January 9, 2010

I Live in the Real World

Can you recall an occasion when you’ve heard this said in good faith? without a superadded tone of belligerent outrage to boot? Whenever I hear that tone of aggressive don’t-you-tell-me! moral indignation, I know I’m hearing a vocal mask of bad conscience—hear it in my own voice I know it’s time to rethink seriously whatever I’ve just said.
A few years back I wrote to a National Post columnist about what I thought was a rather bizarre contention: that the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein was a triumph of natural justice. Her reply turned on that sentence: “I live in the real world”—a world, apparently, in which natural justice can embrace the assassination of three consecutive defence attorneys—no doubt to encourage the fourth—and, in general, trial proceedings that—I kid you not, look up the news reports of the time if you don’t believe me—resembled nothing so much as those of the Red Queen’s court in Alice in Wonderland. Apparently we’ve been wrong about Lewis Carroll all this time; he was actually a naturalist in the manner of Emile Zola.
Of course Lewis Carroll was writing about the real world—aspects of it I should say, that’s all any of us can claim—telling the truth but telling it slant as Emily Dickinson put it. Thought I don’t think the word totalitarian had been coined yet, the court of the Red Queen strikes me as a far more astute vision of totalitarianism than George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell imagines a middle level bureaucrat like O’Brien could be a philosopher prince—or is forced to pretend he does, since otherwise he can’t get out the reams and reams of argument he has to fall back on, lacking the skill to show the intricate apparatus of totalitarianism—instead he has to turn a character into his mouthpiece, improbably and at whew! length, so he can tell tell tell you what he thinks. It’s what happens when you send an impatient schoolmaster to do a novelist’s job (and his fervid misrepresentation of Gulliver’s Travels shows he was equally as capable a misreader of novels).
None of the attendants at the Red Queen’s court pauses in frenzied action to give a solemn exposition of its inner workings at a hundred pages’ length—the chop logic they speak very frequently conveys sense (hidden from themselves), but their words don’t explain the social order—they reveal it. So do their actions—principally variations of running around like chickens with their heads cut off, mainly in the devout hope that they can thereby prevent their actual heads from being, you know, actually cut off. Motions of that kind—paranoid, frenetic, scrabbling—are constant in Stalin’s Russia as well—from the lowest level at its outer to the highest level at its inner circle. A middle manager like O’Brien in such a maelstrom will have little time to concentrate his thoughts , what with the huge proportion of every working day and restless sleeping night that must be given over to metaphorically, and on some occasions perhaps literally (state occasions I’d be inclined to say, but that may be editorializing) pissing his pants with fear.
The curious thing about the columnist who argued the Red Queen’s court was an admirable model of natural justice is that she’s interesting and provocative—on the euthanasia movement, feminism and men’s rights, the rising tide of anti-semitism in polite society and (perhaps most worrying) public schools—whenever she engages with the world around her. Her occasional book reviews are a delight—where the subject isn’t overtly political—because she has far more practical aesthetic sense than most professional reviewers. It’s only when alarmist tendencies send her back to the entrenched redoubt of living in the real world that she ever talks solemn nonsense, as in a recent column commending realists (rightists) and savaging dreamers (leftists) in our society for their respective views on militant Islam. Apart from the fact that it was right-wing realists whose dream of miring the Soviet Union in Afghanistan precipitated the exponential leap forward in power and militancy of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, this is a classic example of an either /or question—“Are you a realist or a dreamer?”—that can only be coherently answered “Yes”. It’s possible to criticize a particular dream on any number of counts—it’s wishy-washy; too aggressively self-centred; so unfocussed it has no centre at all; seems high sounding and noble but would lead in practice to self-replicating (self-exploding) nightmares—but it’s pointless to criticize (or praise) anyone for being a dreamer if it’s impossible to discover a single example of a human being who isn’t.

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