Scooter and MePrint
Professing liberal doubt in an age of fundamentalist fervor
By Nick Bromell
December 1, 2006
When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions.
—F. A. Hayek, “Why I Am Not a Conservative”
Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us that the history we’re moving through finds its ultimate significance within us: “We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience, and verifying them here.” Certainly this has been true for me. As I’ve looked out upon the public history of the past six years, my eyes have beheld the same ribbon of events everyone else has seen. But the meaning of this history has been strongly shaped and intensified by a purely accidental twist in my own private experience. I went away to boarding schools in the early 1960s, and at one of these my best friend was a boy named Scooter—Lewis “Scooter” Libby—who grew up to become Paul Wolfowitz’s protégé, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, and one of the Bush administration’s strongest advocates for the war in Iraq.
Life is doubtless peculiar for anyone who has a childhood or college friend go on to become stupendously successful and powerful. How can you not judge yourself by the standard of his monumental achievement? How can you not feel small and unworthy in comparison?
In my case, these feelings have been further complicated by my being deeply opposed to the Bush administration, which I regard as dishonest and dangerous. But there’s still another fact of my private life that colors the way I see the world: the reason I went to boarding school is that my father and mother were living out of the United States, posted to American embassies in Arab capitals like Baghdad, Amman, Kuwait, and Cairo. This means that for me, Scooter and his neoconservative colleagues have not only set the nation on a disastrous course, they have also destroyed my father’s lifelong effort to make U.S. policy in the Middle East more responsive to the realities on the ground. And there’s one last consideration, which has to do with what my father actually did in those embassies—something that gives the outing of Valerie Plame a personal, not just a public significance.
So, for six years I’ve been obsessed with Scooter. Every time I read a newspaper, I see Scooter and me hunched over a game of Stratego (which he usually won), or I see him faking right before hooking left so I can hit him with a pass in the end zone. Walking my dog through the woods around our house, I chant the mantra of questions I literally ache to ask him: How could you work for an administration that denies global warming and supports tax breaks for large SUVs? How could you work for an administration that cuts funding for birth control to the poorest people in our country and the world? How could you so brazenly exaggerate the threat of Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction, and how could you so foolishly imagine that American troops would be welcomed in Baghdad with cheers and flowers?
I still fling these questions into the silent woods. They are personal questions, private questions, and no one but me ever hears them. Yet at the same time they are public questions, asked by millions of Americans, and they vent the anger and the anguish that have marked the public history of a deeply divided nation. Eight years ago I was appalled by the viciousness of Republican attacks on Bill Clinton. Now, I am ashamed that I thrill to equally vicious attacks on George Bush. But what can I do? If fundamentalist Christians are outraged by the prospect of gay marriage becoming legal, how can I be less outraged by their denying the humanity of my gay friends? In my hotter moments—I have fewer and fewer cool moments these days—I ask Scooter whether his political identification with homophobia is distinguishable from a political identification with racism or anti- Semitism. And convinced that it is not, I sit down at my desk to do it: to write the letter telling Scooter that I can no longer be his friend, not even in the rather distant way we have been friends for all these years.
Today, my old friend is under indictment for obstructing justice by lying about his knowledge of the Valerie Plame affair. Unless his lawyers manage to engineer a miracle, he will be tried in court early in 2007. There he will face the distinct possibility of public disgrace and a career-terminating jail sentence. So what should I hope for, I ask myself: my old friend’s acquittal or his conviction?
The window of my study faces north. If our house stood on higher ground, I could see 15 miles up the winding Connecticut River to the squat bulk of Mount Pocumtuck. Forty years later, Scooter surely remembers our old school song as well as I do:
Eaglebrook, upon your mountain
Still across the valley gaze,
Where we worked and played together,
In our boyhood’s merry days.
We met in a dorm of cubicles—cubies—on our first night at Eaglebrook, in September 1961. Scooter was in the cubie next to mine, and because the walls stopped a foot short of the ceiling, we could easily talk to each other after lights out. We probably whispered Where are you from, what does your father do, what sports do you like? But the heart of our chatter was fear and loneliness. We were 11 years old. We were away from home. We were going to sleep in this dorm for the next nine months, and neither of us would ever live with his parents again. Lying there in the dark, we sent threads of feeling up over the wall that separated our cubies. We became friends. Entering what we already sensed would be a cruelly competitive environment, we became allies.
Life at Eaglebrook was as beautiful and intense as an ice storm. On top of a mountain, a mile from the nearest paved road, we awakened some winter mornings to find four feet of thick snow blanketing the paths. Indoors, the steam radiators clanked to life, and the rooms smelled like wet wool and dusty wood. Scooter and I gave up learning to ski and stayed warm playing basketball in the gym. Two of the smallest boys in the school, we swam in our uniforms, our eyes barely level with the chests of the guys on the other teams. When spring finally came, pushing skunk cabbage up from the wetlands around the athletic fields, we lingered in the twilight on the way back to the dorm, tossing a baseball back and forth as the peepers shrilled in the woods around Whipple Pond.
But the intensity of Eaglebrook was also social. An idiom of incessant and often vicious teasing. What we called cutting—a perpetual cutting down and cutting to shreds. Anderson, Bishop, Bromell, Casey, Coon—all of us were players in an ugly competition for something we couldn’t even name. We imitated Mr. Canoon’s stutter, we mocked Mr. Hepburn’s girth, we made lewd jokes about Mr. Wiechert’s daughters. We moved across the green campus laughing, but also cutting and slashing, parrying and thrusting. What a fairy. He’s so immature. Get bent. Don’t be Jewish. Dork. Brown nose. Jock. Retard.
In his book Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy, Robert D. Dean offers this account of what such schools were really about:
Boys were taken from their homes and families in early adolescence and sent off to remote rural schools, an innovation that replaced the private tutors and private day schools previously employed by wealthy American families to educate their sons. One object of such an extreme solution to the problem of child rearing was to strip away a boy’s personal identity and replace it with an understanding that “the collective identity of the group must take precedence over individual identities.”
At Eaglebrook, the intricate simplicity of the system designed to strip away selfhood would have made even Thackeray marvel. Everything revolved around the single principle of status, which was finely elaborated through grades, sports, shoes, shirts, and even socks. Each and every blazerclad boy knew his place on the status ladder, strove to rise a rung, or dreaded sliding down. At the top were the boys who had everything that counted: family money, athletic ability, and WASPy good looks. Beneath them stood boys with any one of these gifts. And then in the middle came the boys like Scooter and me—small and fairly brainy, but interested in sports and not hopelessly nerdy. Below us were the untouchables, the social misfits who read all the way through The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, played countless hands of bridge, and managed the athletic teams.
We all heard leadership intoned again and again at chapel, assembly, commencement, and building dedications. Wearing our school blazers and ties, sitting on folding metal chairs and listening to the headmaster (“Chief Yellow Finger” we called him, because his hands were stained from the cigarettes he smoked incessantly), we knew what leadership really meant. It had nothing to do with leading, much less with taking risks, and not at all with acting ethically. A leader was just a boy with an unusual talent for submission. A boy could win the top perch as a prefect and become an official leader just because he was preternaturally preppy or could throw a football with a tight spiral. Not even the most golden among us was capable of actual leadership.
Within this disciplining system, Scooter and I had two things that were really our own—touch football and friendship, almost one and the same. Through friendship, we exercised judgment and expressed our values. Through friendship, we unconsciously clung to the self that the school insisted we forget. Through friendship, we escaped the otherwise unceasing competition of classroom and playing field. And through friendship, we recovered a portion of what we had lost on leaving home: affection, even love.
Did we know this at the time? Definitely not. We were too busy playing touch football outside and sock basketball in our dorm. We were too busy being boys who had to pretend that they were men. (Immature was one of the unkindest cuts one could give or get.) But 40 years later, Scooter and I both know that if one of us calls the other and asks for help, he will get it. Forty years later, we both carry within us the weight of bonds formed years ago. If today I feel those bonds as a burden, that’s only because I have also felt them as a gift.
After our graduation in 1965, Scooter went on to Andover, majored in political science at Yale, and got his law degree at Columbia. I went on to schools in Beirut and Cairo. When the June 1967 war forced me to return to the States for my senior year, I chose to go to Andover because Scooter was there. I then majored in classics and philosophy at Amherst and received a doctorate in English from Stanford.
Over the years, Scooter and I have stayed in touch, seeing each other more often even as our differences have become more obvious and grave. Twenty years ago, he came up to Massachusetts for an Eaglebrook reunion and spent the night at our house. That was our first real contact in a long time, and we made the most of it. Scooter was intensely present, a good listener, witty, self-deprecating, and thoughtful. I liked him. I saw him a few years later when I was in Washington for a conference, and he made a special point of introducing me to the woman he would later marry. Six years ago, when he was still unknown to the public, my wife flew him up to be the surprise guest at my 50th birthday celebration.
Soon after our troops were in Baghdad, I offered to fly down to D.C. to give him the perspective of someone who, while by no means an Arabist or Middle East expert, had at least lived in the region and knew something of that world through his senses. Scooter knew that I strongly disapproved of the invasion, but he courteously welcomed my offer. We had a long lunch in the White House Mess, and he listened attentively and took notes as I spoke. More recently, as I’ve been dealing with the monster of colon cancer, he has found time in his incredibly busy schedule to give me an occasional call to see how I am doing. During one of our conversations, I told him about a Buddhist parable I’d found very helpful. For reasons that will become clear, it’s worth retelling now.
A poor farmer whose only worldly possession is a mare wakes up one morning to discover that the mare has gone. He runs to his parents’ house and breaks the terrible news. When he’s finished, they ask, “Are you sure it’s bad news?”
“Of course it’s bad news!” he replies, stomping angrily away.
Ten days later, his mare returns, bringing with her a magnificent stallion.
The farmer runs to his parents and tells them the wonderful news.
“Are you sure it’s good news?” they ask.
“Of course it’s good news,” he declares, leaving in a huff.
Days go by, and the farmer decides to try to break the stallion. He bridles the beast, climbs on its back, and is promptly thrown to the ground and trampled. The village doctor informs him that he will be a cripple for life. When he can do so, he makes his way to his parents and tells them the dreadful news.
“Are you sure it’s bad news?” they reply.
He doesn’t answer, but he mutters to himself all the way home. Two weeks later, a detachment of the Emperor’s army arrives to draft all the able-bodied men of the village. Of course, they pass over the crippled farmer. He hobbles to his parents’ house to share his joy.
“Are you sure it’s good news?” they ask.
The story has no end, of course, but the point is clear: we should try to experience what happens to us without judging it. Nearly a year after I told Scooter this story, he was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice. I let a few days go by, and then I called to say I was thinking of him. The timbre of his voice as well as his words told me that he was very glad to hear from me. But he had no time to talk; he was on another line. He would get back to me later.
Just as I was putting down the receiver, I heard his voice again.
“Are you sure it’s bad news?”
That’s Scooter in a nutshell. I was moved.
But close as we sometimes are, Scooter and I are also very different. He was reportedly billing at $800 an hour while in private practice as a lawyer; my annual income has never exceeded five figures. He has spent most of the past six years strategizing with the vice president of the United States in the Old Executive Office Building; I have spent them teaching classes and grading papers at a public university. But there’s a deeper divide that’s more important. It has to do with beliefs and values, and it’s rooted in our different ways of seeing the world.
This difference came into sharp focus when I happened to read an article by Lynne Cheney, the wife of his boss. As an English professor, I couldn’t resist its title: “The Roots of Today’s Lying Epidemic: The English Department Virus.” In it, Cheney claims that lowly English departments are “a primary source of the epidemic of lying currently upon us.”
I assume that Scooter knows Lynne Cheney well, laughs with her at the dinner table, brings his family over to the vice president’s mansion, and considers her a friend much as he thinks of me as an old buddy. And so, accused now of lying himself, he must know that she regards me and my colleagues as condoners of lying, and my life’s work as a major contribution to the problem of lying that besets our country. Of course I’m angered. And hurt. But once I get past these feelings, and past the words kettle and black, I begin to see that Cheney’s views are useful because they bring into view the essence of the conflict that is tearing us all—friends, nation, world—apart.
Cheney begins by claiming correctly that most English professors believe that “knowledge and power are always intertwined.” But she goes on to assert that as a consequence of this belief, we also maintain that “there is no such thing as truth.” This is false, and I suspect that she knows it’s false. Certainly it’s illogical. Cheney’s error, possibly deliberate, is her sleight-ofhand removal of the definite article the from its crucial place beside the noun truth. Yes, most English professors and intellectuals today do believe that knowledge and power are intertwined. But no, we do not maintain that there is no such thing as truth. We believe, rather, that there is no such thing as the truth, no such thing as truth conceived of as an eternal verity standing apart from power and outside the push and pull of human history.
Our skepticism toward this conception of the truth follows from our observation that people living in different times and places have held very different notions of what that is. For Buddhists the truth is one thing, for Christians it is another, and for Moslems it is yet another. With so many versions of the truth competing so fiercely with one another, we ask whether the term itself is actually helpful. Two hundred years ago, most Christian ministers confidently asserted that the truth as revealed in the Bible justified the enslavement of blacks. They also believed that this truth required all women to obey their husbands and cede to them all authority, including the right to own property, deliberate on matters of public importance, and vote.
Cheney sees, I’m sure, that despite its claim to be the truth, this was only a truth that held sway for many hundreds of years until it was displaced by another truth—that the rights of man are equally shared by blacks and women. As two persons with strong (if different) views about what is good and true, Cheney and I both know that our acknowledgment that truth can change over time does not logically entail a complete dismissal of truth as a criterion for words and deeds. Cheney would not speak out on public issues and I would not take the time to quarrel with her if we did not feel that truth mattered.
The difference between us, then, has more to do with temperament than reason. Cheney may have omitted the little word the from her essay because she knew that its presence would vitiate her attack on me and my colleagues; but I don’t think she’s expunged it from the way she herself feels and thinks about the world. Cheney wants to avail herself of the malleabil- ity of truth insofar as that has conferred on her rights and privileges that earlier constructions of truth denied her. But at the same time, she is frightened by the implications of such a view. She worries that without the pole star of a fixed conception of the truth, we will lose our bearings and descend into chaos. She wants to hold on to the idea of the truth as something ahistorical, unchanging, permanent, and universal—even though it was precisely this conception of truth that had stood in the way of her rights as a woman, later blocked African Americans’ rights, and now blocks her own daughter’s rights as a lesbian.
I, on the other hand, feel that the old idea of the truth has become an impediment. It provokes hostility rather than understanding. It encourages self-righteousness instead of tolerance. I am uneasy about sailing ahead with nothing but dead reckoning to guide us, but I’m pretty sure that this is all we have ever done. In the last analysis, I would prefer to live in a future of competing truths, where anyone claiming to know the truth would be laughed at. Like Judge Learned Hand, I believe that “the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” In short, I am a liberal by temperament, and Cheney is a fundamentalist.
A liberal, as I use the term, is someone who never gives up trying to see the other person’s point of view. A liberal never stops doubting himself, for self-doubt is precisely what allows us to make room in our minds for someone else’s views and to keep the possibility of communication between us alive. A fundamentalist, on the other hand, is someone to whom the very idea of point of view is immaterial, or worse—the foundation of relativism. A warrior who pledges fealty to the god of one Truth, a fundamentalist searches for personal conviction, not mutual understanding. So she regards skepticisms as apostasy, hesitations as heresy, and doubts as moral turpitude.
Taped to the wall above my desk is a photograph of President George W. Bush’s war council torn from the March 23, 2003, New York Times. Gathered around the conference table at Camp David sit a handful of the world’s most powerful persons: Paul D. Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, George Tenet, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Andrew Card, the 43rd president himself—and one other figure, just to Card’s right. I peer into the photo, marveling. That’s Scooter Libby. My old best friend and roommate. That’s you—the guy I used to play Stratego with—sitting in the world’s innermost ring of power.
At the very moment when globalization has presented us with a new dream of world unity, the so-called clash of civilizations has ripped apart that fantasy. Twenty years ago, we imagined that the end of the Cold War would fracture a bipolar world into myriad units and morphing conflicts and alliances, and we hoped that the reach of global trade and technology could bring these pieces into an orderly mosaic. Instead, war’s end revealed what the conflicting political ideologies of that struggle had held in check and kept invisible: a deeper struggle between tradition and modernity, faith and agnosticism, monism and pluralism, fundamentalism and, yes, liberalism.
Scooter has taken a position on one side of that fault line. He was a fundamentalist serving in a fundamentalist administration, and his views are spelled out not just in his deeds but in his words. Scooter is a co-signer and very probably the co-author, with Wolfowitz, of a work that has been published in several forms: as the Defense Policy Guidance of 1992, as the so called Wolfowitz memorandum sent to President Clinton in 1997, and as “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century,” published in 2000 by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).
The salient idea of this document has become well known: that in the wake of the Cold War, “the United States faces no global rival. America’s grand strategy should be to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible.” The document claims to be “a blueprint for maintaining U.S. preeminence, precluding the rise of a great power rival, and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests.”
What I want to ask Scooter today is how the United States can shape “the international security order in line with American principles and interests” if those principles include—as the document implies—the right of a nation to seek preeminence. After all, if we aim to shape the world in accordance with that principle, aren’t we inviting the other nations of the world to emulate us and thereby to seek preeminence themselves? Scooter’s is essentially a fundamentalist “security order,” a zero-sum strategy in which security is achieved only by hegemony.
The fundamentalist nature of this strategy is underscored by its now glaring failure to make any mention of terrorism. The word does not appear even once in the 90-page PNAC document. The PNAC plan is preoccupied instead with the threat posed by “lesser states” to “the exercise of American leadership around the globe.”
So why, I want to ask Scooter, didn’t all this tough-minded talk about “tomorrow’s threats and tomorrow’s battlefields” foresee that tomorrow might be September 11 and that the battlefield might be lower Manhattan? The answer is that however smart Scooter might be, and he is very smart indeed, a fundamentalist mind sees the world simplistically. Such a mind cannot see the world in terms of fluid relationships and reciprocities, but only as a standoff between the forces struggling for preeminence. It cannot conceive that “the presence of American forces in critical regions around the world” as “the visible expression of the extent of America’s status as a superpower” might inflame anti-American sentiment and possibly inspire such acts of suicidal terrorism. The fundamentalist mind will not admit that to define our own security as “deterring or, when need be, compelling regional foes to act in ways that protect American interests” is to mirror back to Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong-il their most paranoid imaginings of what our “American principles” are all about. When such a mind writes strategy for the world today, it’s like a musclebound bodybuilder doing battle with mosquitoes: the more iron he pumps, the bigger the target he offers and the more succulent his veins.
For all their obvious intelligence, Scooter, Wolfowitz, and Cheney are blind to these possibilities because they are locked in a monist mindset, according to which only one power can be dominant, only one nation’s “principles and interests” can prevail, and only one truth can be recognized as the truth. Just like Lynne Cheney, her husband and Scooter believe in one world order controlled by just one nation and motivated by just one principle: the urge to be preeminent. They believe in one Truth, and they’re willing to go to the wall for it—even, perhaps, if that means bending it.
As 2006 draws to a close, Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” feels more like a clash of different fundamentalisms. And that is the dynamic through which fundamentalism prevails. It wins by controlling the terms of the engagement and forcing its opponents to become fundamentalists themselves. Americans don’t need to look across the ocean to see where this kind of struggle leads. We have our own examples here at home. First the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center pushed the Bush administration, already leaning that way, squarely into the arms of its fundamentalist strategists and its right-wing political base. Then the excesses and the lies of the Bush administration started turning liberals and progressives into the very thing they despise. More intolerant, selfrighteous, and arrogant by the day, we are quickly becoming fundamentalists ourselves.
In my own experience, this pernicious trend resolves itself finally into the matter of whether I should remain Scooter’s friend and what verdict I should hope for at his trial. There’s a part of me that wants to see him get nailed. There’s a part of me that wants to end the endless imagined conversations I’ve been having with him, that wants to stop peppering him with “How can you?” questions, that wants to arrive at the Zen clarity of the warrior who focuses on one thing only: victory.
But there’s another part of me—call it the lingering liberal part—that tries to be fair to Scooter’s point of view, that doesn’t want to consign him to the camp of “the enemy,” that wants to keep lines of communication open. The dialogue between these selves has become a Möbius strip of intertwining questions: Would remaining Scooter’s friend be the surest way I have of remaining true to the principles of liberalism, as I understand that word? Or would it just be an excuse for my failure to face a difficult situation, and one that makes me a sucker as well? Would recognizing Scooter as my enemy be the honest thing to do, and the only thing he would truly respect? Or would that decision turn me into the very thing I worry he has become?
These private questions are much like those in our political conversations today. What is the best way to combat terrorism? Should we take the war to the enemy, even when we aren’t sure where the enemy lurks? Or should we engage in a long, protracted, possibly endless strategy of ropea- dope—limiting, containing, and slowly putting out the fires of anti- Americanism?
When I turn my personal questions about Scooter into these public questions about foreign policy, I regain my footing and know my way. I know that terrorists aren’t out to grab American assets. What they hate is a certain image of America, America as a cultural chauvinist trying to impose its principles and interests on the rest of the world. This is the stereotype, becoming truer by the day, on which Osama bin Laden has played so cunningly. Several years ago, the CIA reported that the Arab world regarded us as “ruthless, aggressive, conceited, easily provoked and biased.” The CIA also warned that as long as “the forces fueling hatred of the U.S. and fueling al Qaeda recruiting are not being addressed, . . . the underlying causes that drive terrorists will persist.”
If I and the authors of this report are correct, then the best way for the United States to combat the religious fundamentalism that underwrites terrorism is to remain a liberal state guided by liberal principles. The worst thing we can do is precisely what the Bush administration has promoted: become a fundamentalist nation that mirrors bin Laden’s fantasies back to him and thus confirms them.
The challenge we liberals face today is to match the fundamentalists’ passionate intensity while still remaining true to our deepest convictions: a preference for tolerance over righteousness, fairness over success, and communication over certitude. Indeed, our deepest value might be selfdoubt. It tortures us, but it keeps us open-minded. It makes us laugh at ourselves. And it reminds us to wince whenever we hear someone proclaim, as the vice president is wont to do, that simply stated, there is no doubt.
Self-doubt drives me back one more time to Lynne Cheney’s article. Do her words contain no wisdom at all? Can it be that we liberals are entirely right, the fundamentalists entirely wrong? After all, what should the liberal mind be open to—if not to the exposure of its own blindness?
Such exposure is exactly what Cheney’s article has to offer if we read it carefully and do justice to the complexity of its motives. Much as it might gratify my own self-righteousness to think so, Cheney is not just writing mindless, right-wing propaganda. She is also energized by a conviction that we humans are self-deceiving and lost if we do not acknowledge our need for a transcendental realm that is true with a capital T. Cheney wants us to be humble in the face of our own limitations, and in particular the limitations on what we can really know. She believes that it’s not enough for us to keep creating and revising truths that work for a moment and then get set out for recycling. She believes that such a conception of the human enterprise exaggerates what humans are capable of: we cannot be the ultimate arbiters of what is true because we ourselves do not know enough, and it is hubris to imagine that we do. We have to submit to something outside ourselves, untouched by our puny powers, and beyond the pathetic purview of our history. We have to submit to the Truth.
If Lynne Cheney and I were to meet, here’s what I imagine she would say to me: “You liberals may have good reasons to be skeptical about the very possibility of the truth, but you insist on using the words true and truth as if they had real meaning without recourse to such a possibility. If you were intellectually honest, you would restrict yourself to words like correct and accurate. If you want to glorify your mere assertions with the numinous associations of the word truth, you should embrace the possibility of the numinous itself. By using true and truth while denying the very possibility of the Truth, you are trying to have your cake and eat it too. You want to use a word that comes trailing clouds of glory to ennoble your scrawny human enterprise and to conceal its dangerous vanity.”
And Cheney would be right. We liberals do want to hold onto the word true because we know that behind our policy proposals lurks a deep sense of right and wrong, a deep instinct about what makes life valuable and meaningful. But we do not fully articulate these beliefs, and we seldom even admit that we have them. Because they rest at bottom on conviction, not reason, and therefore cannot be justified without circularity, we hesitate to bring them into the open. We are nervous about admitting that in this sense our politics are as faith-based as those of any fundamentalist.
This is a failure of nerve, and it has two consequences: to people like Cheney we appear hypocritical, and to many others we appear uncommitted and indecisive. This is why the liberal temperament is challenged as never before. Everywhere in the world we are confronted by the fundamentalism that deposits bombs in commuter trains and that crafts Strangelovian strategies for global preeminence. In the face of these provocations, we are called upon to be firm but not inflexible, tough but not stubborn, determined but not dogmatic. We need something like faith, but it has to be a faith that makes room for the faith of others. Our deepest quarrel with fundamentalists in this country, then, is not about Iraq, health care, abortion, or gay rights. It’s about the very possibility of trying to be true without needing the truth. It’s about being able to commit to a truth while always remembering that this truth could be partial, incomplete, and provisional—a steppingstone forward, not an edifice of certitude.
So, to return to the question before me: as the day of Scooter’s trial draws near, I try to commit myself to these liberal principles in my private life just as I have argued for their value in our public life. They encourage me to remain aware at all times of the irreducible human complexity of Scooter’s life and work. They encourage me to think of him as a person and a friend, not as a figure and a foe. While I want the Bush administration to be held accountable for its blunders and its lies, I also want my friend Scooter to be proven innocent and to go home to his family. In short, I want things both ways.
If this attitude involves me in self-contradiction, so be it. The risk of a seeming inconsistency is one that liberals must take if we are to meet the complexities of the world as we know it. But we should undertake this risk agonizingly, not flippantly, taking the full measure of what is at stake as we make up our minds.
Looking at the snow swirling past my north-facing window, I’m reminded of Wallace Stevens’s famous poem about the snowman who beholds the winter landscape and sees “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” We liberals think we’re very good at living without illusions, seeing only what is “there” and needing nothing else. And so we mock fundamentalists who see “the nothing that is” and who seek to supplement it with something more, something transcendental, something True.
But if we really want to come to grips with the exigencies of our time, we will have to learn, like the snowman, to see both ways at once.
Nick Bromell is an affiliate scholar of the Center for American Progress and teaches American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He also has written for The Boston Review, The Georgia Review, and Harper’s.
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