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Silja j.a. Talvi
Silja j.a. Talvi
Stephen R. Shalom
Nonviolence Versus Capitalism
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New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001
Review by Mark Engler
Near the beginning of Political Fictions, a collection of essays, Joan Didion tells us of time spent in high school hanging out in gas stations. There, she explains, she found friends who had not overachieved in class nor aspired to elected office. Rather, they had gotten drafted, gone through basic at Fort Ord. They had knocked up girls, and married them, had begun what they called the rest of their lives with a midnight drive to Carson City and a five-dollar ceremony performed by a justice of the peace still in his pajamas. They were the type of people, in their political disaffection, that she held in mind when forming her books thesis: That an elite group of pundits, lobbyists, and operatives define the terms of democratic discussion in this country. That with the stories expounded in their press releases, C-SPAN speeches, and Sunday morning talk shows, they create an accepted vision of the American experience that is far removed from the actual concerns of the great majority of its citizens.
These stories, the self-perpetuating fables of the nations permanent professional political class, make up the Fictions of the books title. Their consequence is the hollowing of democracy, the leeching away of peoples ability to meaningfully influence public decisions that affect their lives. Didions collection contains eight essays, all reconstituted from material that she wrote for the New York Review of Books between 1988 and 2000. Each reads as an indictment.
Didion begins her investigations during the 1988 primaries. Early on, she uses a behind-the-scenes look at campaigning to reveal the vacuity of candidates on-stage convictions. The political class, she contends, cares less about substance than about appearanceabout tradeoffs and constituencies and positioning the candidate and distancing the candidate, about the story, and how it will play. Didion then questions whether, once in office, politicians and their functionaries ever shed their contempt for the publics intelligence. In one memorable scene, the handlers responsible for influencing press coverage of a George H. W. Bush tour of the mideast demand that, at every stop on the itinerary, camels be present.
She indicts the media, too, for buying in to the system. Reporters sell their objectivity in exchange for access and end up as enablers, telling the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say manufactured. Didion shows that drawing distinctions between the commentators hired by newspapers and the media managers on political staffs (a hallowed distinction in the journalistic world) is about as relevant as distinguishing paramilitary death squads from the dictatorial regime that sponsors them.
Many of the essays are marked by the manner in which the author takes up strikingly commonplace contentions and advances them with brute force. Well after the time when any of these views might have made headlines, Didion argues vehemently that Ronald Reagan was more an actor than a leader, that the White House blatantly lied in order to cover up the massacre at El Mozote, that Clintons impeachment was politically motivated, and that Gore did poorly to disavow Clinton in his presidential bid. Yet, her use of recycled ideas does not altogether lack ambition. It is as if she is trying to defend the sanctity of evidence and logic against the corrosive influence of political spin. Using the full weight of hindsight, she asserts that those arguments were not just partisan positions or disputed viewpoints. They were the truth.
Her success in this endeavor varies from essay to essay. The measure of effectiveness for Didions criticism throughout her career has been her understanding of place. Her cultural analysis from the 1960s was fueled by an ability to evoke a sense of her native California as an unsettling and inexplicably violent land. The same mood limited her when, in the early 1980s, she traveled to wartime El Salvador, a site where her shell-shocked sentiments were hardly original. Now, with Political Fictions, Didion turns to Washington, DC, or, more precisely, the beltwaya constructed political locale that is more spiritual than geographic. Here she labors to pull apart the preferred narratives (West Wing lights burn late as dedicated workaholics hit the ground running) that the place uses to define itself.
This effort, however, is hampered by the fact that the collection contains little reportage, particularly in its latter half. These essays were originally framed, at least in a general sense, as book reviews. The result is that the work becomes a reflection on meta-politicsthe rhetoric and self-image of the process, as presented in the memoirs, monographs, and scoops published by political insiders. Writing in this mode Didion can note that the number of medals awarded for the invasion of Grenada eventually exceeded the number of actual combatants. But even she does not discuss Grenada as a military reality. Rather it is something more abstract, a symbolic centerpiece used by conservatives to define Reagans foreign policy. There can be no muckraking here because the author, adopting the role of literary critic, keeps several layers of detachment between herself and the political muck.
This, then, leads us to New York. Since Political Fictions central argument deals with how Washingtons conversations are elitist and inbred, it is only fair to ask about the venue in which Didion is writing.
At several points in the book, she undermines her original pose as an everywoman, going so far as to casually mention that she hosted Jerry Brown in her Manhattan apartment during a stop-over on his run as a presidential candidate. Such asides highlight what should be obviousthat having enjoyed more than 30 years of well-earned renown as a keen observer and impeccable prose stylist, Didion has not been leading an ordinary life. Indeed, she maneuvers within cosmopolitan cultural circles that are no less exclusive and self- contained than the political ones criticized in her essays. She may have once loitered away the hours in a gas station parking lot, but now she hangs out at the Review of Books.
Nevertheless, Didions anger at political developments is refreshing. While she cant quite pass as a populist and never quite dares to take up actual advocacy, her incisive criticism provides a valuable guide to a 12-year period in which smaller and smaller pools of voters mattered in the political process and half the nations citizens had only a vassal relationship to the government under which they lived. Whether or not this constitutes a new trend, it is one worth combating. We dont have to consider ourselves innocent to be outraged.
Mark Engler writes regularly on globalization and labor issues in the New Internationalist, TomPaine. com, and the Journal of Religious Ethics.