Blind Man with a Pistol


Understanding Hope

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 [1995]) 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.
Ion. Certainly.
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.

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Look Up, Hannah
8 September 2008, 11:23 am
Filed under: Rhetoric | Tags: , , , , , ,

Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…

To those who can hear me I say, ‘Do not despair’. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass and dictators die; and the power they took from the people will return to the people and so long as men die, liberty will never perish…

Soldiers: Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of Saint Luke it is written, ‘the kingdom of God is within man’—not one man, nor a group of men, but in all men, in you, you the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Then, in the name of democracy, let us use that power! Let us all unite! Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie! They do not fulfill their promise; they never will. Dictators free themselves, but they enslave the people! Now, let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.

Soldiers: In the name of democracy, let us all unite!

The Great Dictator (1940). Dir. Charlie Chaplin.



A More Perfect Rhetoric

Game Six, 1975 World Series. The Boston Red Sox, cursed, improbable participants against Sparky Anderson’s Cincinnati Reds who had beaten their closest Rivals in the National League West Division, the Los Angeles Dodgers, by 20 games. The game is a classic, and for good reason. It had everything: changing leads, brilliant catches, controversial calls and a pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the eighth to tie it for the home-team Red Sox.

Then comes Carlton Fisk, bottom of the twelfth. He connects with a Pat Darcy pitch and drills a swerving line drive towards left-field. The ball is heading certainly, tragically foul. But Fisk leaps up in the air, desperately flails both his his arms right, willing the ball fair. It kisses the yellow foul pole, an electric kiss, winning the greatest game ever played with a walk-off solo home run. Poetry and pandemonium.

Earlier this month, Barack Obama hit a home run of his own. “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

It was a beautiful thing. A poetic, virtuoso performance turned a difficult situation—the comments of Reverend Jeremiah Wright—into a positive, unifying gesture. Based on some of the responses by the media, you’d have thought Obama had eradicated racism with a single speech. It was reprinted in the New York Times for chrissakes! Home run? It was a career-defining grand slam.

So imagine Obama’s confusion when Rev. Wright did not disappear after Obama opined that his comments “had the potential to widen the racial divide” and “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country [the United States].” Instead, Wright repeated his comments and insisted upon such inconvenient concepts of historical providence and poetic justice:

We took this country by terror away from the Sioux, the Apache, the Arawak, the Comanche, the Arapaho, the Navajo. Terrorism! We took Africans from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism! We bombed Grenada and killed innocent civilians, babies, non-military personnel. We bombed the black civilian community of Panama with stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenagers and toddlers, pregnant mothers and hard-working fathers. We bombed Gadafi’s home and killed his child. “Blessed are they who bash your children’s head against a rock!” We bombed Iraq. We killed unarmed civilians trying to make a living. We bombed a plant in Sudan to payback for the attack on our embassy. Killed hundreds of hard-working people; mothers and fathers who left home to go that day, not knowing that they would never get back home. We bombed Hiroshima! We bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye! Kids playing in the playground, mothers picking up children after school, civilians – not soldiers – people just trying to make it day by day. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and Black South Africans, and now we are indignant? Because the stuff we have done overseas has now been brought back into our own front yards! America’s chickens are coming home to roost! Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism.

Obama is a skillful speaker. But despite the acclaim he earns for speeches like “A More Perfect Union,” rhetoric cannot bridge the crevasse that American history has dug for itself. In fact, tragically, such rhetoric obscures righteous attempts like those of Rev. Wright to expose such fissures in the fabric of American society and packages racial divide as a challenge we can work through and “move beyond” rather than a crisis and trauma that requires intense interrogation and wholesale reconfiguration of social relations. Obama dresses racial prejudice in the comforting guise of an “issue,” much like the vomit-inducing grandstanding of Hollywood films like Paul Haggis’s Crash; whereas Rev. Wright shines a naked light on the catastrophe of racism in America.

I do not live in America and I do not know what I would do if I was faced with the difficult choice with which progressive Americans are faced. Between two lesser evils is never a pleasant decision. But what I do know is what is at stake when Obama dismisses the just diagnosis of Rev. Wright for a more politically expedient path, however eloquent: Obama is dismissing an ally of progressives everywhere in favour of appeasement. Reverend Wright is our ally, rhetoric is not.

Carlton Fisk can sympathize with Barrack Obama’s bewilderment; after Fisk’s career-defining thunderbolt, his game-winning home run, the Red Sox lost Game 7 and the World Series two days later. Don’t mistake a single round for the match, Obama. It ain’t over, not by a long shot.