A PEOPLE OF STARTS
One of the reasons that political dialogue in the United States has become so difficult is that we have lost our literary references. Used to be that we had writers like Jonathan Swift and Count Leo Tolstoy and Harriet Beecher Stowe as our guideposts, but today, quoting from a Jay Leno joke about George Bush or using a Roxie Hart line to explain crime and punishment doesn’t quite have the same resonance.
This is no reflection on the state of American intelligence, which is probably about the same as it’s always been, but rather a comment on the state of our common consciousness as a country.
All that came to mind because I wanted to start this column off by saying that in the middle of the Iraq War, I had a Rip Van Winkle moment. I realized that I couldn’t do so because most readers these days are familiar only with the Saturday morning cartoon version, and you’d think I went bowling up in the mountains with some dwarves, got drunk, fell asleep for 20 years and grew myself a long beard.
In fact, the whole point of the actual, original text version of the Washington Irving story was that Van Winkle slept entirely through the American Revolution. When he went up into the mountains, America was a British colony. Twenty years later, he came down to his village a little bit befuddled to find out that he was the only one who still considered himself a loyal subject of King George.
Things being considerably speeded up these days.
Like many others, somewhere in the middle of the late Iraqi war I found myself in an information overload, and took a break from television and newspapers. At the time I stopped paying close attention, American forces were on the outskirts of Baghdad, and our Iraqi allies, the Shiites, were helping us topple the last remnants of the heinous Hussein regime.
Back on Jan. 19, in an article that generally warned against counting on the Iraqi Shiites as allies, Robert Collier of the San Francisco Chronicle noted that, still, “Many American analysts are predicting that the long-downtrodden Shiites, who comprise about 60 percent of the nation’s population, would welcome U.S. troops as liberators.”
After the U.S.-British invasion, the Chronicle reported on March 26 that “a fascinating drama seemed to be unfolding in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, a short distance to the north, where Shiite Muslim civilians were reported to have launched at least the start of a revolt against Hussein’s regime. ‘There is some sort of uprising going on in Basra,’ Maj. Gen. Peter Wall, the British military’s chief of staff, told the BBC. … ‘It could be the beginning of something important.’”
Sleep a bit. Mow the lawn. Switch on CNN again. Baghdad has fallen and the hoped-for Shiite uprisings are occurring, though not against Hussein, but rather against the victorious Americans. Shiite Iraqis march in the streets of Baghdad, telling us to go home, and the attention of America’s Iraqi policy has suddenly turned to preventing the establishment of the heinous Shiite regime. Slept well, Rip?
“The possibility of a virulent burst of Shiite religious militancy appears to constitute one of the chief threats to American plans to install an open, democratic system in Iraq,” a New York Times reprint in both the Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune told us on April 26.
Forgive me, friends, if I toss in another literary reference. This feels like the middle of George Orwell’s “1984.”
Not the parts about Big Brother and the telescreens, but the part where Oceania (Western Europe) at war on one day with Eurasia (Russia) and allied with Eastasia (China), turns around the next day and declares war with Eastasia and peace with Eurasia, so that Winston Smith at the Ministry of Truth has to change all of the historical documents in order for the citizens of Oceania to believe that they had always been at war with Eastasia and at peace with Eurasia. Substitute Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia with United States, Iran and Iraq, for example, and you’ll get the point.
In turn-of-millennium America, of course, many of us have done Orwell’s Oceania one better, not even requiring the government-sponsored destruction of history. We murder history, every day, in our own minds. We Americans have developed a remarkable capacity for a self-contained personal Doublethink, the ability to both toss one fact or idea into Memory Hole oblivion at the exact moment a contradictory fact or idea surfaces, and to retrieve that original fact or idea again when it is, inevitably, needed to prove some other point or justify some other act. Our ability to juggle contradictory beliefs has become absolutely breathtaking, more to be marveled at than our military might.
“[They can] be swung on an idea as on a cord; for the unpledged allegiance of their minds [make] them obedient servants,” a famous scholar-warrior once wrote. “Without a creed they could be taken to the four corners of the world (but not to heaven) by being shown the riches of earth and the pleasures of it. … Their mind [is] strange and dark, full of depressions and exaltations, lacking in rule, but with more of ardour and more fertile in belief than any other in the world. They [are] a people of starts…”
T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia — was writing in “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom” about the British opinion of Arabs three-quarters of a century ago. Sadly, he might easily have been talking about much of the world’s opinion of Americans today. If we read more of the world’s more serious writings, we’d know that.
J. Douglas Allen-Taylor is an Oakland resident.