Friday, August 24, 2007

Plato, Dirty Harry, and Iraq

Reading over an old post at Mahablog, I was struck by the degree to which Plato foresaw our current quagmire. In the Ion and most famously in The Republic, Plato argues that the poets are dangerous to society. His two central arguments are (1) that the arts give the false impression of being able to convey truth, but are merely false imitations, and (2) they excite the passions which then suppress reason. An argument about the neo-conservative temperament that led us to the war in Iraq and away from sensible foreign policy and in large part caused the resulting loss of moral standing and influence around the world has been made by Barbara from Mahablog, Glenn Greenwald, and Digby from Hullabaloo, amongst others, pulls directly from Plato's discussions.

Digby starts with the gender piece:

The underlying premise of the modern conservative movement is that the entire Democratic party consists of a bunch of fags and dykes who are both too effeminate and too masculine to properly lead the nation. Coulter says it out loud. Dowd hints at it broadly. And the entire press corps giggles and swoons at this shallow, sophomoric concept like a bunch of junior high pom pom girls...Coulter stepped over the line because she used a bad word. But nobody on the right and most people in the media don't blink an eye at the implication of what she said. All this Claude Rainsing among certain rightwing bloggers and the press is just a little bit overdone, if you ask me. Being a "faggot" in common braindead GOP locker room parlance simply means being a Democrat and everybody knows it.
Glenn Greenwald then ties it into cultural gender archetypes:
That laughable absurdity really reveals the heart of this movement. It is a cult of contrived masculinity whereby people dress up as male archetypes like cowboys, ranchers, and tough guys even though they are nothing of the kind -- or prance around as Churchillian warriors because they write from a safe and protected distance about how great war is -- and in the process become triumphant heroes and masculine powerful icons and strong leaders. They and their followers triumph over the weak, effete, humiliated Enemy, and thereby become powerful and exceptional and safe.
He begins to attribute the source of this image as a political presupposition:
Just as what matters is that their leaders prance around as moral leaders (even while deviating as far as they want from those standards), what matters to them also is that their leaders play-act as strong and masculine figures, even when there is no basis, no reality, to the play-acting...Ronald Reagan never got anywhere near the war (claiming eyesight difficulties to avoid deployment in World War II), and he spent his life as a Hollywood actor, not a rancher, yet to this day, conservatives swoon over his masculine role-playing as though he is some sort of super-brave military hero.
Barbara, then closes the loop:
The faux masculinity celebrated by our culture equates violence with strength and power with potency. It is a rogue thing that does not honor the principles of civilization or the processes of governance. Like most John Wayne characters, or Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, following the rules is for girls and sissies. Why bother with a justice system when you’ve got a gun?...George W. Bush is an adolescent’s fantasy of what a president should be, just as John Wayne was an adolescent’s fantasy cowboy/lawman, and Dirty Harry an adolescent’s fantasy detective — easily bored with rules and talk, but quick on the trigger. Who needs diplomacy when you’ve got the biggest, baddest military in the world?
Does anyone seriously believe that those three little words, "Bring 'em on," were not intentionally chosen to evoke Eastwood's "Make my day"? Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who so vehemently objects to using International law as a source of legitimate premises in Constitutional interpretation, has no such reservations in citing precedent from imaginary places invoking the tv show 24 in his reasoning about torture. The entire picture laying behind the neo-conservative approach to governing is pulled lock, stock, and barrel out of the typical Charles Bronson, Bruce Willis, or Sylvester Stallone action thriller: there are good guys and evil guys, the evil guys are helped out by those smart, touchie-feelie morons who insist on following procedure, using fancy words, and being squeamish about the use of manly brute force and the only one who can save us is someone who don't speak the purty-talk, but throws out the rulebook by acting violently and decisively at the slightest provocation.

Our paper thin movie characters from poorly written plots designed to titillate the fantasies of pubescent boys have been mistaken for real life approaches to incredibly complex geo-political problems. We have been so conditioned by the standard Hollywood line that we confuse it for reality and so the media and much of country at large happily went along with a man dressed up to look like James Bond when dropped on an aircraft carrier, only to realize that the White House was actually occupied by our version of Maxwell Smart once the proverbial fan had been scatologically struck. Maybe Hollywood is as dangerous as conservatives have been telling us.

Of course, that point has been made before. Plato argued that drama is dangerous because it appears to present reality, but really is nothing but imitation. Truths come from understanding what is real; but when you watch a play (movies, even DVD rentals, were far too expensive back in Plato's time for the average Athenian to afford and so most went to plays), you are seeing reality filtered through a playwright's agenda-influenced mine, then produced in the limiting atmosphere of a stage with props, subject then to the actor's re-interpretation of it and finally your own limited perspective from the obstructed-view seats you sit in. Not exactly an optimal way to directly access the nature of the real.

Good governance requires the leaders to be as in touch with reality as possible, so having the rulers influenced by drama is incredibly dangerous.
If then we adhere to our original notion and bear in mind that our guardians, setting aside every other business, are to dedicate themselves wholly to the maintenance of freedom in the State, making this their craft, and engaging in no work which does not bear on this end, they ought not to practise or imitate anything else; if they imitate at all, they should imitate from youth upward only those characters which are suitable to their profession --the courageous, temperate, holy, free, and the like; but they should not depict or be skillful at imitating any kind of illiberality or baseness, lest from imitation they should come to be what they imitate. Did you never observe how imitations, beginning in early youth and continuing far into life, at length grow into habits and become a second nature, affecting body, voice, and mind?
But not only does drama remove you from reality, it also whips you into a frenzy, allowing emotions like anger, fear, desire for revenge, to run roughshod over the intellect.
"When even the best of us hear Homer or any other of the tragic poets imitating one of the heroes in mourning and making quite an extended speech with lamentation, or, if you like, singing and beating his breast, you know that we enjoy it and that we give ourselves over to following the imitation; suffering along with the hero in all seriousness, we praise as a good poet the man who most puts us in this state."
When the final history of the period from Reagan to the second Bush is written, it will chronicle the unsuccessful attempt to place people who believed they were real-life comic book characters into some of the most complex, life and death situations history has ever had to offer and a public whose view of the world had been so corrupted by bad cinema that they went right along with them. War in Iran? Pass the popcorn. Hey, is that Richard Perle or Lee Marvin there on CNN?