29 December 2017

From the underground

I confess, I lost much of my respect for Pankaj Mishra after having read his execrable New Yorker piece from February prescribing the writings of erstwhile Czech president Václav Havel, and his ‘parallel polis’ as the antidote to Trumpism. Mishra’s writing betrays a vast intellectual lacuna, one of which it is impossible he himself is unaware, one which he comes close to addressing but one which he leaves, shamefully, untouched and unexplored. Mishra thus betrays his fundamental dishonesty regarding his subject, which is all the more ironic when one considers that we are discussing how to resist a ‘lying Twitter bully’. Examining his writing is still worthwhile, however, since it elucidates quite nicely why it is so necessary to be hard and even condemnatory of ‘dissidents’ who embrace only that half of the truth that suits them, or indeed who throw up many small truths as a smokescreen to conceal a larger.

Let us get this out of the way at once. Mishra portrays Havel hagiographically, as a heroic ‘dissident, who takes upon [his] own conscience the burden of political responsibility and action’ in defence of ‘trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, and love’. All very good things to be sure (who would be against any of those things?), but even Mishra’s description of this conceals more than it illumines. Why, for example, does the average Czech now grumble about him and criticise him, where once the average Czech adored him?

The answer isn’t hard to find, but Mishra makes a great display of avoiding it. Havel may have said that ‘truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred’, but when it came to the Big Lie of the oughties, the cause of the Great Hatred of the twenty-tens, Havel embraced it with both arms wide open. This is precisely where Mishra loses my respect, because he mentions Bush’s lies in Iraq explicitly in this piece, without mentioning Havel’s active rôle in supporting and spreading those lies. Indeed, one would come away from Mishra’s dishonest article with the false impression that Havel was a critic of the Iraq War rather than a supporter.

Thus, instead of hagiography, we should be left with questions: searching questions, questions of fundamental relevance to our current age of distrust and anger. How could this happen? How could someone who was so sensitively attuned to the untruths of the Soviet propaganda machine, someone who knew the unholy power of ‘ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages and political slogans’ fall for – or, worse, knowingly propagate – just such an untruth expressly propagated by the former Soviets’ opponents? Making matters worse, we know that Havel’s embrace of Bush’s Big Lie leading to war in Iraq was not naïve. We know (or should) that he knew that the case for intervention was based on totalitarian lies; he supported that intervention anyway. The question must be asked, not calmly, but with rage: Why?

Indeed, if we are to learn anything from Mishra’s article, it must be precisely this: Havel understood how ‘a power grounded in an omnipresent ideological fiction… can rationalize anything without ever having to brush against the truth’. He knew, intimately, how governments manipulate and fabricate truths for themselves through the exercise of power, and he understood how to resist such manipulation. When he came to the exercise of power for himself, he could still identify and recognise those fictions – such as that tying the leader of the World Trade Centre attacks to Iraqi intelligence – as fictions meant for the purpose of stifling and misdirecting political dissent. But when it came down to the final question of intervention, Havel embraced the lie that Iraq prior to 2003 posed a ‘major threat to many nations’, and embraced violence and hatred.

This was not the first time that Havel had embraced or committed such fabrications, of course. It was Havel himself who coined the Orwellianism of ‘humanitarian bombing’ in the context of the Yugoslav Wars, and then later strenuously denied doing so. How are we to approach seriously a ‘dissident’ in the service of ‘all that is sublime and beautiful’ if he is capable of mouthing such sophistries and then trying to walk them back when he is criticised for them? Is he then not himself just such a man ‘from underground’ – the very sketch not of a heroic ‘underground’ dissident, but an ‘underground’ coward lifted from the pages of Dostoevsky? Havel presents us with a good case for banishing the dramatists and tragedians from the city in speech along with the poets.

Mishra assiduously, and shamefully, avoids these questions. If we wish to truly resist the spirit of the age, we cannot. We must go further; we must face our past and present honestly: without euphemism, without sophistry, without the utterly contemptible clichés of Mishra’s funerary oration. If we are to take seriously the demands of ‘truth and love’ – that is to say, if we are truly to attempt citizenship in a ‘parallel polis’ – we cannot be satisfied with their shadowy political simulacra as proclaimed by modern-day sophists, statesmen and tyrants, nor can we be satisfied with the dealers of such simulacra – Havel very much included. We have to try to escape that cave.

If you want to understand why I am so bitter in my denunciations of the supporters of the War in Iraq and their admirers, even now fifteen years on, please go right ahead and read Mishra’s piece with these admonitions firmly in mind. What Mishra misses, and what makes his piece so ironic, is that the tyranny of the sort he claims to deplore, is built upon the mythic hero-worship of the sort he indulges in in the first place. What is it that causes young men like me to question the nature of political justice, the way Glaucon does in the Republic? What is it that makes us so susceptible to what the Catholic Church might call our ‘disordered’ loves? What is it that causes us to turn to anger in the first place? (Make no mistake: I, for one, am still fucking pissed.) Funerary oration won’t save us from ‘make America great again’. Self-serving hack playwrights-turned-politician won’t stop the star of The Apprentice. Lies – even well-intentioned ones – cannot drive out lies, which is why it is so important that we not live by them.

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