Friday, January 05, 2007

Denying, Versus Manufacturing, Reality

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Slavoj Zizek has an interesting op-ed in the New York Times called "Denying the Facts, Finding the Truth." It makes the point that, in a context where facts are "managed" or "spun" to deflect attention from their distastefulness, outright denial of reality can highlight larger truths:

ONE of the pop heroes of the Iraq war was undoubtedly Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, the unfortunate Iraqi information minister who, in his daily press conferences during the invasion, heroically denied even the most evident facts and stuck to the Iraqi line. Even with American tanks only a few hundred yards from his office, he continued to claim that the televised shots of tanks on the Baghdad streets were just Hollywood special effects.

In his very performance as an excessive caricature, Mr. Sahhaf thereby revealed the hidden truth of the "normal" reporting: there were no refined spins in his comments, just a plain denial. There was something refreshingly liberating about his interventions, which displayed a striving to be liberated from the hold of facts and thus of the need to spin away their unpleasant aspects: his stance was, "Whom do you believe, your eyes or my words?"

Furthermore, sometimes, he even struck a strange truth -- when confronted with claims that Americans were in control of parts of Baghdad, he snapped back: "They are not in control of anything -- they don't even control themselves!"

What, exactly, do they not control? Back in 1979, in her essay "Dictatorship and Double Standards," published in Commentary, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick elaborated the distinction between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" regimes. This concept served as the justification of the American policy of collaborating with right-wing dictators while treating Communist regimes much more harshly: authoritarian dictators are pragmatic rulers who care about their power and wealth and are indifferent toward ideological issues, even if they pay lip service to some big cause; in contrast, totalitarian leaders are selfless fanatics who believe in their ideology and are ready to put everything at stake for their ideals.

Her point was that, while one can deal with authoritarian rulers who react rationally and predictably to material and military threats, totalitarian leaders are much more dangerous and have to be directly confronted.

The irony is that this distinction encapsulates perfectly what went wrong with the United States occupation of Iraq: Saddam Hussein was a corrupt authoritarian dictator striving to keep his hold on power and guided by brutal pragmatic considerations (which led him to collaborate with the United States in the 1980s). The ultimate proof of his regime's secular nature is the fact that in the Iraqi elections of October 2002 -- in which Saddam Hussein got a 100 percent endorsement, and thus overdid the best Stalinist results of 99.95 percent -- the campaign song played again and again on all the state media was Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You."

One outcome of the American invasion is that it has generated a much more uncompromising "fundamentalist" politico-ideological constellation in Iraq. This has led to a predominance of the pro-Iranian political forces there -- the intervention basically delivered Iraq to Iranian influence. One can imagine how, if President Bush were to be court-martialed by a Stalinist judge, he would be instantly condemned as an "Iranian agent." The violent outbursts of the recent Bush politics are thus not exercises in power, but rather exercises in panic.

Recall the old story about the factory worker suspected of stealing: every evening, when he was leaving work, the wheelbarrow he rolled in front of him was carefully inspected, but the guards could not find anything, it was always empty. Finally, they got the point: what the worker was stealing were the wheelbarrows themselves.

This is the trick being attempted by those who claim today, "But the world is nonetheless better off without Saddam!" They forget to factor into the account the effects of the very military intervention against him. Yes, the world is better without Saddam Hussein -- but is it better if we include into the overall picture the ideological and political effects of this very occupation?

Read the whole piece. It's not everyday you come across such original thinking.

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