However compelling the immediate drama, history’s milestones are laid out in retrospective, not exactly as things unfold. They are at best convenient markers for processes which are more significant by far. If events are the hares of history, flashy and flamboyant, processes are its tortoises, obstinate, relentless — and conclusive.
We live in the Age of the Picture, where almost everything has to be made for TV, and even reality itself is not exempt from adaptation. Because events lend themselves to graphic portrayal so much better than processes, which are tedious, it is natural, given our predeliction, that our dominant means of understanding be shaped around events, not processes. More people get their grasp of the world from watching 20 minutes of the evening news, than by reading the newspaper. This is reality.
Chances are that this glacial truth will determine our destiny more than 9-11 or the Iraq war. Indeed, it might even be the cause of these things. If the Battle of Waterloo was won in the playing fields of Eton, as the saying goes, the twin towers clattered to the ground with the sound of phony debates in a hundred ‘episodes’ of Meet the Press, Larry King Live or Face the Nation, playing in the background on our TV sets. You cannot spend fifty years replacing the paradigm of reading and discussing issues with a culture of entertainement and sound-bite politicking (while your government is playing with fire all across the globe) without reaching a point where so much failure on so many fronts becomes possible.
Alexander Cockburn in his latest piece has loosed some withering scattershot in the direction of all those conspiracy buffs who claim that there is more to 9-11 than meets the eye. Don’t these nuts know that even the best planned operations can go wrong, he asks. One is tempted to echo the Reverend Al Shapton who once said, “I hope Bush is lying. The alternative is too scary to contemplate”. If the notion of hundreds of people having to be involved in a conspiracy is troublesome, how about a conspiracy of millions? The cloak and dagger stealth of 9-11 is nothing as compared to the open machinations which brought forth the Iraq War, launching it with a huge majority of public support. That was a conspiracy of 290 million people, secure in the knowledge that the bombs would be falling elsewhere, even if a goodly number of them couldn’t find Iraq on a map. Agatha Christie, in her bestselling Murder on the Orient Express, was far more modest.
And with opinion on the war now headed south, is it fair to ask why such a huge majority has cratered? The ‘principles’ that launched the war have not changed. Please don’t say it is because no WMD’s were found. That was settled long ago, and well before the 2004 elections, when we elected the same gang which carried out all this, our eyes wide open. The cause of the current angst and unease is that things have not gone swimmingly. What if they had? I’m reminded of something I read in the wake of 9-11. When some middle eastern spokesman went on television and expounded at great length how 9-11 was immoral because Islam condemns violence, a writer asked, “and what if Islam did not condemn violence, would that make killing all these people right?”. The sad irony is that the politics and the population of a country founded on principles are both bereft of any allusion to same when considering their affairs. The implications of this truth underly all our follies — and our fates.
As the brilliant Joe Bageant wrote in Counterpunch recently (I paraphrase), we are now so far along a haze induced by our decades-long sniffings of consumerism that even the capacity to grasp and discuss matters of principle have deserted us. All we can do is talk personalities, and whom we can ‘trust’ (the fellow who at least seems to believe the lies he tells). With apologies to Kipling again,
And that was like arranging chairs
Upon a sinking boat,
Though he that told the better lie
Might get the larger vote.
Even when discussing 9-11, isn’t it astounding that not single politician has asked, five years on, why so many checks and balances failed that day and after? All we can think of is how Giulianni did this or that while Bush did not. What happens when personalities trump principles? The quick answer, 9-11 — and its aftermath.
For a quarter century at least we have steeped ourselves in what Mahatma Gandhi termed one of the deadly social sins, Politics without Principle. I don’t even mean this in the conventional sense, a la Tom Delay’s gerrymandering or the Abramoff junkets. I mean the pursuit of politics without articulation of principle.
A whole generation has thus been raised in a political atmosphere that brooks no politics! A respectable philosophy has taken hold that everything will be resolved by the market, and there is no need for a state. The myopic view that all politics is local, attributed to Tip O’Neill, obscures the fact that without grasp of principles, it is impossible for anyone to transcend boundaries. Having imbibed this lesson too well, all that the local politician does upon ascending to larger realms is to apply the same understanding to his new environs, that is to say, up-shifting from petty theft to grand larceny. This is a tragedy. It is impossible to have a national conversation when the population has lost the ability to discuss principles. It is the same mindset which leads serious politicians to argue that trade is a substitute for politics.
Is there a principle involved in 9-11? Is there a principle which says that when a huge failure like 9-11 happens, someone should be held responsible? Is there a principle that dictates that when one accepts responsibility, it means paying a political price (a resignation, a demotion). Is there a principle which says that no matter what, freedoms are sacrosanct? Are not politics arguments over principle? Isn’t this the sort of discussion that should dominate the political debate, and animate the presidential race? When was the last time you recall a Democratic candidate raise an issue of principle? Even in the last general election, which ought to have been ideal for a discussion of principles, Kerry, for all his wealth and education, turned out a true man of the masses, a politician who could not argue principle. He sought to run an entire race without asking if it was right to invade Iraq.
Without principle, the national debate becomes little more than a series of sitcom episodes. For showcasing his welfare reform package, one president would make one lady in the audience stand up during the state of the union, relaying her vignette. To show that Katrina victims are being helped, another president has some individual appear in a press conference with him, telling his story. This is the level of politics in America, bereft of principle, replete with anecdotes. News coverage is the same way. If there is at all a principle somewhere in all this, it has been that the market will take care of everything, including politics. And in a perverse sense, it is.
It is this mindset which led our leaders (why blame Bush alone, any Democract could have given voice to these) to call for shopping and traveling as a way to combat Al Qaeda, instead of calling upon the nation to sacrifice, share in the challenge of protecting and preserving the nation. As with the Sherlock Holmes story of the dog in the night, what was not done after 9-11 is as significant as 9-11 itself. There has been no let up in energy consumption, no call to sacrifice. There has been no action on border or port security worth the name. Drift is the key, and we are morphing into a third world kleptocracy where the leader thinks all is well so long as his family, tribe or unit is profiting from his reign. There is no challenge in principle, from the political class, to the spying on citizens or detention without trial. The author of the magic bullet theory now wants to turn the law retroactively so that Bush will be exonerated for his warrantless wiretapping.
The entire text of the Federalist Papers is about principles. The entire political debate on TV is anecdotal. For the political process and for the country, from ‘anecdotage’ to dotage is a but a short step.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN can be reached at email@example.com.