New York Times right-wing Boy Wonder Ross Douthat has a sad because The Green Zone isn’t mature enough to handle the tragedy of George W. Bush:
Americans believe in evil, but we’re uncomfortable with tragedy. We accept that there are wicked people in the world, with malice in their hearts and a devil whispering in their ears. But the idea that many debacles flow from choices made by decent, well-intentioned human beings is more difficult for us to wrap our minds around.
Note the presumptive “we,” beloved of hacks from the beginning of time, and how from it one may assume the Wide Stance of the Expert, from which p.o.v. the writer is then able to issue further pronouncements about, uh, “us.”
This is apparent in our politics, where we’re swift to impute the worst of motives to anyone slightly to our left or right. It’s apparent in our popular culture, thick with white hats and black hats, superheroes and supervillains. But it’s most egregious where the two spheres intersect: in our political fictions, which are nearly always Manichaean, simplistic and naïve.
Never mind that all popular culture of every society pits superheroes against supervillains, or at least good guys vs. bad guys, because that’s what makes it “popular.” The punch line here is the word “naïve.” When right-wingers have nothing substantive to say, they play the Vice-Principal card and call you “immature.”
Such, we are told, is the new Paul Greengrass/Matt Damon action film The Green Zone, which, per Douthat, “refuses to stare real tragedy in the face, preferring the comforts of a ‘Bush lied, people died’ reductionism.”
And what does he mean by real tragedy? Is it the needless death of tens of thousands of children, women, babies, elders, and other non-combatants of a country that was no threat to the country that invaded it? Is it the forced exodus of a million people fleeing their homes? Is it the killing and maiming of U.S. soldiers in an action that, while ostensibly (or so we were told, by the decent, well-intentioned human beings who knew it wasn’t true) retaliating against a force that attacked us on 9-11, in fact attacked a country completely unconnected to that event? Is it how a population’s anger and fear were manipulated in order to support a military adventure it could not afford and did not need but was determined to promote regardless?
No. The very thought, Douthat suggests, is “naïve.” Here is how he describes the events of 2003:
The narrative of the Iraq invasion, properly told, resembles a story out of Shakespeare. You had a nation reeling from a terrorist attack and hungry for a response that would be righteous, bold and comprehensive. You had an inexperienced president trying to tackle a problem that his predecessors (one of them his own father) had left to fester since the first gulf war. You had a cause — the removal of a brutal dictator, and the spread of democracy to the Arab world — that inspired a swath of the liberal intelligentsia to play George Orwell and embrace the case for war. You had a casus belli — those weapons of mass destruction — that even many of the invasion’s opponents believed to be a real danger to world peace. And you had Saddam Hussein himself, the dictator in his labyrinth, apparently convinced that pretending to have W.M.D. was the best way to keep his grip on power.
Readers born after 2003, who today are at most six years old, may find this account plausible. The rest of us know better and can see it for the selectively incomplete, essentially false piece of historical revisionism that it is.
You had a nation that was hungry for a response, yes, and for whom the first part of that response, in Afghanistan, was thought to be adequate and well-chosen, but was abandoned by those decent, etc., people. Douthat forgets to mention it. You had, in his poignant phrase, “an inexperienced president” whose anti-intellectualism, spiteful insecurity, and provincial ignorance caused him to consciously ignore the knowledge of experts and their explicit warnings of this terrorist attack, and to focus, instead, on tax cuts for his patrons (in a time of “war”) and on vacations.
You had a defensible but non-urgent goal–the removal of Saddam Hussein, one of history’s monsters–as a pre-defined objective, to which all “fact gathering” and “deliberations” and “debates” were subordinated (and the selection of which owed much more to the vainglory of the president, and the egos of the Secretary of Defense and the Vice-President, than to any matters of national security).
You had a “casus belli” about which the president, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and sundry other decent, well-intentioned human beings, knowingly lied, catastrophizing and sowing fear for no other reason than to advance this pre-determined agenda. “We know where the weapons of mass destruction are,” quoth Donald Rumsfeld. “They’re near Tikrit.”
And, to the extent that you had a liberal intelligentsia and a general population supporting the war, it was because they had been deceived into thinking it necessary for their own safety. “Surely,” people thought, “they wouldn’t lie about that. Surely they wouldn’t falsify and manipulate the facts over something as horrible and scarring and brutalizing to all concerned as going to war.”
But to Douthat, this is the “naïve” version of events. According to his version, these were decent people trying their hardest to do right. It is refuted and demolished by a ton of documentary evidence, but never mind.
Douthat cites an essay in Washington Monthly by Chris Lehmann in 2005 about political fiction:
From Mark Twain’s “Gilded Age” and Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” to their more recent imitators, our novelists have never been terribly interested in the actual challenges of political life. Instead, Lehmann suggested, they usually cast the entire mess as “a great ethical contaminant and task their protagonists with escaping its many perils with both their lives and their moral compasses intact.”
As it happens, this is a pretty good description of the arc of “Green Zone.” But it’s a lousy recipe for real art, which is supposed to be interested in the humanity of all its subjects, not just the ones who didn’t work for Rumsfeld’s Department of Defense.
Setting aside the fact that the last thing I want to hear from a conservative columnist in The New York Times is his theory about “real art,” in fact Lehmann’s description strikes me as a pretty good recipe for real art. The proper domain of art–certainly of drama, even in a mainstream studio movie–is human subjectivity: the personality, its changes, its confrontation with the outside world. Confronting a protagonist with “a great ethical contaminant” is–talk about “tragedy”–a theme and a method that
goes back to the Greeks, if not to the earliest legends.
Douthat, young aspiring conservative that he is, cannot admit that the entire Iraq debacle was in fact a circus of ethical contamination, from the witting lies that sold it, to the Cavalcade of Amateurs sent to restore order after the fall of Saddam, to the cubic feet of cash lost, stolen, or squandered on the free-for-all that they oversaw. Some political stories do indeed deserve a nuanced dramatization in which no side has clean hands and everyone is ethically compromised. There may even be such stories to be found in the war in Iraq. But not among the Bush administration.
Finally, no column from the Times stable of right-wing pundits (Douthat, Brooks) would be complete without a bit of hypocritical, concern-troll hand-wringing over “our ongoing polarization.”
Our nation might be less divided, and our debates less poisonous, if more artists were capable of showing us the ironies, ambiguities and tragedies inherent in our politics — rather than comforting us with portraits of a world divided cleanly into good and evil.
What you mean “us,” right man?
Perhaps the youthful Douthat was himself born after 2003, and so wasn’t present during the dawn of our current age of poisonous partisanship, birthed by Richard Nixon (or do I mean Joseph McCarthy?), nurtured by Lee Atwater, and thriving even unto our present time under the ministry of Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Ann Coulter, Fox News, Jim DeMint, Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachmann, and all the other professional liars, foaming demagogues, and clinically insane loons for whom Ross Douthat has such redeeming sympathy.
From the current disinformation campaign of Dick Cheney, to the pants-on-fire mendacity of Karl Rove’s new memoir, to the sad laments of Douthat and David Brooks and every other wingnut pundit whose paycheck depends on defending the indefensible, this is their current project: re-define the past, absolve the guilty of crimes, whitewash the lies, and profess respect for the tragedy of how decent, well-meaning people understandably made some mistakes.
They will never stop. And why should they? What else do they have to do?