Monday, May 20, 2013

Writing and Terrorism

I was just meditating on one of my favorite quotations, Jacob Burckhardt's "Terrorism is essentially the rage of the literati in its last stages." (Burckhardt was an art historian of singular talent; he essentially invented our concept of the Rennaissance in Italy.)  This seems so valid to me.  For while people will fight for resources or to prevent aggression, we understand these guys are not blowing things up and sacrificing their lives because they're hungry and oppressed, but because somewhere someone wrote something down, and they read it and it changed their lives, it made them into terrorists.   There may be illiterate terrorists, but in every instance they are directed by someone who is well up on the justification for their violent acts, invariably embodied in a document of some sort, or in writings synthesized by some charismatic individual.  

The intellectual histories of our great monsters--HitlerMaoStalin etc--have been elaborately studied, and we can often tease out the birth of the rationale for mass murder.  This seems also to hold as well for the pettier mass killing of the current terror boom (so to speak).  Why do the literati rage?  Because they have looked at the world and found it wanting.  They devise some improvement, which they then argue for passionately, which eventuates in a book. Perhaps the authorities kill them or torture them, lending the validity of blood to the argument.  The book survives, however, is read by other literati, who carry on the fight. And they are opposed by people who think terror is wrong, and killing innocent people can have no excuse (us), which belief they too learned from books, in some cases the very same books. Isn't this a puzzle? Writers really are the legislators of mankind, in which case we have a lot to answer for.

This was borne powerfully home to me when I was a speechwriter in Washington.  To understand what this means you need to know that some political speeches are not merely hot air.  They are a way for the boss to set policy and give marching orders to the troops, to share the vison which, if pressed strongly enough, will inspire the various cliques and warring factions that comprise any instrumentality of power, public or private into pulling together in some particular direction.

The person I was serving happened to be one of the few non-Reaganite senior officials in Reagan's administration.This was a tremendously impressive famous guy, charismatic, brilliant, deeply experienced, full of ideas, and he was in addition a terrific extemporaneous speaker. So why did he need a speechwriter?  This is why.  We would be in his office talking about a coming speech, tossing out ideas, converging on how to focus on the core of the policy he wanted to advance, and I could see that he knew what he wanted to do, it was just there in the room, but inchoate ; and then I would say something like, "Why don't you just say....?"  And almost all the time he would go, "Yeah, that's right," and then we'd fuss over the exact wording a little, and that would be it: national policy. Of the USA.  Billions of dollars, millions of people affected.  And that is going on in every single government agency and every single large corporation, some guy is talking to a writer and the writer is actually saying what the policy is going to be.  Yeah, I always found it a little weird too.

At any big agency, the speechwriter occupies an odd position. He's resented because, needless to say, everyone knows about how policy gets made, and everyone is suspicious that the speechwriter is putting his own ideas, Svengali-like, into the process.  On the other hand, the speechwriter is everyone's best pal. Everyone wants to do a favor for the speechwriter because this will involve an opportunity to pitch their own programs to someone who spends a lot of one-on-one time with the supremo.  Your effective speechwriter should therefore be someone with not a lot of ego, who is not overly fond of schmoozing.

Getting back to terror, we see that the terrorist have a narrative, reinforced in books, pamphlets, and speeches, all products of writers.  Videos are significant, but they too must be fitted into a narrative, and that requires an argument written by someone and articulated. This and not that was the case, innocent civilians were murdered, it's a good thing to kill girls who want to go to school, and so on. Against this narrative is ours: we are innocent victims of senseless violence justly resisting it by waging war on terror.  And they hate our freedoms. Is this the right narrative?  It hasn't worked all that well, it seems to me.  We need a new narrative or the present mess will go on indefinitely, yet our own literati seem curiously unable to legislate one into existence.  Perhaps a little more rage?

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