Thursday, December 28, 2006

You Gotta Believe

[posted by Callimachus]

Not necessarily religion. Just belief.

When George W. Bush addresses the nation with his Iraq proposals in early January, a great many people will be disappointed. They will be so because the president is unlikely to change the position he has held all along: that in Iraq victory, or something that looks to the world like victory, is still essential, crucial even.

How could it be otherwise? George W. Bush is not, strictly speaking, a politician; he came, after all, to politics late. He is instead a believer. It may well be in his nature to believe, as witness his midlife conversion to earnest Christianity. But there can be very little doubt that, on the morning of September 11, 2001, he also acquired political religion. He believes American security is being challenged; he believes this challenge must be met directly and with force; and he believes that he knows what is best for the country which he has been chosen to lead. The question of the rightness of his belief may be debated; but about the sincerity of his belief there can't be much question.

Four or so years ago, I heard the comedian Jackie Mason mock George W. Bush's slender rhetorical powers. "He stumbles, he stutters, he mispronounces. He goes arghh, he goes ahhh; he twists himself up in words; it's hopeless. Unlike Bill Clinton, who speaks with never a pause, never a miscue, never a hitch of any kind. You know, when you come to think of it, it's a hell of a lot easier to speak well when you don't believe a word you're saying."

More than merely amusing, this comic bit is provocatively suggestive. What it suggests is that American presidents can be divided into those who are true believers and those who are something else: managers, politicians, operators, men who just wanted the job. While in office, Bill Clinton, who seems to have had as little true belief as any politician in recent decades, sensed that the country wanted to move to the center, so he moved to the center along with it: changing the welfare system, doing nothing radical about health care, rocking no boats, giving the people what the polls told him they wanted.

Belief in itself, in a political figure, is not sufficient to make him either good or bad. Everything of course depends on the content of the belief. I do not know American history well enough to run through all 43 of our presidents, designating the believers and nonbelievers among them. But I think I can do so fairly quickly from the presidency of Harry S. Truman, the first president in my lifetime of whom I had awareness, through the present day in a way that, I hope, is instructive.

An interesting exercise; useful, as far as it goes. Especially because it doesn't set out to use "belief" as either a touchstone for good presidencies or for bad ones. Of the two, arguably, most successful presidents of the Cold War, Reagan was a believer, in Epstein's sense of the word; Ike wasn't. How would Reagan have handled Hungary 1956?

Anymore, though, any article that includes the name George W. Bush but isn't totally driven by some white-hot pseudo-psycho-sexual need to justify his reputation or destroy it is likely to seem interesting to me. Like all simplifications, it only goes so far. But it helps me see why Barack Obama reminds me so much of Clinton (the Y-chromosome Clinton), and why, though I prefer John McCain to most of his GOP rivals and generally like him even when I disagree with him, I don't quite trust him:

John McCain has the look and feel, not least the testiness, of a believer, but the question in his case is in what exactly does he believe, apart from his own integrity, which seems genuine. Or is he merely pugnacious (instead of wily) for the public good? Nobody knows, and one wonders if McCain himself knows in what, politically, he truly believes.

* * *

Believing doesn't make you right or wrong. It makes you determined. Lincoln believed, and either killed 600,000 people needlessly to speed up something that would have happened in a few generations anyhow, or else led the nation out of darkness into light by the only painful path available. Depending on your view of the thing and what side of the Pennsylvania-Maryland boundary your family has lived on.

Believers tend to do awful things. Non-believers tend to allow awful things to continue to happen.

It explains something I noticed back in the '80s covering anti-abortion marches, which invariably attracted pro-abortion counter-protests. Beneath the superficialities of hairstyles (conservative Catholic housewife coifs on one side, pink spikes on the other), the people on each side struck me as remarkably alike. Each believed, passionately, on an issue that to me was a matter of abstractions of constitutional law and of mitigating the cruelty of a necessary evil. They had much more in common with each other than either had with me.

I still see them in my head today when I read about the radical ecology movement. Actually, I don't have to read about it, because I have a brother who's on the fringes of it.

"We are now witnessing the final days of Western Civilization," declared a recent posting on the Portland Independent Media Center website. "As this civilization decays around us—as the wars spread and the natural disasters increase in frequency—and as those trapped by western culture slowly break from their cognitive dissonance and open their hearts and minds, a new reality will begin to reveal itself. Our task is to let this transformation take its course, and to speed it along where we can."

Historically and scientifically ignorant, but doubtless sincere. That's from this thoughtful piece about what some have called (probably incorrectly in most cases) "eco-terrorists."

Here's what activists like Rodgers believe: They believe we face a crisis of mass extinction, caused by civilization. They believe the atmosphere is being spoiled, the climate pitching on the verge of ruinous change, because of civilization. They believe our bodies are being poisoned and so are our spirits, by civilization.

They've considered the state of the planet and they've decided against some hopeful half-critique. They've looked all the way down into the pit and, rightly or wrongly, come to the conclusion that the whole damn thing is undeniably, irretrievably messed up. The government is wrong, mainstream culture is wrong, the tokenist sellout environmental community is wrong, civilization itself is wrong.

The green anarchists are historical determinists, as are Marxists and Christian fundamentalists. Their worldview is based on more, though, than extrapolations of weighty political treatises or divinations of holy texts. It is based on the work of scientists such as E. O. Wilson and Jared Diamond and respected, peer-reviewed biologists and climatologists and ecologists the world over whose work suggests that human activity is having a calamitous effect on the Earth's natural systems.

Globalization. Capitalism. Greed. Civilization. Call it what you will. It will end, the green anarchists insist, whether by means of environmental collapse, violent revolution, or the collective enlightening of human consciousness.

* * *

Negative belief. Some see things that are, and ask, why? Some see things that never were and ask, why not? Some close one eye and stare hard through the other and say, "It's all buggered. Burn it down."

* * *

Was there ever a culture more in need of poetry than ours? Was there ever a nation more awash in it? Everyone writes poetry now. It's therapy, not art. As therapy, it can't be judged, therefore everything is poetry and nothing is poetry. Those who call themselves poets are either street people or academics. What they all really want to be is bloggers, apparently. The poetry I see in the "New Yorker," for instance, is just anti-Bush screeds with interesting line-breaks; artful hand-shadow performances in front of a projector showing CNN reels.

What's missing? What Keats called "Negative Capability" -- "that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."