Being There or Moby Dick?

The Economist has succinctly characterized the W years as a time of “partisanship, politicisation and incompetence.” As the curtains close, a few literary comparisons are apt, beyond the classic Oedipal tensions explored by Jacob Weisberg, Maureen Dowd, and the crude (but occasionally funny) cartoon series “Lil Bush.”

Stephen Kinzer draws the Bush/Ahab connection, reflecting on Moby Dick:

[Ahab] explains his determination to destroy the white whale in terms President Bush might have used to explain his obsession with Saddam Hussein: “He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength.” Like Bush, Ahab lashed out against not just an individual, but what he saw as a malevolent though unnamable power. Both men convinced themselves that they could not survive without crushing the enemy power, even though they could not coherently explain what that power was or why they hated it so. “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate,” Ahab asserts. “And be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.”

It’s an insightful article, but I find literature that concentrates on the banality of incompetence and unconcern more compelling:

In Jerzy Kozinsky’s 1970 novel Being There, a character named Chance the Gardener, whose entire existence has been restricted to watching television shows and tending a walled garden, is suddenly thrust into the outside world. Here he acquires admirers who rename him Chauncey Gardiner, mistake his ignorance for profundity, and take his horticultural allusions for zenlike koans. His intellectual limitations and personal inadequacies become social and political virtues. At the end of the novel, the President’s advisors gather to consider a candidate to replace the current vice-president. One of them suggests Chance. . . . .

Like Bush, Kosinski’s Chance possesses a very limited range of references and a markedly restricted ability to articulate ideas. When his new fame lands Chance on a talk show, he manages, after some helpful prompting from the host, to utter a series of banalities about the vicissitudes of growth in a garden. Afterwards, one of Chance’s admirers comments that the gardener “has the uncanny ability of reducing complex matters to the simplest of human terms.”

America’s dynastic political families have made the elevation of a nonentity all-too-possible. Even Kosinski could scarcely imagine Chance as President.

The inauguration is a time of great hope for reversing an alarming recent past. Paul Krugman compellingly notes why we must remember and repudiate this past:

During the Reagan years, the Iran-contra conspirators violated the Constitution in the name of national security. But the first President Bush pardoned the major malefactors, and when the White House finally changed hands the political and media establishment gave Bill Clinton the same advice it’s giving Mr. Obama: let sleeping scandals lie. Sure enough, the second Bush administration picked up right where the Iran-contra conspirators left off — which isn’t too surprising when you bear in mind that Mr. Bush actually hired some of those conspirators.

Now, it’s true that a serious investigation of Bush-era abuses would make Washington an uncomfortable place, both for those who abused power and those who acted as their enablers or apologists. And these people have a lot of friends. But the price of protecting their comfort would be high: If we whitewash the abuses of the past eight years, we’ll guarantee that they will happen again.

Sadly, media elites have already effectively declared such discussions outside the realm of acceptable ideas.

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