22 January 2009, 1:52 pm
Filed under: Democracy
| Tags: Afghanistan
, Barack Obama
, Bernhard Schlink
, Joseph Lowery
, Rick Warren
, The Reader
, United States
Let me begin by saying that I am baffled by America. I do not know how one could possibly fix a nation so polarized, so self-absorbed, so isolated and so pervasive. Is ‘diverse’ even the right word for a country that can as easily lynch a black man as elect one as president? So when I see Barack Obama pick the homophobic and misogynist Rick Warren to introduce his inauguration, I can say that I understand. How else can you reach out to an entire class of people who are afraid, powerless and furious at a country that has abandoned them? If hate is the medium in which you have endured your entire life, what other language can you understand? Yet how can I understand this and condemn in my heart what I know is tantamount to fascism? How can I understand this and look my gay and lesbian friends in the eye?
German writer Bernhard Schlink’s bestselling novel The Reader (1997) (Der Vorleser ) follows Michael Berg, who at fifteen, has a lengthy affair with Hanna Schmitz, a 36-year old tram driver. Many years later as a law student, Michael observes a war crimes trial for Nazi crimes, in which Hannah is one of the defendants. Michael struggles to understand the position of his first love, while his horror at her crime (unbeknownst to Michael, Hanna worked as a concentration camp guard. She and a group of other female guards watched as a church full of escaped Jewish prisoners burned to the ground, killing all inside) prohibits him from achieving full comprehension, closure or absolution.
I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned.When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks—understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.
Hanna, of course, is Schlink’s allegory for postwar Germany. Here, too, is America. We find ourselves declaring ‘cautious optimism’ over the Obama administration. How can we, after the last eight years, reconcile Obama’s laudable decision to close Guantanamo in one year (albeit not in 100 days, as The Center for Constitutional Law recommends) with his hawkish cabinet appointments which include Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emmanuel and George W. Bush’s Defence Secretary Robert Gates? Is the twin inauguration invitation to homophobic evangelical Rick Warren and civil rights lion Joseph Lowery inclusive or ingratiatory?
And how can we parse a statement like this, that formed the heart of Obama’s impressive inauguration speech:
Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
Such a statement embodies the tenor of Obama’s presedential actions to date: now conciliatory, now aggressive. A pull-out in Iraq followed by a renewed offensive in Afghanistan. A promise to talk, finally, with our neighbours and with our enemies followed by an unapologetic renunciation and disavowal of blame. And where, Obama, is Gaza? Which world do you live in? Do we want, finally, consensus in America if it is a consensus of messianic warmongering and imperialism?
In Plato’s Ion, Socrates is discussing the art of oration with the great rhapsode Ion. Ion insists that rhapsodes contain multitudes. That is, they must be fluent in the abilities of the characters they channel in order to produce a realistic performance. But, Socrates questions, will you know how to speak of these abilities better than the workman himself? After considering it, Ion demurrs. A fisherman, a spinster, a cowherd, a pilot—they will all know their trade better than the rhapsode. Then Socrates asks, ‘Will he know what a general ought to say when exhorting his soldiers?’
Ion. Yes, that is the sort of thing which the rhapsode will be sure to know.
Soc. Well, but is the art of the rhapsode the art of the general?
Ion. I am sure that I should know what a general ought to say.
Soc. And in judging of the general’s art, do you judge of it as a general or a rhapsode?
Ion. To me there appears to be no difference between them.
Soc. What do you mean? Do you mean to say that the art of the rhapsode and of the general is the same?
Ion. Yes, one and the same.
Soc. Then he who is a good rhapsode is also a good general?
Ion. Certainly, Socrates.
Soc. And he who is a good general is also a good rhapsode?
Ion. No; I do not say that.
Soc. But you do say that he who is a good rhapsode is also a good general.
Soc. And you are the best of Hellenic rhapsodes?
Ion. Far the best, Socrates.
Soc. And are you the best general, Ion?
Ion. To be sure, Socrates; and Homer was my master.
I don’t throw in with Plato, but he is the caution in our optimism. If a rhapsode, in Plato’s estimation, is good at two things—poetry and war—then how happy can we be that we have the most charismatic and erudite president in living memory? How can we laud his attempts at understanding and keep our moral courage against the forces of hate and fascism that have such a heavy foothold in America? Or is this compromise we have underwritten simply a capitulation to free-market philosophy on an emotional, affective level?
Here’s hoping, America.
5 Comments so far
Leave a comment