Every human being is interested in two kinds of worlds: the Primary, everyday world which he knows through his senses, and a Secondary world or worlds which he not only can create in his imagination, but which he cannot stop himself creating. –W.H. Auden, Secondary Worlds
Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself. –Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Auden had in mind the secondary worlds of literature, but as the Arendt quote indicates, his idea has wider application. Seen in his terms, the recent Republican convention was the political equivalent of a secondary world. Of course, the essential difference between a novel and the convention is that whereas a novel is built on the premise, shared by author and reader, that none of it claims to be true, the convention was offered as a full substitute for the primary world of reality. Seen in Arendt’s terms, the convention was proto-totalitarian–an invitation to a still-free people not just to believe a few lies but to believe in what she calls a “lying world.” The attraction and power of such a bid resides in its totality, as if someone had disaggregated the dots in a photograph, discarded half, added new ones and then reassembled them all into a compelling new photograph. In Arendt’s words, such an effort requires “using, and at the same time transcending, the elements of reality, of verifiable experiences, in the chosen fiction, and in generalizing them into regions which then are definitely removed from all possible control by individual experience.” Not just one fact or another but the factual world is discarded.
It’s telling that the way to the convention was paved by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group whose mere title qualifies as a big lie, since its first ad, accusing John Kerry of lying to receive medals, itself contained brazen falsehoods, soon rebutted by all credible documentary evidence, eyewitness accounts and even some of the Swift Boaters’ past testimony. But more disturbing than these falsehoods, which Bush refused to disavow, was the effect in public opinion polls, many of which put Bush in the lead for the first time in months. This big lie had knocked a candidate out of apparent front-runnership for the presidency of the United States. The public’s appetite for political fiction had been powerfully demonstrated.
Then came the convention. For the unfaithful, watching it produced, as the Niagara of distortion poured out of the TV, a protracted, helpless, sputtering interior monologue of “buts”: “But what about…” “But last year you said…” “But that’s not true…”
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In our world, and here at home, we will extend the frontiers of freedom. (George W. Bush)
Extend freedom at home? But what about the Patriot Act, allowing searches and seizures without notice; the suspension of habeas corpus for citizens named “enemy combatants” (and the Supreme Court’s rejection of this claim); the detention and arrest of people who disagree with the President yet seek to attend his rallies? Which freedom has been strengthened by this Administration?
Extend freedom abroad? But what about the rebellion and intensifying repression in Iraq, the US embrace of dictators throughout Central Asia, its embrace of the authoritarian Putin regime in Russia? To exactly which countries has freedom been extended? How does the nosedive in respect for America in every region of the world fit in with a global US plan to promote freedom?
And we are working to advance liberty in the broader Middle East, because freedom will bring a future of hope and the peace we all want. And we will prevail.
But what about your “Greater Middle East Initiative,” proposed this year, and dead on arrival?
We will provide low-income Americans with better access to healthcare.
But what about the 4 million people who lost their health insurance in your term and the record-breaking increase in Medicare premiums scheduled to be released the very day after your speech?
The biggest threat we face today is having nuclear weapons fall into the hands of terrorists…. The most important result thus far…is that the black-market network that supplied nuclear weapons technology to Libya, as well as to Iran and North Korea, has been shut down. (Dick Cheney)
But why don’t you name the country–Pakistan–that was the center of that network and that was embraced for three years by the United States while the network was active?
Many of the greatest dangers to the United States and the world were so thoroughly suppressed at the convention that no cue was given even for a “what about” reaction: Global warming? No sign of it in the world according to the President. Osama bin Laden, the uncaught murderer of almost 3,000 people in New York? Down the memory hole. Record budget and trade deficits? Keeping company with Osama. Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq claimed as justification for the war? As little trace of that false assertion as of the weapons themselves.
What was offered, then, in the absence of recent facts? Mostly a gigantic historical analogy, which took the form, “Just as the United States expanded freedom by defeating Hitler, so now the United States will expand freedom by attacking…” and here we (and the President) are free to slot in an ever-changing cast of characters. In his vision, we are “the greatest nation on earth.” Because we are great, “they,” the “evildoers,” hate us. Therefore, we must destroy them, bringing peace to the world. Missing is any awareness of our own weaknesses, failures or wrongdoing. Missing, too, is the memory of our words and, finally, the gift of our very senses, the primary world before our eyes. Seen from the elevation of the convention vision, how can mere facts–the torture at US bases around the word, the full-scale rebellion against our occupation of Iraq, the growing fear and horror at our actions around the world–even register? Actual events are too slight, too dim, too tangled and disappointing to spoil such a grand and satisfying tale.
But woe to the nation that turns its back on reality! As Auden reminds us, “A person who identifies his imaginary world with the world of sensory fact has become insane.” America can be brought to its senses in two ways. One is the terrible discipline of events. The other–perhaps a final chance–is to vote the Bush Administration out of office in November. As Lincoln said in another time of national crisis, “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”