What do Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and U. S. president George W. Bush have in common? Thrusting ego, overwhelming confidence in their own rightness (whether they believe themselves to be anointed by God or History) and belligerent readiness to get up in their opponents’ faces and give them what for.
Last week at the UN gave us an opportunity to see this trio in action. You can find grains of truth in the remarks of all three: Chavez’s critique of corporate globalization and economic elites, Ahmadinejad’s assertions that the UN is dominated by increasingly superannuated powers who cannot be called to account, Bush’s message to the Iranian people that their government is sponsoring terrorism. But every grain is thickly coated in deranged fervor and narcissistic blindness, rendering these walking egos incapable of perceiving their own flaws and excesses.
They have major ideological differences, so conventional political categories don’t explain their similiarities. Even postmodern categories don’t fit. For example, linguistics professor and political commentator George Lakoff has put forward an interesting analysis that contrasts the “strict father” political approach he associates with the right—strong, top-down authority, decisiveness and assertion—with a “nurturing parent” model he associates with the left, valuing negotiation, dialogue, consensus and fairness.
But Bush is a man of the right, Chavez of the left and Ahmadinejad of a theocratic bent that bypasses both categories, yet in many ways, they are as alike as peas in a pod. So here’s what I’ve been thinking: what is it about this historical moment that has made being a thick-skinned, zealously certain blowhard a virtually indispensable requirement for public office?
This would be a fascinating little conundrum of political psychology if only the fate of millions didn’t hinge on the answer. My husband had it spot on when he commented this week that the whole enterprise reminded him of a destruction derby. (In case you’ve never had the pleasure, this refers not to the video game of the same name, but a much older phenomenon: a sort or vehicular rodeo, also called “demolition derby,” where participants sweat off surplus testosterone by getting behind the wheel and smashing into each other until only one vehicle remains operable. The survivor wins. Sometimes they even do it with monster trucks, grownup versions of the Big Wheels toddlers love.)
Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, whose thinking I greatly admire, wrote that every epoch has its “thematic universe,” comprising values, ideas, principles and beliefs always in dynamic interaction with each other. An era is not characterized by any single idea or tendency, no matter how strong and dominant it may seem at a particular moment. What matters is the entire complex with its constantly morphing harmonies and conflicts, its dialectical contractions engendering new juxtapositions. The yearning for certainty represented by blowhard leaders is clearly one of the most significant tendencies of our historical moment. But moving in parallel is a spreading willingness to denounce the delusions of demagogues.
I was astounded to read in Sunday’s New York Times confirmation from top-secret national intelligence sources that “the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.” My astonishment is not because it comes as news that the remedy has exacerbated the disease—you’d have to be willfully blind or absolutely insensate to read the numbers any other way—but because it takes a lot of chutzpah to leak this kind of information, indicating that even at the highest establishment levels, the emperor is looking more and more naked.
In the October issue of Harper‘s, due out soon, Vietnam-era Pentagon papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg calls on his counterparts in the present government to commit civil disobedience by exposing classified information that might prevent a new and deeply misguided war. Some of us see Ellsberg as a hero, but he is tormented with regret about his own failure to act soon enough to prevent some of the Vietnam War’s worst consequences. Ellsberg has evidence that the government today maintains active, detailed, constantly updated plans for war with Iran. His article concerns those with access to the filing cabinets or computers containing these plans:
I believe it is time for one or more of them to go beyond fragmentary leaks unaccompanied by documents. That means doing what no other active official or consultant has done in a timely way: what neither Richard Clarke nor I nor anyone else thought of doing until we were no longer officials, no longer had access to current documents, after bombs had fallen and thousands had died, years into a war. It means going outside executive channels, as officials with contemporary access, to expose the president’s lies and oppose his war policy publicly before the war, with unequivocal evidence from inside.
…The personal risks of doing this are very great. Yet they are not as great as the risk of bodies and lives we are asking daily of over 130,000 young Americans—with many yet to join them—in an unjust war. Our country has urgent need for comparable courage, moral and civil courage, from its public servants. They owe us the truth before the next war begins.
It is turbulent out here in our thematic universe, but I see light on the horizon, signs of awakening in surprising places. At a time when many of those we might look to for truth are still in thrall to official sources, artists and clowns are here to pull back the curtain, reminding us that we still have the power to let some of the hot air out of our blowhards (and change the electoral flavor of the moment from triple-ego fudge to cool, sweet reason). Click here to watch Daniel Ellsberg on Stephen Colbert’s show. Laugh and learn.