Archive for June, 2009

In defense of conspiracy theories (sort of).

June 13, 2009

The neoconservatives’ rise to power in the early part of this decade was accompanied by a stranger phenomenon, the rise of the “neoleftists.” These strange creatures were steeped in the beliefs and principles of the Left, but found themselves tumbling out a different exit than most other self-described leftists. They thought of the Iraq War in particular as a noble people’s struggle against Middle Eastern fascism, more like the Spanish Civil War than Vietnam. All of them devised different means of explaining away the fact that most people who shared their basic principles found this war abhorrent. Christopher Hitchens came up with the novel argument that “doing nothing is also an intervention,” and that hence the Iraq War was simply reversing a bad “intervention” (leaving Saddam Hussein in power) in favor of a good, progressive one. Paul Berman decided that leftists were simply not capable of recognizing irrational mass movements anymore, and hence incapable of seeing the self-evident righteousness of the struggle against “Islamo-fascism.” Nick Cohen, a British writer, thinks our minds are too muddled by “conspiracy theories” to be able to see it.

Cohen’s article, poorly written and tastelessly accompanied by a picture of the exploding Twin Towers, is notable only for two reasons. First, it’s linked to on Arts and Letters Daily (why?), so numerous smart people will read it. Second, it provides yet another example of a tendency so widespread we ought to invent a name for it: Dismissing a charge of political maneuvering for profit or ill as a “conspiracy theory.”

The reason for the popularity of this move is obvious. Calling something a “conspiracy theory” instantly reduces the level of the entire conversation. It implies that your opponent is fundamentally an unserious person, and that politics itself is not to be taken too seriously. Your opponent is not a genuine political thinker but a person led astray by some sad mental ailment. Really, your opponent is more to be pitied than opposed, since his arguments are so self-evidently unfounded. “Their delusions impose a comforting coherence on the mess of life and randomness of death,” Cohen explains. He includes the notion that “the Bush and Blair administrations knew in advance that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction worthy of the name but lied and went to war under a false prospectus” among these “delusions,” right up there with the “Princess Di was murdered” conspiracy. Has he read the Downing Street Memo? Probably, but what chance have mere facts got compared to how lame all those anti-war protesters looked?

The stumbling block to this ever-useful rhetorical move is that conspiracies do exist. Strictly speaking, a conspiracy simply means a plan by a group of people in private to do something for an end that they cannot justify in public. This perfectly describes the actions of the Bush Administration in the year leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Calling it a “conspiracy” may summon up visions of John Birch pamphlets, but it is also an entirely accurate description. Politicians do scheme for advantage, both political and private; judging by the Iraq War, their schemes can have far-reaching and devastating consequences. Bush wasn’t even the first president to drag the United States into war on a made-up pretext; Lyndon Johnson beat him to the punch by 40 years. To assume that politicians always have our best interests at heart isn’t merely naive; it contradicts most of our history.

This tendency also stands in sharp contrast to our willingness to praise politicians for maneuvering for good ends. Last year, Hillary Clinton was fond of citing LBJ’s political savvy, which surely helped him pass the most important civil rights legislation of the century. Did Johnson’s passing of the Voting Rights Act make up for his lies about the Gulf of Tonkin? We can’t know, since that “conspiracy,” being an example of political savvy put to distasteful ends, never comes up these days, although it couldn’t be more relevant in these days of Nick Cohens and Robert Kagans, shaking hands across the political spectrum and fully agreed on the pathetic mental delusions of the ignorant, contemptible masses.


When a body meets a body…

June 5, 2009

Since he’s largely to blame for me beiing a writer in the first place, I can’t help but pay attention when the great J.D. Salinger emerges from his self-imposed silence. This time he’s trying to put the kibosh on, of all things, some schmuck’s attempt to write a sequel to Catcher in the Rye. 

Since Salinger, according to a number of sources, refers to his characters as if they were real people, it’s understandable that he’d react to this invasion of his literary space with as much fury as he reacts to invasion of his property. This puritanical attitude is visible even to people who haven’t read him: Unlike virtually every other book in the world, the Salinger books boast no bright covers, no illustrations, no “about the author” sections. The only hint that these books were written by an actual person, living or dead, comes in those coy dedications that preface the later books, or that winked from the original dust jackets. 

The reason this hasn’t discouraged people from wanting to know more about the author is, of course, the inimitable voice of the books themselves. Holden Caulfield may be one of the most convincing human beings in fiction, but we can still sense Salinger’s presence — at once appalled and loving — behind him, while some of the later stories all but dispense with plot and character altogether and give us the author’s uncensored voice. Salinger has a way of seizing on the small, absurd details of the universe — like Holden’s pointless irritation at his old roommate who “was always hanging stuff up in the closet” — and phrasing them in a way that never leaves you. 

Unlike almost every other major artist of the century, Salinger sought to remove himself, as much as possible, from a reader’s perception of his work. He seems to have aspired to the kind of two-sentence biography enjoyed by Shakespeare. Had he lived a century or two before, he might have gotten away with it. But in the age of celebrity, Salinger’s reclusiveness seemed too much like a “come-on,” as his ill-fated biographer Ian Hamilton put it, to pass up. Thanks to Hamilton — and a couple of tell-all memoirs — we now know rather too much about Salinger for comfort. Few of the “revelations” add much to our appreciation of the books, since Salinger seems to have never discussed his writing with anyone, even family members. 

The miracle is that the work holds up, and stands apart from the legend. Nine Stories is as perfect a short-story collection as anyone has ever written, and the Glass stories — with their charming blend of the elliptical and the comic-tragic — are much better than anyone gave them credit for at the time. As for Catcher, it’s a perfect novel buried under an avalanche of attention (and poor teaching). We should ban it, like those school boards in Alabama often suggest, and come back to it in sixty years; that line about the guy who’s always hanging stuff up in the closet will still be hilarious.