Politics postsMonday April 28, 2008
Reframing the War on Terror with Milan Kundera
Add my voice to the chorus of people who think it’s time to reframe “The War on Terror.”
Its current frame has been problematic from the start. How do you fight a tactic? Why not just a war on al-Qaeda? But we called it “The War on Terror” and it’s partly why we are where we are. The War on al-Qaeda wouldn’t have led us into Iraq.
I know: old topic. But I started thinking about it again while reading, of all things, Milan Kundera’s The Curtain, particularly “Part Two: Die Weltliteratur,” in which the author makes an impassioned plea for world literature — for literature studied in the large context (aesthetically, as part of one world literature) rather than in the small context (geographically, as part of one’s country’s literature).
The main reason literature isn’t studied aesthetically, according to Kundera, is provincialism, which he defines as “...the inability (or the refusal) to see one’s own culture in the large context.”
He then gives us two kinds of provincialism: that of large nations and that of small nations.
Large nations feel their literature is rich enough and central enough that they needn’t bother with literature from other, smaller countries.
Small nations feel the opposite. They are overwhelmed by world literature. Kundera writes that they see it as “something alien, a sky above their heads, distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality with little connection to their national literature. The small nation inculcates in its writer the conviction that he belongs to that place alone. To set his gaze beyond the boundary of the homeland, to join his colleagues in the supranational territory of art, is considered pretentious, disdainful of his own people.”
Like all good definitions, Kundera’s definitions resonate beyond the borders of his immediate discussion. The provincialism of large nations, for example, is reminiscent of the provincialism of major cities like New York. A friend of mine, a Seattleite, once visited her sister in Manhattan and the sister brought up a popular film seen all over the country and asked, “Do you get that where you are?” Where you are. Because we don’t know and don’t need to know. It’s the attitude Saul Steinberg lampooned in his famous New Yorker cover — in which 9th and 10th Avenues predominate and the rest of the country is merely a truncated square, with dots for Texas and Chicago.
The provincialism of small nations, meanwhile, reminds me of Minneapolis, where I grew up, and where any artist who builds a following in the smaller context of the Twin Cities and then dares to succeed in the larger context of the nation is immediately set upon by locals as a sell-out. You belong to us. To think you belong “out there” is pretentious. Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning former City Pages columnist, is the latest to experience this phenomenon.
But more than anything, Kundera’s talk of provincialism reminded me, even reframed for me, The War on Terror.
Al-Qaeda demonstrates the provincialism of small nations. They may not see western culture as “an ideal reality” but it’s definitely an alien sky that covers all, and so they’ve declared war on it. They are as likely to win this war as they would a war against the sky.
The U.S., unfortunately, keeps helping by demonstrating the provincialism of large nations. Kundera writes that artists in such nations “need take no interest in what people write elsewhere,” and that’s the U.S. attitude since 9/11. Hell, the attacks made us more provincial. The U.N.? The Geneva Conventions? We invaded the wrong country and most of the U.S. was fine with it. Once Baghdad fell, we filled important positions with functionaries who had no Mid-East background, who spoke no Arabic. Doesn’t everyone want state-owned enterprises privatized under foreign occupation? Don’t they want their constitution written under foreign occupation?
Isn’t this going to be easy?
The War on Terror, in other words, is simply a battle between two provincial groups who refuse to see their culture in the large context; who refuse to see themselves as part of the world.
At one point in The Curtain, Kundera takes great, almost humorous exception to a French honor panel’s list of the 100 greatest works in French literature — De Gaulle’s War Memories ahead of Rabelais and Flaubert? — and scolds the honor panel thus: “France is not merely the land where the French live, it is also the country other people watch and draw inspiration from.”
As are we. Something to keep in mind anyway as we head towards November.
Our long national comeuppance
Gail Collins is both wittier and more substantive than her fellow Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd and she's particularly good today on Pres. Bush's speech before the NY financial community on Friday. She writes:
The country that elected George Bush — sort of — because he seemed like he’d be more fun to have a beer with than Al Gore or John Kerry is really getting its comeuppance. Our credit markets are foundering, and all we’ve got is a guy who looks like he’s ready to kick back and start the weekend.
That's pretty much it, isn't it? As long as we were sending other people's kids to die over there (so we wouldn't have to worry about dying over here), we were fine with it. Now it's hitting us where it matters. The volatility of the current market is truly scary and the only solution this guy has is to send out more checks so people can buy more stuff. Except everyone's so worried they‘re not buying more stuff; they’re holding onto their money.
Are his numbers still at 30 percent? Who are these idiots? The atom bomb is old news but at this point you want to quote Alan Ginsberg. I'll finish with more Collins on Bush:
This economic crisis has been going on for months, and all the president could come up with sounded as if it had been composed for a Rotary Club and then delivered by a guy who had never read it before. “One thing is certain that Congress will do is waste some of your money,” he said. “So I’ve challenged members of Congress to cut the number of cost of earmarks in half.”
Besides being incoherent, this is a perfect sign of an utterly phony speech. Earmarks are one of those easy-to-attack Congressional weaknesses, and in a perfect world, they would not exist. But they cost approximately two cents in the grand budgetary scheme of things. Saying you’re going to fix the economy or balance the budget by cutting out earmarks is like saying you’re going to end global warming by banning bathroom nightlights.
It's 3 a.m. Do you know where your President is?
Good piece here by Larry David on who's better equipped to take that 3 a.m. phonecall.
The biggest problem I'm having with Hillary's campaign is that all of her supposedly winning arguments as to why she'd be a better president than Barack Obama (experience, that 3 a.m. phonecall) are losing arguments against John McCain. He has more experience. If there's a 3 a.m. phonecall — assume a military nature — most Americans would rather have the military man take it. She must know this. And yet the campaign proceeds the way it's proceeding. So she's hoping to win the nomination with one argument and the presidency with another argument — possibly the opposite argument. That's a helluva strategy.
American Political prisoner?
The basics. Siegelman, a Democratic governor in a Republican state, was running for reelection in 2002 when word leaked to the press that he was being investigated by federal prosecutors; he narrowly lost that election to Republican Bob Riley. The investigating prosecutors were both appointed by Pres. Bush and one of them, Leura Canary, was the wife of Republican consultant Bill Canary.
Two years later, as Siegelman was gearing to run for governor again, he's indicted on charges stemming from an alleged Medicaid scam. The case goes to trial. And on the first day the judge throws it out. Says the government has no case.
Then the investigation expands. For eight months Leura Canary is heading it — despite the fact that her husband ran the campaign for Siegelman's opponent, Gov. Riley. The charge is now bribery. The jury deadlocks once, twice, then votes to convict. The problems? The chief witness against him testified in exchange for a reduced sentence on corruption charges. The smoking gun, a check, was actually cut days after the witness claims seeing it in Siegelman's hands. And the supposed quid pro quo of campaign contributions ($500,000) for political favors (the contributor being reappointed to a hospital board) was, according to Grant Woods, a Republican and the former attorney general of Arizona, not bribery at all; it was politics. Akin to putting the President of the United States in jail because he gave a contributor an ambassadorship.
Even so, Siegelman was sentenced to seven years and led away — literally — in manacles, something unheard of for white collar criminals, let alone a former governor.
There's more: He said/she said about Karl Rove targeting Siegelman in 2002. Allegations that Karl Rove directed the DOJ for political advantage.
Fifty two attorneys general of both parties have asked Congress to investigate.