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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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
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