November 04, 2004

[Harper's Magazine]
GRAND OLD INQUISITOR
The Republican Party's gift of innocence


When I left the Republican National Convention in September, I was in awe and a little depressed, as if someone or something had told me to go fuck myself, and had told me with a kind of meticulous exactitude that was overwhelming and irrefutable. The feeling wasn’t ideological. No particular words had done it. It was their reckless profusion, the ceaseless tide of pointless language churning through Madison Square Garden, crashing against the walls, losing more meaning with every dyslogic wave. Politicians have spoken self-serving nonsense since the beginning of time, as the Democrats themselves had demonstrated a month before in Boston, hut this was different. It was larger, more calculated. Whereas Kerry had struggled to create meaning – no matter how stupid, dishonest, or clichéd that meaning was – Bush’s team seemed actively to be plotting its demise.

Certainly the headline speeches meant nothing. Yes, the President, with his “calling from beyond the stars,” spoke in the coded language of the Rapture, but the code once broken contained only a single message, which was in fact a meta-message: “I am speaking in code to Christians.” Other combinations of words slipped the bonds of meaning entirely. Did Arnold Schwarzenegger somehow end the Cold War in Austria? Was George Bush a war hero? Did John Kerry want to destroy America? These were half-narratives, made up of questions so preposterous as to end discussion and possibly even subvert our understanding of what it means to mean something. The real message was not “I care,” or even “vote for me.” The real message, radiating from the podium and echoing through the rafters, was that there was no message.

That soul-negating echo was terrifying to me, and all the more terrifying because it was clearly the result of so much effort. Witting or not, everyone there was a participant. The Garden and its surrounding streets had been converted into a monstrous echo chamber, ring upon ring of technology-laden humanity: protesters with their signs and their chants, New York City cops with radios Velcroed to their shoulders, Treasury agents talking into their sleeves, the crush of delegates with their cell phones and their BlackBerrys – and reporters, 15,000 of them, writers with their wireless laptops, radiomen serenading their outsized microphones, surly camera crews, bright lights in tow, all of them connected by winding cable to rows of idling vans outside on Seventh Avenue, the microwave dishes on top sending signals to satellites miles above only to be sent right back down again, back into countless thousands more speakers and screens, bouncing, reflecting, blending, an overwhelming vortex of absurdities. All of it had been orchestrated with ruthless precision, and you couldn’t say a word about it because if you did it wouldn’t mean a thing.

* * *

I tried to describe the maddening echo of the place to another editor who, as it happens, had spent several years teaching the great books to high school kids in Texas. He put his finger on it right away. “It’s the Marabar Caves,” he said. “Go look at A Passage to India.

So I looked. He was almost impossibly right. E. M. Forster had somehow captured, in 1924, the essence of the 2004 Republican National Convention – not just my reaction to the Garden but the terrible feel of the place. In the scene my editor friend had in mind, the elderly Mrs. Moore has found herself on a long day trip out of Chandrapore, her destination the famous Marabar Caves. Inside the darkened chamber, she is confronted by an extraordinary and disturbing echo:
Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. “Boum” is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or “bou-oum,” or “ou-boum,” – utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce “boum.” Even the striking of a match starts a little worm coiling, which is too small to complete a circle but is eternally watchful. And if several people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which writhe independently.
That was it precisely. It was more than just the sound, though. It was the sameness of the sound. And here Forster was prescient once again:
The crush and the smells she could forget, but the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur, “Pathos, piety, courage – they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.” If one had spoken vileness in that place, or spoken lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same – ”ou-boum.”
That was the convention. It was all the same – not a single position or conflicting positions but every position and no position. The words at the convention were like every color of the color wheel, spinning into white.

* * *

That spinning sensation – the whitening wheel, the whirling echo, the coiling snakes – was not merely symbolic. It was manifested in the very form of the Garden, itself a massive bowl of concentric rings, and in the constant circling of those rings by the thousands of reporters, politicians, and bagmen gathered there to do their work.

The top ring, where the skyboxes are, is a sort of circular luxury hotel, along the lines of a Wichita Ramada Inn, only each room has a view of the rock concert or basketball game or presidential speech taking place below. During the convention the rooms were occupied by networks and big contributors, and when the skybox doors were open you could see right through to the netted balloons and light-show rigging above the podium. Outside along the dim perimeter, reporters circulated endlessly on cardboard-protected carpets, hoping some kind of narrative would ooze out of the agglomeration of celebrity, money, and cameras.

In the weeks leading up to the convention, I’d formed an unconscious and somewhat naive conception of it as a theatrical performance in which some kind of story – likely offensive to me, but a story nonetheless – would unfold upon the center stage. Certainly that stage, surrounded as it was by thousands of enthusiastic Republicans and hundreds of cameras and microphones, was where a story ought to have taken place. There was the brightly lit podium, with its odd cruciform moldings; there was the massive video screen, a waving flag one minute, a gospel choir the next; there were the orators themselves, foreheads shining in the bright lights. But no story.

There was, if anything, a resistance to narrative. For instance, we had Sara Pyszka, introduced by U.S. Representative Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. “Though unable to speak without the aid of her DynaVox, a computerized voice aid, and confined to a wheelchair by disabilities including cerebral palsy,” Capito said, “Sara Pyszka still manages to share her hope and optimism with thousands.” That seemed promising. I expected that I would at some point learn what made Sara Pyszka optimistic. Had the local soda fountain taken up a collection in a cigar box to pay for the DynaVox? Had some Bush initiative allowed her to embrace the American dream at last? We never found out. Capito simply went on to say, “Please welcome Sara,” who wheeled in silently from the wings. After a pause, a mechanical voice, presumably that of the DynaVox, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and then, after another pause, Sara Pyszka rolled back to whatever story she was living outside the airless realm of the Republican National Convention. The only narrative was that of exploitation, as if the producers couldn’t be bothered even to finish the cliché. (I later learned that Pyszka had found a way to use her DynaVox to sing, and that in July, in fact, she had performed the national anthem before a Cleveland Indians game.)

The rest of the show was no different. Before I could process the meaning of one cheap symbol, the producers were on to the next. Even the biographical video, typically a narrative high point of political conventions – A Place Called Hope, Morning in America – lacked narrative momentum. Indeed, it was composed entirely of still images, panned in the manner of a Ken Burns documentary. Setup, climax, resolution – all of the elements of storytelling – had become superfluous.

Up along the outer rings my thoughts turned naturally, if dismally, to Yeats and his “Second Coming,” with its rough beasts and its center that failed to hold. After a few constricted circuits of the sky-boxes with no real story in sight, I even began to envy the falcon his widening gyre.

* * *

Yeats, of course, has informed the despair of reporters and editors at least since Joan Didion borrowed a line from him to title “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” her brilliant 1967 report for the Saturday Evening Post on the dark stink of the San Francisco counterculture. The tenuous center, for Didion, was language. In the culture of the hippies, she saw something terrifying to anyone who told stories for a living. It was a disdain for meaning itself, a nascent post-narrative culture made up of logophobes stacked up in old Victorian houses. They found the whole business of articulation beneath contempt, an ego trip at best, and possibly a plot by the Man. Didion wrote:
They feed back exactly what is given them. Because they do not believe in words – words are for “typeheads,” Chester Anderson tells them, and a thought which needs words is just one more of those ego trips – their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for oneself depends upon one’s mastery of the language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.” They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to he given the words.
Didion later observed that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” and I think it is this larger sense of lost storytelling that bothered her the most about those children. How could they live without stories? There are two ways of thinking about stories, after all – the weak form, favored by young children and imbeciles, a shopping list of events (this happened, then that happened, then the other thing happened); and the strong form, of cause and effect, action and reaction (this happened because that happened). The Creation, which had no cause, is the first kind of story. The Fall is the second kind.

The South African writer Breyten Breytenbach saw that narrative was the very basis for creating a moral order, that “to he aware of the moral implications of narrative” is “to know and respect the knowledge that we are all part of the same nothing.” Stories are how we who wish not to worship false idols create love and hate from the void. Without them, we become as innocent as Adam with all his ribs.

* * *

The convention, of course, was a huge hit. If the polls the following week were to be believed, the nothingness generated from within the Garden, or perhaps the innocence it inspired, was enough to turn the vote of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Bush had spoken to them on some level I’d failed to comprehend.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when I read by chance a comment Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, had made on the third day of the convention, that I began to understand what happened. “It struck me as I was speaking to people in Bangor, Maine,” Card had said, “that this President sees America as we think about a 10-year-old child. I know as a parent I would sacrifice all for my children.” I had seen the convention as a “fuck you” to meaning itself, I had felt it that way. But the lack of meaning I had witnessed was not intended as an act of terror. It was an act of hope – perhaps even of misguided love.

One of the wonderful odd facts about Laura Bush that reporters love to trade is that her favorite passage in all of literature is “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov. At first this might seem an odd choice, given that the inquisitor in question has promised to burn Jesus (or God, if you will) at the stake for the crime of giving man the knowledge of sin and then abandoning him to his own devices. The inquisitor saw this as a bad deal, and being a serious man he saw it as his own burden not only to remove that knowledge as best he could but also to take away the choices that such knowledge implied, for it was giving man the freedom to sin that was the worst crime of all. As he tortured Jesus, the inquisitor explained to him why his own system was far superior to that of the Father. “This is what we have done,” he said. “We have improved upon Your creation and founded it instead on miracle, mystery, and authority. And men were delighted that once more they were led like sheep, and that that terrible gift which had brought them so much suffering was lifted from their hearts at last.”

This is typically understood as an ironic passage that in fact celebrates free will as God’s most profound and mysterious gift to humanity – Dostoevsky would have much to discuss with Didion and Breytenbach. But perhaps Bush himself had discussed all of this with his wife on some voluble night of his reckless youth and he had missed the joke. Or maybe he thought the inquisitor had a pretty good point. Either way, and although he couldn’t have meant to make such an awful pun, maybe he truly is, as Joni Mitchell once sang, trying to take us back to the garden. Maybe he sees this awful “boum” as a gift to the people – a gift of existential ignorance, freely given and freely taken.

* * *

Card didn’t say any of this in so many words, but then how could he? Words could as easily be subsumed by such a project as describe it. That was the genius of the convention. It wasn’t the words that mattered. Madison Square Garden itself had been converted into an architect’s rendering of a vast work, an engineering marvel to rival the Hoover Dam or the Tower of Babel.

It seems odd to think of a president, any president, running on a platform of existential negation, and perhaps I am being over-imaginative in my understanding of our current President’s plans. Again, though, I remember that “boum,” which was real enough, and I know that it could not have happened entirely by accident.

George Bush calls himself a Christian, but I think he lacks the tragic sensibility required to worship a man who would allow himself to he crucified. Bush is a doer. He wants to solve problems, and he seems to believe that at some point all of the problems can be solved, even the problem of sin. Rather than find redemption in the blood of Christ, he seems to be groping toward some way of redeeming the sin of knowledge, his own and the world’s, all by himself. He sees that you are naked and ashamed, but rather than clothe you he has found the way at last – compassionately, his heart full of love – to pluck out your eye. ■

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