Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Shooting An Elephant (Apologies to Raj)

I've always thought that it would be cool to be amongst the initial set of "they," as in "they say..." A while back, when I brought up this quest to be at the baptism of a new entry into the colloquial repertoire, Hanno suggested a real winner that I've been looking for an excuse to slip in..."Shooting an elephant." The conversations about the DLC and their support for the war in Iraq has provided such an opening.

The phrase comes from a short story by George Orwell, called "Shooting an Elephant." The narrator of the story is a British police officer in Burma who is receiving little respect from the locals. Then things changed when,

One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act. Early one morning the sub-inspector at a police station the other end of the town rang me up on the phone and said that an elephant was ravaging the bazaar. Would I please come and do something about it? I did not know what I could do, but I wanted to see what was happening and I got on to a pony and started out.
The elephant was not wild, but a tame, working elephant that had broken loose of its chains and destroyed some bamboo huts, stalls at the market, and stepped on a man killing him. He had a trainer, or mahout, who could handle him and calm him down in such situations, but when the mahout heard of the escape, he immediately set out to look for the elephant, but went in the wrong direction -- it would take hours for him to return.

When locals told the officer that the animal was right around the corner, he sent for his elephant gun. His first thought was that he might need it for protection against the rampaging beast. But when he found the formerly petulant pachyderm, it was in a field, completely calm. No longer a threat to anyone, the elephant could simply wait there for his mahout to return and all would be well -- especially with the owner of the elephant, since they are major investments.

That, however, was not to be.
But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd– seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.
And so, he shot the elephant.

The phrase "shooting the elephant" therefore should be taken to mean doing something you know is wrong in order to maintain a facade.

What brought this to mind was Jacob Weisberg's recent essay in Slate, We know this because we have been here before.
The Lamont-Lieberman battle was filled with echoes and parallels from the Vietnam era. Democratic reformers and anti-establishment insurgents weren't wrong about that conflict, either. Vietnam was a terrible mistake for the United States. But like Iraq, Vietnam was a badly chosen battlefield in a larger conflict with totalitarianism that America had no choice but to pursue. In turning viciously on stalwarts of the Cold War era like Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Scoop Jackson, anti-war insurgents called into question the Democratic Party's underlying commitment to challenging Communist expansion. The party's Vietnam-era drift away from issues of security and defense—and its association with a radical left hostile to the military and neutral in the fight between liberalism and communism—helped push a lot of Americans who didn't much like the Vietnam War into the arms of Richard Nixon. Democrats knew that Vietnam and Iraq were not good foreign policy or moral decisions, but they were wrong to oppose them.
By not going along with the war, the Democratic party lost the "one long struggle not to be laughed at." The DLC-ist argument put forward by Weisberg is that Democrats are fools and that they just need to swallow hard and "shoot the elephant."