Sunday, February 17, 2008

The River of Disappearing Truths

It is an amazing feature of the blogosphere that no one in the upper echelons ever corrects him- or herself, and the farther removed he is from his or her subject-matter, the more true that is. Imagine Matt or any of that ilk correcting themselves on the subject of Iraq. Of course, this is partly the effect of what somebody once explained as the essence of "bullshit", namely that it differs from lying or falsehood in that its truth or falsity was never in question, only whether it sounds good or not. No sense "correcting" it if it wasn't supposed to be either true or false in the first place.

But that analysis doesn't go far enough, because within the global sphere of bullshit there are crucial differences, for instance between the hard and the soft. On Iraq, Matt and that ilk represent the soft type, Juan the hard type. The soft type is stuff that you knew right away didn't really matter anyway, because for instance Matt's common-sensical comments, even when he talks about Iraq, isn't as he would say really about Iraq at all, but only about the common sense that you could apply to anything. The fact he could be wrong about Iraq doesn't matter because he's not really talking about that in the first place. Philosopher that he is, he will be the first to admit that.

By contrast, hard bullshit is when you say the Sadrists "spearheaded" the recent de-Debaathification Law, and that they were against the amnesty law. There isn't any evidence for that, rather what drives the assertions is that they fit a particular world-view. But unlike Matt's "common sense", this kind of statement does make a claim about being true--sort of. You claim it is true, but you're not willing to defend it or adduce evidence for it, because it refers to a reality that belongs to another world--"over there"--where your interlocutors don't have access, and need instead to rely on something like "Informed Comment". You're making a claim about the truth of it, but it is a special kind of truth--a "disappearing" truth that you don't have to defend or adduce evidence for, and that for two reasons: (1) Access to that world is supposedly limited to the specifically "credentialed" guy who made the claim in the first place; and (2) the author of it is so busy that today's truths overwrite yesterday's truths, so what's lacking in verifiability of individual claims is made up for via the whirligig of linked claims that never ends. It is a river of truths, and as we know you cannot step into the same river twice.

The disappearing truth, and the river of these disappearing truths, are a form of what most people call propaganda, particularly when the perpetrator has some kind of a vague connection with established authority. The flow leaves a sediment, and the sediment has a particular odor. "Harith al-Dhari is wanted for criminal instigation of violence"; "Sadrists are motivated by narrow sectarianism"--and before you know it, like Liza Doolittle, you've got it! Iraq is the scene of a religious war; those who oppose the occupation are nothing but perpetrators of criminal violence for narrow sectarian aims. Thank god for the occupation!

Where there's micro-bullshit, there is also a macro background. Whether on the right or at the "progressive center," what drives most of this "informed comment" is one form or another of a single fundamental attitude, namely: Hope for the restoration of "normality", whether this is the right-wing "normality" of brute military power retaking its rightful place in the world, or whether it is the Democrats' "normality" of a restored bureaucratic competence and sophistication in Washington, like in the good old days, able to "manage" the Iraq crisis and oversee some version of the sophisticated K-Street democracy they would all like to see established there. Both sides are for the restoration of some kind of American-defined "normality", based on what has been normal, or would-be normal, in the post-war American experience.

The point is that these "visions", if you can call it that, have nothing to do with Iraq or Iraqis, and everything to do with restoration of "normality" in America. The particular features of Iraq and Iraqis are nothing but obstacles.

And that's why, in addition to the truths of Informed Comment being unverifiable disappearing truths, they are also, seen from this macro perspective, thought of as fundamentally irrelevant. Whether Sadrists were for or against the Amnesty Law doesn't really have a bearing on anything, if your gaze is fixed merely on the question of whether an Iraqi parliamentary system can "function". Laws were passed! The parliamentary system worked! Rampant corruption and sellouts? Cross-sect alliances? Who cares? What do you think K-Street is all about? The particularity of Iraq and Iraqis aren't part of this at all. Iraqi interest-groups in the GreenZone are like AIPAC and the tobacco industry in Washington--players, yes, but look at the overarching triumph of the system itself! Our system!

But really, in the broadest sense, so what? What's all this about the particularity of Iraq and Iraqis? What difference does it make? The obvious short answer is that this principle of the fungibility of truth and falsehood (because it doesn't really matter, given where your gaze is really fixed)--this principle is what got America into the current crisis in the first place. Iraqis weren't supposed to fight back against the shock and awe of overwhelming power, but they did. This turned out to be important. One can assume similar errors will bring about similar catastrophes in the future.

There is also a long answer, the first step of which is what I've been trying to get at in a minuscule way the last 18 months or so with the missing links, and that answer has to do with the desirability of listening to people different from yourself and trying to see what it is they have to say. I never thought it would be necessary to explain why you should do that, but now when the social "scientists" go about "coding" utterances and counting them and manipulating aggregates of them mathematically and the whole dipsy-doodle, I guess it is. Unfortunately, I'm not up to it. Having peeked into the abyss, I think I'll take a few steps back.

Luckily there is an easier way to make this same point, although having to do not with Iraq but with Iran. In 1978, when the revolt against the Shah was just getting under way, the French philosopher Michael Foucault visited Iran and filed stories that year and the next with Corriere della Sera and other European papers, in which he tried to explain some of the particularities of Iran and why the coming revolution was a unique event. You can find these if you search for them. The fact that he regarded the revolution as a positive event, and the fact that the new regime turned out to be authoritarian, has made Foucault-people tend to sideline these pieces as "untypical", and his enemies have ridiculed them. But look at what he was saying, for instance in this passage quoted in the Guardian's Comment is Free series the other day by Iranian expatriate and activist Hossein Derakhshan:
"Islam," Foucault wrote [in 1979] "which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, an adherence to a history and a civilisation, has a good chance to become a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of men."

Such praising words about the Iranian uprising [Derakhshan writes] are probably the very reason few have even heard of Foucault's dispatches from Tehran for the Italian newspaper, Corriere Dela Sera, in 1978-79.

Twenty-nine winters later, the Islamic Republic of Iran is more independent, stable, confident and technologically advanced than ever, while it has remained the most serious and continuous challenge to US hegemony in the world. But what can explain the survival of the outcome of such revolt? What will the future look like for Iran, with its young population who mostly have no first-hand experience of that revolt?

The rise of the first non-clerical president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, can point to some answers.

For 16 years, Iranian government was in the hands of the Euro-American educated bureaucrats who were gradually departing from the specific subjectivity (rejection of the universals, in Foucault's term) which brought about the Iranian uprising of the 1979. The spectre of modernity slowly started to dominate everything, from the economy to the politics, and the two consecutive administrations picked up a similar project of modernisation which the shah had previously failed to continue, and with it, the gloomy consequences started to [weigh] in too: corruption, incompetence, and socio-economic inequality.

The elite's vision of economic and political "reform" was transforming Iran into a country very similar to what it had been under the shah, but with an Islamic posture. At the same time, Europe and the US were not only happily watching as Iran was practically undoing its revolt, but even assisting and accelerating the process.

Then came the shock. Ahmadinejad, an outsider to the Iranian establishment who was never taken seriously by journalists or most politicians, won the election. Compared to his main rivals, he had lower religious credentials, less support from the elite, less money for campaigning, and gave zero promises to normalise relations with the US. Instead, he travelled much more around the country and met face-to-face with the forgotten majority of Iranians, talked more about economic equality, and promised more of a serious war on corruption....

Like many Iranians who have lived in the west for the past seven or eight years, the rise of Ahmadinejad (and also travelling to other parts of the Middle East) has incited a radical change in the way I see myself, relate to Iran, and view the world. I have finally realised what it was that the entire Iranian nation revolted for, and how valuable this subjectivity is to empower the world of the marginalised, the poor and the oppressed.
In short, here is a reading of Ahmadinejad that is the mirror opposite of what we have been told. It doesn't "fit", does it? Is it possible there is an Iraq story going on that in some comparable way also "doesn't fit"?

Of course, as Condi once said, "Iran is not Iraq", but isn't it possible that in different ways--the Iraq way and the Iran way--we have been led astray by the Informed Comment river-of-truths way of informing ourselves, and that you have these stories, in their different ways, hopelessly garbled? Ah, you say, Iran is not Iraq, which is very true. But is that perhaps pretty much all you know for sure?


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