Laughter and Forgetting

Americans all have their cultural heritage. Some are proud to be Irish, sort of. Their great-grandparents’ parents came over a long time ago, but there are those Saint Patrick’s Day parades everywhere, every year, and everyone wants to be Irish, or so they say. Some of us wear orange that day. Italian-Americans are the same. They love those Godfather movies and Frank Sinatra, still, and Tony Soprano, and they have their festivals, as do the Greeks. Zorba was cool, even if he was played by a Mexican in that movie, and every major city has a Chinatown. Here, Thai Town and Little Armenia are to the east, and Little Ethiopia is down the hill, once you pass all the Russian bookstores and bakeries. San Pedro has its Croatian Hall. People like to remember who they are, or who they think they are.

It’s a little different for those of us who are Czech, or close enough. Czechoslovakia was a made-up country, invented in Pittsburgh by Czechs and Slovaks, and a few Moravians, in exile as Word War I ended. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but two decades later Hitler disassembled it, then the Soviets rolled in and ran the place for years, until they were no more. Autonomous once again, it didn’t last. The urban and urbane Czechs decided they like their own county and the rural and simple Slovaks agreed. They wanted their own country too, so by mutual agreement, with no fuss and muss, we now have the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, which get along fine with each other. Of course those of us who are Czech on one side of the family and Slovak on the other are now a little confused, but that’s okay. We aren’t boisterous Irishmen, or passionate Italians. We thrive on subtle irony, and aside from a few tennis stars, our “national” heroes are ironic – like that Czech kid from Pittsburgh, Andy Warhol. Lighthearted ironic subtlety is our thing. That’s not to everyone’s taste.

That’s fine. Let others bluster, and we have our brilliant writers, like Milan Kundera – the dissident writer who hid from the local communists for decades, publishing devastating take-downs of the foolishness until he got the hell out of there. He settled in France, and when the communists were no more, he decided he’d not go back. He became a French citizen and writes in French now – brilliant novels, magic realism stuff – and he’s been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature more than a few times. Yes, his works are subtle, and funny, and ironic, and they do make you think. It’s a Czech thing, and one of his most famous works is The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – stories about that nature of forgetting, its sadness, its humor, and its necessity in life. He knows. He’s lived that.

That sounds kind of heavy and deep, but the stories are compelling and damned funny. It’s Søren Kierkegaard without the tedious argumentation. Show, don’t tell. That nineteenth-century Danish theologian-philosopher didn’t get it. How one lives as a “single individual” while “giving priority to concrete human reality over abstract thinking” is a real problem. One can overthink things, and personal choice and commitment are important. Sometimes you just make a “leap of faith” and all that. Choose. Kierkegaard is thus considered the first existentialist, and he may have been right that the idealists Hegel and Goethe got it all wrong, but he couldn’t spin a yarn. Milan Kundera made it all real, with a wink and a nod. Kierkegaard has been reduced to the aphorisms he left behind, and one that people seem to remember was from his first book, Either/Or – “If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much.”

That’s what Kundera was saying, or was showing. Those who cannot let go are trapped. They can’t move on. They do stupid things, some of which are a hoot and some of which are tragic. That’s what doomed the crime family in the Godfather, and the Irish are still fighting the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, against William and Mary and the House of Orange. The green will defeat the orange, one day, and the Protestants will be gone from Belfast. The Danish theologian and the Czech novelist, writing in French in Paris, his home now, would not approve, and neither would know what to make of Thursday, September 11, 2014, in America, the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The national theme seemed to be that we will never forget. From the president down to the mayor of every little town in America, that was what was said. MSNBC ran the full three hours of the Today Show covering that morning thirteen years ago, without commentary, without commercials, as if it were live. There was no way to tell it wasn’t. You could live it again as it was happening right now.

Why would you want to do that? That’s dangerous, as Damon Linker explains here:

Those were deranging times. I was so fearful in those days that I actually expressed regret to a friend that the fourth plane had failed to destroy the White House. The thing I feared most in those initial weeks after the attacks, you see, was that we would hesitate in striking back against our enemies. I wanted assurance of our national resolve, and I thought that nothing short of a vision of the White House in ruins would guarantee it.

I’m not proud that I had such thoughts and fears. But I wasn’t the only one. Some members of the Bush administration obviously had them, too.

He got over it, but he sees a nation that didn’t:

The United States is about to embark on yet another war in the Middle East in a desperate, clumsy effort to clean up the mess created in large part by the one started as a wildly excessive response to a single morning of murder in lower Manhattan. Although I never supported the Iraq War, I understand how smart, well-meaning people were able to convince themselves it was an absolutely necessary response to a dire threat. I spent several months 13 years ago stuck in that state of mind.

But then I got over my trauma and came to my senses. I’m still waiting for more of my fellow citizens to do the same.

At the American Conservative, Rod Dreher struggles with the whole idea of forgetting:

We were New Yorkers on 9/11. Because I was a newspaper reporter, and because the last words I said to my wife before running across the Brooklyn Bridge to the burning towers was, “I’m going to get as close as I can,” and because she could not reach me by mobile phone after the first tower collapsed, so she thought I was dead, and because like every other New Yorker we lived through that horrible autumn of smoke and stench and funerals, and missing posters on every public surface, and PTSD, and anger, constant anger, and fear, and conversations about whether or not it would be worth living if a dirty bomb went off in Manhattan – because of all these things, it is a blessing that 9/11 feels like just another day now. I never thought it would.

My next thought is guilt. Am I forgetting them? I am forgetting them. For a long time, years after that day, I believed that I was obliged to maintain the traumatic bond with that day, as a matter of honor. Never forget. But you can’t live like that. You can exist like that, but you can’t live like that.

Maybe Dreher is turning Czech, or Danish, but his analogy is neither:

There is the old woman I know, long divorced, who cannot let go of her bad marriage. She has built an entire identity around the memory of her abusive ex-husband, and her own victimization. It has ruined her. As far as I can tell, the man was horrible to her. But this was 30, 40 years ago. She’s as angry as if it was yesterday, and if you naively pity her and try to ease her pain, she will turn on you as uncaring and disloyal. Her bad marriage, with all its hate and pain, is the event that gives her life meaning. I didn’t know her before the divorce, but I imagine that she was a beautiful, caring woman. Now, the memory of her suffering has disfigured her.

It’s our national disfiguration that’s troubling, and Slate’s Fred Kapan notes what this has done to Obama:

There’s an air of tragedy about President Obama. He wants to chart a new course – pivot to the Pacific, end the long decade of war, do nation-building at home – but the old world’s most derelict, dysfunctional quarters keep pulling him back in. Now, in the cruelest irony, the gusts are pulling him back to the very land where he least wants to set foot again, the warzone that he spent most of his first term leaving: Iraq.

“We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” he insisted in his televised speech Wednesday night. Instead, this will be a war where others – mainly Iraqi soldiers – fight on the ground, while American advisers devise the battle plans and American pilots pummel the enemy with missiles and bombs.

Still, one could be excused for feeling a spasm of dread as the speech spilled forth. I wouldn’t be surprised if the president himself heaved a sigh while he wrote it.

The deranging times didn’t end, although Obama tried to be reasonable:

Obama, never prone to hype, made clear in his speech that the ISIS jihadists don’t yet pose as big a threat as al-Qaida did 13 years ago, on the eve of the World Trade Center attacks. But they are on a rampage, amassing fortunes, acquiring arsenals, led by competent commanders (many of them Saddam Hussein’s former generals), playing on anti-Shiite (and anti-Western) sentiment among Sunni radicals. If they are allowed to take over Iraq and Syria, it’s fair to ask if Jordan and Saudi Arabia might be next. They are also recruiting European jihadists, who have passports that let them travel across the continent and into the United States. Clearly, they do pose a threat. This cannot and should not be principally America’s fight; but the fact is, America is the only country that can coordinate the coalition – provide the intelligence, logistics, and accurate air strikes – needed to win.

That’s the problem here:

Obama made very clear that this battle requires active participation by the Saudis, Turks, and Europeans. But the roles and missions haven’t yet been outlined; the commitments aren’t quite carved in concrete. The plan has a chance of succeeding in Iraq because the new government, formed by Haider al-Abadi, seems inclusive, embraced by Sunnis and Shiites, for the moment – but it could fall apart with the bombing of a single mosque or a marketplace, and then what? Will it look like the Americans are advising and bombing on behalf of a Shiite regime? Will the other Sunni nations back away, fearing the association?

As for Syria, the endgame is unclear. If the Free Syrian Army can’t get its act together, despite all efforts, will Obama step back from that terrain and focus again on Iraq – or will he be tempted to escalate and take on more of the fight alone from the air? Obama is allergic to “mission creep” (and that’s good), but he has said that this war will go on for a while; his advisers were recently quoted as saying at least three years. Where will the next president take the fight?

Kennedy’s limited commitment in Vietnam led to Johnson’s massive war there that Nixon couldn’t quite really end. Gerald Ford pulled the plug, and he wasn’t elected to the presidency at all – but maybe that helped – and as for Obama’s coalition, forming that is not going well:

Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Saudi Arabia Thursday for a summit meeting in Jeddah, where he secured support from a group of key Arab countries for a communiqué that declared a “shared commitment to stand united against the threat posed by all terrorism, including the so-called Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to the region and the world.” ISIL is another name for the Islamic State.

That communiqué was signed by representatives of the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council – which includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates – as well as Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United States. Turkey, which possesses one of the strongest militaries in the region, notably did not sign the document.

That’s a problem:

Turkey, which shares a border with Syria and Iraq, has emerged in recent years as one of the primary entry points for foreign fighters and extremists seeking to join Syrian anti-regime forces. Their role in supporting the U.S.-backed military effort is viewed by American military planners as critical in ensuring the success of the mission.

But Turkey has signaled that it will provide only limited support to the coalition, opening its airspace to military transport planes but stopping short of participating openly in military action, according to diplomats involved in discussions about the international response to the Islamic State.

Ankara remains deeply concerned about the fate of the 49 Turkish citizens who were snatched from its consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul three months ago and remain in the hands of Islamic State fighters. Those concerns have only been magnified by the videotaped beheadings of a pair of American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and the militants’ continued threats to others in their custody if the Western-led bombing campaign continues.

Forget them, and the Brits are getting wobbly:

The British government appeared divided on the issue after Foreign Minister Philip Hammond said early in the day that his country would not participate in airstrikes in Syria. Hours later, he was reversed by a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron. “In terms of airpower and the like, the prime minister hasn’t ruled anything out, and that is the position, but nor are we at the stage of taking decisions,” the spokesman said.

It’s the same with the Germans, although the French are all in, sort of:

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Wednesday that France would participate in airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq but stopped short of committing to take the air campaign to Syria, citing legal challenges.

Why are we doing this? Andrew Sullivan sees why:

It’s extremely hard to reconcile the events of the past month or so with the rationale of the Obama presidency. And that’s what makes this capitulation to hysteria so profoundly depressing. I can see the simple pragmatism behind it: the president under-estimated the strength and tenacity of these maniacs, and feared they could make further gains, plunging the region into a new turmoil. The media and the elites all jumped into full-metal panic mode and created a powerful momentum for action. In fact, the elite consensus in favor of attacking ISIS was, until last night, at least, eerily reminiscent of the elite consensus in favor of going to war in Iraq in 2003 – without the year or so of debate. If you’re Obama, you do not believe you can really solve this problem, but you need to do something, both to stave off possible disaster, to guard against potential ISIS expansion, and to try and rescue the Iraqi “state” one more time. So you rely on air-power, you corral the Saudis to help train and fund Sunni opposition to ISIS, and you funnel some arms to the “moderate” Syrian rebels… and hope for the best.

Why? Those who cannot let go are trapped. They can’t move on. They do stupid things, some of which are tragic but all of which are stupid:

What this misses in its flexibility is that it comes at the cost of profound incoherence. Presidencies need a grand narrative if they are to succeed. Obama’s was a simple one: to slowly rescue the US from the economic and foreign policy nadir that Bush-Cheney bequeathed us. We would slowly climb back out of the hole of fiscal recklessness and financial corruption into a saner, calmer period of slow but steady growth. We would slowly de-leverage from counter-productive over-reach in the war on Islamist terrorism. We would end two wars. We would begin nation-building at home – in the form of universal health insurance and badly needed infrastructure improvement. Above all, we would not be jerked back and forth by Islamist fanatics abroad, seeking to chart a course of steady strategic retrenchment.

Sullivan admits he was mistaken:

What I under-estimated was the media’s ability to generate mass panic and hysteria and the Beltway elite’s instant recourse to the language of war. I believed that Obama was stronger than this, that he could actually resist this kind of emotional spasm and speak to us like grown-ups about what we can and cannot do about a long religious war in the Middle East that doesn’t threaten us directly. But he spoke to us like children last night, assuming the mantle of the protective daddy we had sought in Bush and Cheney, evoking the rhetoric he was elected to dispel.

It seems we cannot forget 9/11 and don’t want to anyway. We should remember, but move on “giving priority to concrete human reality over abstract thinking” of course:

We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.

His speech last night was an argument for doing exactly what he said we should not do a year ago. He has made no attempt to explain why he has completely changed his mind – except to react emotionally to a vile off-shoot of another Sunni insurgency in Iraq. This does not only mean his administration no longer has a coherent narrative, it also means he is utterly hostage to forces abroad he cannot control.

Obama is trapped, and the American people are frightened, and Matthew Yglesias explains the situation:

The biggest problem with Obama’s current approach isn’t what he’s promising to do, but what he’s promising to accomplish. Over the course of 2014, Obama’s anti-ISIS statements have become increasingly dire and alarmist. The shift in tone appears to have two causes. One is backlash to his ill-advised quip about ISIS being global jihad’s JV team. The other is polling indicating that the American public was profoundly affected by the execution videos, which were the single most widely-noted news event since 2009.

The American people may of course be wrong:

Public opinion always matters in politics and therefore in policymaking, but the fact of the matter is that the American people have this a bit mixed up. The beheadings are not the most alarming thing ISIS did this summer (try taking Mosul or genocidal violence against religious minority groups) and the rise of ISIS isn’t even the summer’s most alarming foreign policy crisis (try Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and apparent probing of Estonian and Finnish borders). There is no good reason for the United States to take maximal action against ISIS, not least because none of our potential partners in the region are going to.

Some perspective might be nice, and David Corn asks some good questions:

After depicting ISIS as a peril warranting a US military response – and with much of the American public convinced of that – can he then shrug his shoulders and say never mind? Will he provide the hawks an opening for political attacks and demands for greater military intervention? In his speech, the man who ran for president with the pledge to end the Iraq war declared, “We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.” But what if all else fails? He vowed to eradicate the ISIS “cancer,” noting it will take time to do so. Can he stop if his non-war counter-terrorism campaign does not defeat the disease? It is hard to put the case for war back in the box.

There is that, and Ed Kilgore adds this:

It doesn’t help that Obama closed his speech, as I noted last night, with an appeal to American Exceptionalism: if we don’t “destroy” ISIS, we’re not simply exposing U.S. interests to danger, but skewing the moral compass of the whole world. That distorted self-image of the United States as the first, last and only resort for the vindication of wrongs is also difficult to “put back in the box” after it has been projected so often, even as a rhetorical afterthought.

Digby points out the underlying problem here:

I think this is about America itself feeling a lack of control over all these recent chaotic events, including the collapse of the economy, and demanding that the government take some sort of action – which is ironic since the cognoscenti are determined to portray the country as a bunch of isolationist, small government libertarian/conservatives who just want to be left alone to pray. In reality, everyone knows we’re a big, rich, badass military empire and a majority of Americans don’t like the fact that other people in the world think they have some agency to act while we sit around watching our standard of living go down and our future prospects dim. (The fact that much of our problem stems from our being a big-badass military empire hasn’t really penetrated.) So the president has simply come around to giving them what they want.

She left out only one thing. America is feeling a lack of control over all these recent chaotic events because of the biggest of all traumatic events, thirteen years ago, which we tell ourselves we will never forget. We make sure we’ll never forget that one single morning, but you can’t live like that. Perhaps you can exist like that, more or less, but you can’t live like that. Who would want to? A man who cannot forget will never amount to much? That applies to nations too. One really shouldn’t ignore Danish philosophers and Czech novelists. But that’s easy enough. On television the two towers are falling again. They always are.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Laughter and Forgetting

  1. Rick says:

    I’m hearing you say you don’t agree with Obama on this. I think I actually do, largely because I’m not sure he has much choice.

    I realize there’s a temptation to compare fighting ISIS to that stupid invasion of Iraq back in 2003, but I think the more accurate reference might be to that time before 9/11, back when we probably should have done something about that crazy group of extremists that had been trying to get our attention for years. Yes, they had been baiting us, but that hardly matters, does it? Did ignoring them, instead of confronting them, really do us any good in the long run? Maybe we should have considered panicking before they hijacked those planes, instead of putting it off until afterwards.

    But still, while I may agree with Obama that we have to do something about these people, I’m not quite sure of the details of what ought to be done. That is to say — and please don’t come back and quote me on this — I just haven’t come up with a strategy yet.

    Rick

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