Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Metamorphosis: Scandal, Ignorance & A Bottomless Pit of Self-Justification...

"Scandal is our growth industry. Revelation of wrongdoing leads not to definitive investigation, punishment, and expiation but to more scandal. Permanent scandal. Frozen scandal. The weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist. The torture of detainees who remain forever detained. The firing of prosecutors which is forever investigated. These and other frozen scandals metastasize, ramify, self-replicate, clogging the cable news shows and the blogosphere and the bookstores. The titillating story that never ends, the pundit gabfest that never ceases, the gift that never stops giving: what is indestructible, irresolvable, unexpiatable is too valuable not to be made into a source of profit.

Scandal, unpurged and unresolved, transcends political reality to become commercial fact.

We remember, many of us, a different time. However cynically we look to our political past, it is there that we find our political Eden: Vietnam and its domestic denouement, Watergate—the climax of a different time of scandal that ended a war and brought down a president. In retrospect those events unfold with the clear logic of utopian dream.

1. Revelation: intrepid journalists exposing the gaudy, interlocking crimes of the Nixon administration.

2. Investigation: not just by the press—for that was but precursor, the necessary condition—but by Congress and the courts. Investigation, that is, by the polity, working through its institutions to construct a story of grim truth that citizens can in common accept.

3. Expiation: the handing down of sentences, the politicians in shackles led off to jail, the orgy of public repentance. The exorcism of shame, the purging of the political system, and the return to a state, however imperfect, of societal grace.

It is a myth, of course, but a lovely one. It relies on images of power, the press, and the people that fit our collective longing—for justice, for heroism, and for ultimate goodness residing in a people who, once alerted to wrongdoing, insist on its rectification. The obstacle to this natural self-cleansing of our political life can only be the people's ignorance. For if they know, and the corruption and scandals persist—well, how can the people be good? No, what must be missing then—so the myth implies—is clarity, revelation. What is missing is the gatekeepers of our ignorance whose duty it is to draw the curtain back from scandal and show the people everything, thereby starting the polity on the road to inexorable justice.

Information is all. Information, together with the people's natural sense of the good and the right, leads to expiation and society's inevitable cleansing.

Scandals, the more complicated and richer the plotlines the better, have above all to endure. Scandals provide the fodder for on-air confrontation, the verbal slash and parry—which is what television, a terrible medium for conveying information of any complexity, does best, and does most cheaply. Scandals provide subplots and minor characters and spin-offs. They offer, to the post-Watergate, high-profile, well-coiffed, colleague-of-the-powerful journalist hero of today—could anything be further from the deeply irreverent working stiff cracking wise in Howard Hawks's "His Girl Friday" - the true venue for the highest practice of his art, the television studio.

That art relies on, or anyway thrives on, scandal. Scandal denotes success. Scandal shows he is doing his job. Scandal means pay dirt. And scandal represents that media-age dream, the perpetual story. Scandal can be rehashed, debated, photographed, from initial leak, to perp walk, to hearing, to trial, to appeal.

Scandal offers an endless stream of what the business is after all supposed to be about: news. As in: what is new.

Scandal brings the heart-pumping, breath-gulping surge of stop-the-presses excitement, letting us know that into our fallen world the Gods of Great Events have finally come down from on high to intervene. Scandal represents movement, the audible cracking of the ice. And yet it is all an illusion, for beneath the rapidly moving train of gaudily hyped "breaking news," beneath all the grave and breathless stand-ups before the inevitable pillars of public buildings, beneath the swirling, gyrating phantasmagoria of scandal lies a kind of dystopian stasis.

Everything changes and nothing does.

It is not information, it is politics. If we have learned anything this past decade it is that "the people," that vaunted repository of public good—"the people always find out"—the people are willing and able to live with quite a lot. They read, watch television, grunt a pox on all their houses, and turn back to their dinners. Thanks to the efficiency of our age of scandal we now know as never before what the public is willing to live with. "Now you have shown independence, commendable independence," Barack Obama said to John McCain in the third debate, "on some key issues—torture, for example." Torture has metamorphosed, these past few years, from an execrable war crime to a "key issue." From something forbidden by international treaty and condemned by domestic law to...something to be debated. Something one can stand on either side of.

Something we can live with.

What notes on scandal could be complete without mention of the presiding master-scandal of our age, The War. One uses capitals to denote not a set of discrete events—a set of particular people being cut down or blown apart by particular violent actions at particular times—but a state of mind. Threat becomes not only a political shield but what is in the end much more dangerous: a source of bottomless self-justification. What is dangerous is not only that our leaders have endlessly maintained that they are right but that they believe they are. George Bush, as he declared to the world in a proudly emphatic phrase, had been reborn as a "war president."

George Orwell has long since surveyed this ground, most famously in 1984, in his perpetual war between Eastasia, Eurasia, and Oceania, a never-ending, shape-shifting struggle that, if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture. It is like the battles between certain ruminant animals whose horns are set at such an angle that they are incapable of hurting one another. But though it is unreal it is not meaningless.... It helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs.

How will history choose to explain a war launched in the cause of ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist? It is a tantalizing question. Will the Iraq War take its place as a historical curiosity, alongside the Guano War of the nineteenth century or the Soccer War of the twentieth? And how interested will our descendants be in the response of our democratic polity: the investigations that, like dinosaurs slowly rousing themselves from the mudhole, ever so slowly got under way and then, after years of lumbering effort—hundreds of hours of testimony, thousands of documents examined—finally discovered...What...?

In the end, there was, alas, no "smoking gun."

-Mark Danner (Excerpt: "Frozen Scandal,"NY Review Of Books, Volume 55, Number 19 · 12.4.2008. Image: Poster for "The Pit And The Pendulum," directed by Roger Corman, 1961).

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