violence, but never speech. Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat breakaway party in 1948, which advocated the continuing and permanent separation of the races, has not resulted in Thurmond ever being punished for his evil speech. Instead, we have a laboratory example of the First Amendment at work: the decades-long victory of the best speech, the speech of tolerance and equality, in the marketplace of ideas. Contrast that with the methodology Justice Thomas appears to advocate: the government intervening not as persuasive advocate of an idea, but as censor; not leading speech, but mandating some speech and barring others. Correlate that with what you know about the history of government interventions, and with the law of unintended consequences. In Canada, an antipornography law written by feminists has been largely used to suppress feminist work. Force and persuasion are entirely different: you can force me to salute a flag, but you can only persuade me to want to salute it.
The three cluelessnesses descibed here have in common that each illustrates a resolute refusal to remember that there are some over-arching social agreements applicable: a belief in truth, a convention that racism is bad, or that freedom of speech leads to the truth, the victory of the best speech in the marketplace. In each case, the principal actor--President Bush, Senator Lott, Justice Thomas--elevated the personal over the political, followed a narrow preference or even a momentary impulse to the exclusion of a system of agreements. These rules are not engraved in the fabric of the universe, but only in the fabric of our minds. Our leaders should continuously lead us back to them. When they forget them--when they cannot wrap their minds around them--the rules themselves lose substance, lose reality, bleed away into the ether.