Saturday, July 26, 2008

What the Heck World Do I Inhabit?

So -- I was at the bookstore today and I'd picked out a novel to buy and read and I started looking at the non-fiction. I was looking for The Dark Side, by Jane Meyer, which is a book that tells the story of how the U.S. state came to torture and kill any number of men classified as detainees, suspects, enemy combatants. I didn't find it. But I did come across a book whose title I don't remember at the moment. The book purported to tell the story of a conspiracy to elect Ted Kennedy president. There's a distinct frisson that comes with the idea. Ted Kennedy has been a senator for decades, he last ran for the democratic nomination for president in, I think, 1980, hasn't been talked of as a potential candidate in ages, not even a potential VP, and he was recently diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.

His story, in other words, has mostly been told. It's not as if his life involved significant historical events which have gone unexplained. He was elected and he legislated. That's pretty much it. I suppose this doesn't make it impossible that there was a conspiracy to make him president, but his life has been so straight forward that it seems to me impossible for such a conspiracy to actually be interesting. It's a pretty bland conspiracy, in other words, that would result in events so inconspicuous that they have not even registered on the public imagination.

Most popular conspiracy theories have been imagined in order to explain events that actually happened. People like to explain the lunary landing as a conspiracy to delude the public. People like to explain John F. Kennedy's assassination as any number of things -- a coworker just yesterday told me it was the mob getting back at him for bucking their directives after they gave him the election in Chicago.

Ted Kennedy was never finagled into the office of the presidency through deceit and political maneuvering. So I just can't understand what would motivate the author of this book to write it.

I flipped through a few pages, trying to get a taste for the style of the book. Was it sober? Was it hysterical?

It wasn't hysterical -- the prose was intelligent and smooth. There weren't any explanation points, but it wasn't quite sober.

I read a sentence along the lines of the following: "With Watergate unfolding, the Kennedy's smelled blood in the water."

That's a little nuts. Whenever a narrative starts representing a group of people's state of mind in figurative terms, that narrative loses a great deal of my confidence. The sentence requires you to accept that the Kennedy family was as focused on dethroning Richard Nixon as a shark is focused on its prey. Now -- maybe the preceding parts of the book were filled with mountains of evidence that they were sending letters to one another detailing how they were going to get Nixon impeached -- but whether they were or not, lots of people wanted to impeach Nixon, once the facts about Watergate came out. I'm sure any number of Kennedies wanted Nixon to stop being president. Not only were they politically opposed to him, he broke the law, he cheated, he was a vicious political campaigner. To contend that their desire to content with Nixon politically and gain power for themselves is some sort of grave transgression doesn't make a lot of sense.

So the book was silly. I glanced at the back cover to learn about the author. He looked sober, kind of like a professor from the 1950s. He had a fair number of impressive sounding credentials in his bio, credentials that didn't seem to jib with the tone of the book.

I flipped through a few more pages. There was some commentary about John Dean and some other member of the Nixon administration. I don't remember the exact language, but the author's affection for these guys was obvious.

The narrative and its assumptions about the rightness and wrongness of the people and the events of that time period were so seamless that they didn't even admit the possibility of contradiction.

"What's that, you say?" the author might say if you were to suggest that the Kennedy's were not so much a dark and sinister cabal as your standard powerful political family. "I've never heard of such a thing. Sounds zany if you ask me."

I asked myself how a person could have such a different view of things from me and from what I understand as the historical record. I don't know the answer but the fact that it's so disturbs me for a number of reasons. One is that this guy represents some percentage of the population that is opposed to progress and which is very hard to talk to.

The other is that the mindset of this book is so deluded and so unconsciously confident of its assumptions that it brings into question the possibility of truthful understanding itself. I don't mean the sort of black and white truth and certainty that everyone knows is a pipe dream but the kind of established and qualified representations of history and facts based on evidence that you might share with a really good journalist, or professor of history, or a scientist.

I mean if this dude can right a whole book that demonstrates he's cleary living in lala land and he doesn 't have clue one that he's not living in factville, what the heck world do I inhabit?

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