On the Margins of Eliot Weinberger's 9/12

Gordon McLaughlan is a highly accomplished journalist and fiction writer. He is the chairman of Four Star Books and host of the Radio New Zealand program “Book Club.” He has also hosted two New Zealand network television magazine shows, edited Bateman’s New Zealand Encyclopedia, provided the New Zealand questions for Trivial Pursuit, and was president of the New Zealand Society of Authors. He has written more than eight books, including political commentaries.

A New York-based essayist, poet and translator, Eliot Weinberger is on 91st Meridian's board of advisors.

Eliot Weinberger’s deeply personal essays in 9/12 (Prickly Paradigm Press) form the plangent lament of an American patriot for the troubles in his beloved country.

The author knows that true patriotism doesn’t parade itself in triumph with flags and trumpets, any more than true love struts and preens, or than self-esteem descends to sneering vanity. I can feel acutely the mixture of anger and despair he expresses because he knows that to love his country he must not be blind to what he sees as its gross imperfections.

Many outsiders talk up an easy contempt for the attitude of contemporary America, ignoring the gifts it has offered so generously in the past. The Constitution was a marvel of common sense and compassion for the ordinary person when it was drafted by a happy convergence of genius 200 years ago.

Since then, despite occasional wrong-headedness born of the arrogance of power, the United States has been the nation that, even pursuing its self-interest, has defended justice, liberty and democracy when it has mattered, when they have come under real threatñ something we small, vulnerable Pacific nations know only too well.

And its actions were for so long accompanied by courtesy, resilient good humour and a restless questioning of its values–characteristics essential to the free democratic spirit. So Americans are proud of their history, and we who could have been victims of oppression without them believe they are entitled to be.

What has changed to provoke Weinberger’s anguish and wrath?

More than anything else, 9/12’s compression of action and response, of information and feeling, is what makes a reader of stagger under the weight of outrage. We know these things happened because we noted them as they did, but Weinberger extricates the key events of the so-called War on Terror from the camouflage of the daily stuff of the world and of our own lives and condenses them to their bleak essence. The plot of the drama is stripped of its theatricality and the rhetoric is unclothed.

The plot we discover is that the United States leadership has come to believe that it owns the absolute truth, that it owes it to history to dispense its virtue to the world whether the world wants it or not, and by any means.

It has thus turned its back on the quality on which the Western tradition has been based–scepticism. Only when you are uncertain do you strive towards the truth. Doubts make faith a struggle and ultimately stronger. Self-righteousness ends in overweening arrogance.

The American administration seems to believe that democracy is immune to error, especially the American version. Which is not true over the short term. Democracy takes time. It is untidy and inefficient but it gets to where common sense takes it in the end.

To listen to American leaders you could easily forget that people have been pondering the subtleties of what is right and what is wrong in their behaviour towards one another since they began to think. The great writers of Greece and Rome were constantly trying to define the good life. Sincere Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and others, continue that inquiry.

Weinberger knows this as well as he knows that there can be no liberty without tolerance and no tolerance without the understanding that what I believe is not necessarily true, that what I like is not necessarily good, and that all questions must remain open.

Remember the Oracle at Delphi who said Socrates was the wisest man in all Greece because he didn’t think he was wise at all? Well, the man I have known in my life I thought to be the most truly good was a Methodist minister with a strong humanist streak who was mystified and alarmed when anyone suggested he was special in any way.

Given all this, the phrases Weinberger quotes which, above all others, terrified me as I read his essays were that American policy is being directed towards restoring “military strength and moral clarity”; and that on Donald Rumsfield’s desk sits a plaque with the words of Theodore Roosevelt: “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.”

The danger is that those who are certain of their rightness never have to make the continuing moral inventory of people seeking day-by-day truths. Am I doing the right thing in these circumstances to these people? How much are my personal insecurities and prejudices affecting this decision? Is there another way I can achieve this desirable result?

This is especially true when force is an option.

I am reminded of what a Spanish philosopher, Ortega Y Gasset wrote: “Civilization consists in the attempt to reduce violence to the ultima ratio–the final argument. This is now becoming all to clear to us, for direct action reverses that order and proclaims violence as the prima ratio, the first argument, or rather the uncia ratio, the sole argument. It is the standard which dispenses with all others.”

Most introspective, balanced people anywhere would accept that–but the George W Bush administration seems to swagger past such an idea.

Self-aggrandisement has become a besetting sin of the American people. At every political rally I’ve attended and watched on television, Americans mention the country’s greatness and applaud themselves. They put their hands on their hearts and wave their flags and shut their ears to doubt and dissension, thus avoiding the moral inventory.

And yet only half of Americans bother to vote. The party system muffles the protest voice of any group not allied to the Establishment as represented by Democrats and Republicans. The people of Rhode Island have the same weight of influence in the Senate as the states teeming with millions. The Electoral College makes it possible for a presidential candidate to win the majority of votes and not gain the power. None of these concerns are given serious attention.

While many democracies around the world, including my own, question their constitutions and, in some cases, adopt proportional voting systems and other measures to give each voter equal weight, America simply venerates its institutions as though they constitute some ageless, God-given, perfect system.

I remain an optimist, though, confident that Weinberger’s cri de coeur is not a lonely plaint and Americans will soon demand more restrained and cordial relationships with the rest of the world.

Gordon Mc Laughlan
Auckland, July 2003