Tolstoy wrote a tale called Esarhaddon, in which a king is in bed thinking about how he will order the torture and execution of his chief enemy the next day. He wakes up to discover that he is no longer himself, but his enemy, and as such he experiences the entire process by which he is captured, put in a cage, and then led to the stake to be executed. From this waking dream he also awakes, as the king again. Horrified by what he has learned, he frees his prisoner and gives up his crown.
Miracle stories like this express, among other things, a desire that the truth could be directly known and grasped by supernatural means, thus making the world a far better place than it is. Conscience has not proven to be a strong enough force to contend with the desire for gain. In the corporate world, for instance, money has lulled conscience safely to sleep.
I wish that the CEOs of Wal-Mart, Nike, Reebok, Guess? Jeans, JC Penney, and Bloomingdale’s (to mention only a few) would wake up some morning as a 12-year-old kid working in a foreign sweatshop, or a Mexican immigrant sewing clothes in L.A. for minimum wage and supporting two kids. Because I’m sure these guys don’t think about those people--to them, the workers are just a means towards the end of profit, and their struggles and suffering don’t matter.
And I wish that Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, William Kristol, Douglas Feith, Elliott Abrams, and the rest of those fine, upstanding men who got us into this marvelous war would wake up tomorrow as Iraqi civilians, who have seen family members killed, their society destroyed, their country soaked in blood, and for what? Because I’m also sure these guys don’t think about their victims. Everything is abstract to them--ordinary people are just units in a geopolitical game. They can write the suffering off as “collateral damage,” justified for what they consider a noble end, which happens to coincide with American hegemony, as well as their own power and influence.
I thought of Esarhaddon whenever I saw George W. Bush being interviewed in recent days. It’s obvious he’s on a last-minute mission to spruce up his image, trying to appear like a decent, thoughtful person. It’s impossible, of course. Whether he’s saying, “Obviously I don't like the idea of people losing jobs, or being worried about their 401(k)s” (a far cry from admitting any responsibility for these developments) or naming his biggest regret as “the intelligence failure in Iraq” (when in fact he deliberately bent the intelligence to fit the policy of invasion, as we all should know by now), there’s simply no room for real honesty when you’re sitting on a mountain of lies.
I never dreamed I would be saying this, but there’s something absolutely perfect about George W. Bush as a representative both of U.S. power and the conservative political class. He is the end product of years of political image-making: the elevation of the talking point and the attack narrative over actual discussion, the reduction of ideology to its most basic (and stupid) elements, the shallow pseudo-patriotic rhetoric of Reaganist “pride” in country, the equation of naked greed with “principles.” Behold the apotheosis, the final incarnation of the right-wing ideal, summed up with an almost classical concision in one man, one “decider.” Leaving aside the policies (wrong and destructive 100% of the time, which I would have thought a statistical impossibility), and the corruption (as close to total as we can expect to see in American history), let us look at the man himself. The overriding characteristic is self-centeredness; indeed, narcissism of the most degraded variety. With an utter lack of self-knowledge, and certainly no awareness of an actual moral dimension to human life, Bush is all about himself--his own paltry emotions and thoughts, his image, his role, his “legacy.”
This would be a terrible shortcoming in a talented person, but in Bush’s case we see self-regard combined with a personality so mediocre, so lacking in distinction, that it should make anyone who has learned to read above the 6th grade level experience a cold shudder of fear. This is the end result, embodied in a kind of historical logic that seems eerie in its perfection, of the phony “conservative” movement--a complete cipher, an empty man, a man with no insides, no conscience, no reflection, no shadow. A grinning, head-bobbing, self-regarding fool, who doesn’t even know that he’s done incalculable harm, but thinks that the harm somehow just happened independently of him, and is therefore incapable of true remorse. If Bush woke up, like Tolstoy’s character, as a tortured Guantanamo prisoner, he would lack the ability even then to make the connection. The level of selfishness achieved here, and symbolized for all of us, is itself the true engine of capitalism, the real power behind American imperial ambition. The world’s great superpower is a feckless frat boy trying to impress his drunken friends—oh boy, I get to be the President! The specialness of Bush is not that he is different from other figures in the political establishment, but that he is such a perfect symbol of their secret aims and desires.
You see, the CEOs of Wal-Mart, Nike, and the rest--and the pack of neocons too--are no doubt family men who love their kids, and their pets too. I don’t believe in the Illuminati or any of that diabolical crap. The hidden meaning of Arendt’s “banality of evil” is that banality is the purest (and stupidest, and dullest) avenue of harm in this world. Self-interest, so called, is the most banal motive of all, and the most universal. Only rarely do we see this banality portrayed with such impeccable accuracy by the (harrumph!) “leader of the free world” as we have since 2001. Most of the time I would get so angry watching Bush that I’d switch the channel before the man had said more than two or three sentences. As it turns out, however, there was something to be learned (yet at such cost!).
It is not enough to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Or to be more accurate, it may be sufficient for those who have taken care to develop a strong conscience, but not for the rest. Why? Because power in the modern age, the age of arrogance, the tragic age when entire peoples can be vaporized with the flip of a switch--power has become synonymous with a failure of imagination.
We are all the same person, not in imagination alone, but in reality. This is the fact, a spiritual fact (dare I say a religious fact), the heaven, the nirvana, the whatever you want to call it, that we eventually confront with our own death but which we are called upon to experience today in order to truly know ourselves. As Tolstoy wrote: “You thought life dwelt in you alone, but I have drawn aside the veil of delusion, and you have seen that in doing evil to others you have done it to yourself as well. Life is one in everything, and within yourself you manifest but a portion of this one life. And only in that portion that is within you can you make life better or worse, magnify or diminish it. To destroy the life that dwells in others is not within your power. The life that was in those you have slain has not been destroyed: it has merely vanished from before your eyes. You thought to prolong your life and to shorten the lives of others, but you cannot do this. For life there is neither time nor space. The life of a moment and the life of thousands of years, your life and the lives of all creatures seen and unseen, is one. To destroy life, even to alter it, is impossible, for life alone exists. All else only seems to be.”