Sunday, April 26, 2009


I happened to be reading Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee's excellent and bracing and clarifying novel Diary of a Bad Year (2007) just as news stories began to arrive about the 'torture memos.' What struck me so forcefully about Coetzee’s novel, in which a writer produces a series of 'opinions' about the modern world, while also becoming infatuated with a young woman in his building whom he hires to do secretarial work, and subsequently having an effect on the woman and her relation to her boyfriend, was the evenness of the essayistic opinions. Matters such as terrorism and democracy and the slaughter of animals are the stuff of Op-Ed writing and blogs, and Coetzee enters this territory, within the freedom provided by an authorial voice, without the kinds of cant and breast- or brow-beating so common in the press.

So consider how applicable, two years after their publication, such comments, under "On Machiavelli," are:

"The modern state appeals to morality, to religion, and to natural law as the ideological foundation of its existence. At the same time it is prepared to infringe any or all of these in the interest of self-preservation.

"Machiavelli does not deny that the claims morality makes on us are absolute. At the same time he asserts that in the interest of the state the ruler is 'often obliged [necessitato] to act without loyalty, without mercy, without humanity, and without religion.'"

The pointedness of this quotation from Machiavelli is obvious. Torture is the very sort of practice that rulers may undertake 'in the interest of the state,' and be sanctioned in doing so by Machiavelli’s logic about what ruling entails and requires. Coetzee gives us food for thought by citing Machiavelli because the clarity of the latter’s approach to power has never been equaled and because it is a statement that comes to us from so far in the past that it can’t smack of any kind of partisanship. What Machiavelli assumes is that any ruler, once in power, becomes the state, and thus will make use of whatever means necessary to maintain that power.

But Coetzee doesn’t want to leave it there; he’s after the kind of support such 'abuse of power' may often find in the general populace.

"The typical reaction of liberal intellectuals is to seize on the contradiction here: how can something be both wrong and right, or at least both wrong and OK, at the same time? What liberal intellectuals fail to see is that this so-called contradiction expresses the quintessence of the Machiavellian and therefore the modern, a quintessence that has been thoroughly absorbed by the man in the street. The world is ruled by necessity, says the man in the street, not by some abstract moral code. We have to do what we have to do.

"If you wish to counter the man in the street," Coetzee’s author continues, "it cannot be by appeal to moral principles, much less by demanding that people should run their lives in such a way that there are no contradictions . . . . Rather, you must attack the metaphysical, supra-empirical status of necessit√† and show that to be fradulent."

Fair enough, but it seems to me that the argument here, in becoming ‘metaphysical, supra-empirical,’ moves away from the tangible world of power. The necessity is not an over-arching concept that can be shown to be fraudulent, I would argue; it is in the very nature of power itself: to be exerted. Upon whom? Whichever subjects are deemed to be its proper targets. Because power says 'this is so, therefore I am obliged to do such and such,' there is no recourse to a demonstration that 'this is not so,' for power has already decreed it to be so. This was nakedly the manner of rule of the Bush administration, and what is mind-boggling to me, personally, is that anyone could seriously think there would be some other result from the fact of giving power to Bush and his crew. But even if the enormity was unthinkable when he first ran for office, it should’ve been abundantly clear when he seized power in the 2000 election. The intentions of the administration to wield the power it had taken I would say were manifest -- which would’ve included an invasion of Iraq and whatever means were deemed necessary to wage that war. The attack on 9/11 was the outrage that allowed the ends of the Bush administration to be pursued with more or less the sanction and backing of anyone who might have been able to object in a more than negligible way.

Coetzee’s author, in discussing democracy, also makes some salient points: however a ruler is chosen or determined, it "is not a formula for identifying the best ruler, it is a formula for conferring legitimacy on someone or other and thus forestalling civil conflict." In that sense, and in that sense only, the legitimacy of Bush’s initial election could not be contested. But those who -- like a blogger on OpenSalon, Dennis Loo, who brings serious charges against Obama’s administration -- expect some momentous redress of the situation that pertained under Bush might consider a few other grim points Coetzee’s author offers:

"Democracy does not allow for politics outside the democratic system. In this sense, democracy is totalitarian." In other words, whoever becomes the ruler of the U.S., by whatever means, becomes legitimate so long as civil conflict is prevented, and, what’s more, will prevent all such conflicts by whatever means deemed necessary. In this sense, if you like, power corrupts, but, from another point of view, power simply protects its claim to power, and demonstrates power through its exercise.

"If you take issue with democracy in times when everyone claims to be heart and soul a democrat, you run the risk of losing touch with reality. To regain touch, you must at every moment remind yourself of what it is like to come face to face with the state -- the democratic state or any other -- in the person of the state official. Then ask yourself: Who serves whom? Who is the servant, who the master?"

Ask the naked guy tasered at the Coachella Festival.

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