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Cassandra's Curse
Febraury 11, 2004
By The Plaid Adder

This past Sunday George W. Bush appeared on Meet The Press on NBC. During that hour, a number of amazing things happened:

• A major media figure working for one of the Big Three news networks (I don't count Fox) asked questions that were openly critical of the Bush administration's case for the war in Iraq.

• Bush was forced to respond to them.

• George W. Bush openly acknowledged that Saddam Hussein never posed an imminent threat to the safety of the United States.

• Both participants in the interview spoke from the assumption that Saddam Hussein never actually had the weapons of mass destruction that were cited as the major cause for the war in Iraq.

• A major media figure actually pointed out some of the, let us delicately call them 'contradictions,' between what the Bush administration has said and done in the past and what it is saying and doing now.

It is true, also, that a number of utterly predictable things happened, such as Bush turning in an unconvincing performance. (Don't take my word for it - talk to Peggy Noonan.) But I want to point out that all of these things would have been inconceivable a year ago. First of all, a year ago Bush would never have risked exposing himself for a full hour on national television. He didn't have to. Even at the few press conferences he gave during his first years in office, there was no one in the White House press pool willing to really challenge the Bush administration - except for Helen Thomas, who was eventually banished to the naughty corner. A year ago, there was virtually no one working in a mainstream media market willing to question the assumption that Saddam Hussein was sitting on top of the world's nastiest nuclear/chemical/biological arsenal and ready to light the fuse. And, of course, a year ago, the administration was insisting that Saddam Hussein posed an "imminent threat" with his giant stockpiles of "weapons of mass destruction" as if these things were as intuitively obvious and unquestionable as the propostion that water is wet.

Now, everyone from Bush on down has finally admitted that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein posed no imminent threat to the United States. And that is truly astonishing. Not because any of this is news. It isn't. In fact, it is precisely what those of us who were working to try to stop the war in Iraq from happening have known for years now. The astonishing thing is that we are finally hearing this from inside the media establishment - and indeed, from inside the Bush White House.

Hopeful as this is, it's painful to think about how long it has taken to see the media finally start to question the rationale for Bush's war. Couldn't Russert and Bush have had this conversation a year ago, before 500+ American soldiers had been killed in Iraq, before thousands of Iraqi civilians had been killed, before we pissed away the goodwill of the world and the friendship of our allies, and before we got ourselves committed to a military occupation that so far as we know we may never see the end of? Couldn't the people in charge have figured out all of this a year ago, before it was too late to do anyone any good?

No, they couldn't have. It doesn't work that way. It never has. Ask Cassandra.

Bad News

Cassandra has a walk-on part in Homer's Iliad, but she was only really developed later on, as the legend of the Trojan War was retold in the theaters by Aeschylus and Euripides. By the time Virgil included her in the Aeneid, he could take it for granted that his audience would know her story. Born into the Trojan royal family, the most beautiful daughter of Priam and Hecuba, Cassandra attracted the attentions of Apollo, who promised to give her the gift of prophecy if she would have sex with him. She accepted the gift, but refused her body. As punishment, Apollo turned the gift into a curse. She would prophesy, and she would be right. But what she predicted would always be bad news; and nobody would ever believe her.

Those of us who were working against the war in the months before it began often felt ourselves laboring under Cassandra's curse. Apart from attacking the rationale, our major strategy was to remind people that war is always bad news. And in the months before the war, people didn't want to hear that. It was easier to believe in the prophecies coming out of Washington of a quick, painless victory followed by the warm welcome of a grateful populace and a swift transition to a democratic government that would be friendly to US interests. Many of us often wondered what was the matter with us that we couldn't sit back, relax, and accept that story, instead of being driven to tell the one we thought was true. We didn't, after all, appear to be changing anything.

But the fact that what we had to say was bad news does not in itself explain why no one believed it. After all, the Bush administration thrives on bad news. Even in this latest TV appearance, Bush reiterated that it was "a dangerous world" and that we all have to rely on him as the "war president" to keep us safe. Bush's entire re-election strategy is based on convincing the American people that all the future holds is more bad news: more terrorist attacks, more weapons proliferation, more "shadowy" deeds by depraved "madmen" who are "hiding in caves." This administration has to keep people nervous; otherwise people will start wondering why we need to spend billions of dollars fighting wars over things that do not exist. The administration can prophesy bad news all it wants - how many orange alerts have we gone to? How many times were we told that it was not a question of if we would ever sustain another major terrorist attack on American soil, but when? - and everyone believes it. How come nobody would believe our bad news?

When it comes to belief, it isn't so much how bad the news is as what it would cost you to believe it. To have believed us when we said that Bush and his cartel were pushing the US into a war for which there was no good reason would have cost many of our fellow Americans a lot of their most cherished beliefs. First and foremost, they would have had to face the possibility that we cannot trust the people who are currently in control of our government. Most people simply don't want to do that, and will avoid doing it for as long as possible. It's one thing to be anxious about a shadowy threat from a cave overseas from which an enormously expensive and well-armed military will probably keep us safe. To realize that the real threat to America is actually sitting in the White House right now plunges you into a whole different kind of anxiety. And indeed, maybe that's why the Democratic primaries seem to have loosened some of the crust of denial and refusal that had formed over these open wounds. Now, finally, we can all believe that there might be someone out there who can deliver us from all this.

And they would also have had to realize that the "exporting democracy abroad" rationale used to justify this and other wars is at best a myth and at worst a lie. That's a hard one. For whatever reason, we are all wired to want to believe that we are the ones who are good and just, fighting evil and protecting the oppressed. Americans have been encouraged to identify with their military - with its power, its strength, its technological know-how, its masculine courage and its equally masculine tenderness and compassion as displayed on the battlefield. To understand that the point of this war is not to do good, but to expand American power and enrich Halliburton, is painful - not just for the families who have lost sons and daughters to this war, but to everyone who sat at home watching the embedded reporters document the push into Baghdad, and putting themselves in the place of those brave young men in their desert camouflage. Back in the days when only the mad were questioning the war, any attempt to suggest that this war was neither just nor justified was always read as an attack on "the troops." It wasn't, of course; wouldn't the best way to protect the actual people who serve in the army be to NOT send them off to get killed? But to many of our fellow-Americans, the suggestion that America might be in the wrong this time was an attack on their own self-image as the brave and self-sacrificing guardians of democracy around the world. Our bad news was dangerous not to the actual soldiers who were being sent to fight this war, but to the image of the soldier that has become such an important element of American identity for so many of our compatriots.

Of course it costs us something to believe these things too. So why do we?

Mainly because we can't avoid it. The anti-war movement is a motley assortment, but one thing a lot of us share is outsider status. We are not part of the American mainstream; we do not have access to all the rights and privileges that our more fortunate compatriots have - or think they have. The American dream was long ago revealed to us as an illusion. And that was painful; but it was a long time ago, and we learned from it. It doesn't cost us as much to see our government doing wrong abroad, knowing as we do that it does wrong at home. And maybe that's why we could see this coming, and so many other people couldn't. If we called it early, it was not because we were smarter or better, but because we were looking at the world from a different position.

Outside in

Prophesying the fall of Troy doesn't save Cassandra from it. Raped, captured, and now a hostage to her enemy's country and her enemy's bed, Cassandra appears in Aeschylus's Agamemnon as an incarnation of the damage that has been done to Greece's defeated enemy and a reminder that the consequences outlast the war. The story she tells in her prophecy to the chorus - the story of Agamemnon's murder at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra - is part of that mess too. Clytemenstra is killing Agamemnon in revenge for their daughter Iphigenia, who was sacrificed to the gods to get the wind the Greek fleet needed to start off on their invasion of Troy. Agamemnon thought the conquest of Troy would be worth their daughter's sacrifice. Clytemenstra disagreed.

The chorus never gets it, no matter how clearly Cassandra tries to put it. They think she's talking about the past instead of the future. And in part, she is. What they fail to understand is that the past is determining the future, and that the murder she forsees is the inevitable result of damage that has already been done.

If they don't understand Cassandra, maybe it's because they're not in her position. There are things that suffering teaches that the powerful and protected never learn. One of them is that the consequences of violence are not bounded by logic and cannot be controlled by the law. You can decide when to drop the bomb but you don't get to decide when the explosion stops. Cassandra, here and in Euripides' The Trojan Women, is the continuation of the explosion, the link between the carnage that destroys Agamemnon's line and the carnage that destroyed her own family. Her 'gift,' in a way, is simply the ability to understand the connection; and it's a gift she cannot bestow on the members of the chorus, who have not shared her pain.

Our country, right now, is run by men who have been protected and powerful all their lives. This is why so many things never occur to them. They don't ask themselves how "the Iraqi people" will respond to the burning of their cities or the deaths of their kin. They don't wonder what it's like for the survivors, what resentments or hatreds might be growing in the hearts of the people we've hurt. They don't even bother themselves too much about what's happening to their own soldiers in the field or their families at home. Having never suffered themselves, they don't understand what suffering does. And so they don't understand the present or the past; and they'll never understand the future.

The Starkest Madness

The difference in perspective between the prophet who can see where all this is headed and the rest of the world often registers as lunacy. Emily Dickinson put it this way:

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye -
Much sense - the starkest madness -
Tis the majority -
In this - as all - prevail -
Assent, and you are sane -
Demur - you're straightway dangerous -
And handled with a chain -

And since the majority generally follows the strongest, it's the people in power who get to determine what's sane. The people who demur become lunatics; and of course the frustrating thing about being a lunatic is that nobody listens to you.

Between the two world wars, a French playwright named Jean Giraudoux revised Cassandra in La Guerre De Troie N'Aura Pas Lieu (The Trojan War Will Not Take Place). His Cassandra is not a prophet at all; just someone who has the ironic detachment necessary to take a good and critical look at the present. Instead of insight, she experiences her 'gift' as blindness: "I'm like a blind woman feeling her way. But it's in the midst of the truth that I'm blind. They all can see, and they see the lie. I feel the truth." A year ago, when the lie was all that you could see - on TV, at the UN, in the White House briefing room - that was what it was like to be against the war: everyone else's reality is flashing around you in technicolor and surround sound, and you are sitting there alone in your darkness, waiting for people to realize that what they're looking at is a lie.

Now, that's finally happening. Would it have been nice if it had happened earlier? Sure. Could it have? Probably not. The critique has to move from the outside in, from the fringes toward the center. We lunatics on the edges may be able to see the truth; but we can only see it because we don't have the power or the authority to convince anyone else. Things are only changing now because people closer to the centers of power have started to change their stories, and so the definition of sanity has shifted. Now, it's Bush who looks crazy for continuing to insist that Saddam Hussein was a threat because he had "the capacity to develop a weapon." Now, it's Bush who seems to be operating in a world of his own when he responds to Russert's questions about possible outcomes in Iraq by saying, "But that won't happen." And so now people can call this war a lie and a mistake without being handled with a chain.

Change has to start somewhere; and I believe, no doubt partly because I want to believe it, that we lunatics had our part in this one. We kept the argument against the war alive when nobody else would feed it; and so when the sane majority finally went looking for an alternative version, it was still out there. But we have to understand that there are limitations to our perspective too. Just because we have always been given to see the bad news - and we have, at least as far as Bush goes, pretty much always been right - that doesn't mean that bad news is all there ever will be.

Bush's appearance on Sunday was not just a hiccup that Rove's media machine will soon smooth over, or a part of some even more diabolical conspiracy whose dimensions we can only guess at. It does represent a real change; and unfortunately it represents the fact that more of our fellow - Americans are now sharing the distress, anxiety, bitterness, and pain we feel when we contemplate the condition of our country. Instead of mourning this change as too little and too late, we should celebrate it as a sign that things are finally getting better. And we should remember that every American who has belatedly come to realize what Bush and his cartel really are has had to come to it through confusion, pain, and anger - just like we did. If we can understand that pain and sympathize with it, then maybe we'll be able to build ourselves a bigger coalition; and maybe, when the future finally arrives, it will be good news for a change.


The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair.


View the Adder's Archive

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