Stop Making Sense

Nerve-agent words, shape-shifting facts, and the dangers of clarity: a guide to the mind at war

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On the table by my bed sits a stack of half-read books — a volume of poetry, a couple of novels, a history of the Middle East, Camus’ The Rebel, a new book about the lure of war. I have no hope of finishing any of them. I can’t spare the time from the all-consuming task of keeping up with the news.

These days I buy my daily paper, the New York Times, with dread and resentment — not just for the content, but for the weight. Since September 12, 2001, it seems to have ballooned to double its old size. The ink of international disaster rubs off on my fingers from no fewer than six full theme pages in the A section. So intense is the competition for space that a massive car bombing in Colombia is relegated deep into the inside pages. While reading the paper, I also scan for breaking news, as well as the wire services and the BBC. By midmorning, after swallowing the great lump of the Times and digesting it along with a dose of radio news and half a dozen articles emailed by various friends and listservs, I’m jittery with crises. And there’s still the rest of the day to get through.

“May you live in interesting times” is not, in fact, an ancient Chinese curse. According to the experts, the only Chinese proverb that comes close says, “It’s better to be a dog in a peaceful time than a man in a chaotic time.” The “curse” is Western, probably American, in origin. We’ve lived under its spell for going on two years now. Lately I’ve been thinking about the effect this is having on our minds.

It’s the nature of the age to expose us to an endless amount of information about wars, planned wars, threats, atrocities, grievances, hatreds — and, simultaneously, to our own inability to do much about any of it. These days everyone’s brain is a situation room, but the activity flows only one way — inward. The response team inside is flooded with updates, warning lights, alarms, but the crisis atmosphere never resolves itself in constructive action. It’s the mental equivalent of a permanent orange alert, with words in place of duct tape. Add to this the persistent sense of unreality that infects the consciousness: While relatively few Americans have been directly affected by anything that’s happened on the terror front since September 11, every day’s news involves us in the most personal way, because we’re responsible or outraged or threatened. On my block of Brooklyn, not two miles from Ground Zero, it’s hard to believe that there’s a war on anywhere. Every morning the elderly Arab who sells me my paper and I smile and say, “How are you?” while the headlines on the counter between us tell of Arabs and Americans inflicting terrible deaths on one another, or promising to.

This mental state of emergency — high-readiness alert, nonstop intelligence chatter, response dysfunction — is a recipe for a severe kind of civic neurosis. It’s an anxiety all its own — not the classic trauma of actual events, but the disturbance of excessive awareness.
There’s nothing new about information overload; the 24-hour news cycle arose in the ’90s with cable and the Internet, and it was considered at the time to be a technological breakthrough, part of the general speeding up of life that came with the boom. What’s peculiar to this moment is round-the-clock saturation with bulletins from an unfamiliar, complex, and frightening world. The ticker at the bottom of the screen is no longer tracking the fluctuation of stocks; it’s announcing the latest mass threat. What we don’t know could kill us, yet the more information we absorb, the less we truly understand and the more helpless we feel (and the more we lose trust in the policymakers and experts who are supposed to help us sort it all out).

In these circumstances, the besieged mind inevitably develops strategies to continue functioning. But they tend to be insufficient, if not misleading and even dangerous. They distort reality more than they clarify it. Lately I’ve tried to perform a diagnosis, taking myself as a starting point, to analyze our mental response to the inner disturbances of the times. What I’ve found are a variety of coping strategies that seem to allow us to handle the flow of information, but at the same time keep us from thinking clearly about it.

Nerve-agent words.

These are the kinds of words that give us the illusion of having said something definite, scored a point, solved a problem, disabled an opponent. They include imperial, anti-American, security, preemptive, blowback, good, evil, democracy. Given definition and context, many of them could be the basis for an argument, but most of the time they are deliberately converted to an anesthetizing gas.

Defining abstract concepts is notoriously difficult. But these words are particularly dangerous at a time when everyone wants to achieve moral clarity, yet all the options are bad. (Which is the right course — supporting an increasingly autocratic Pervez Musharraf, or abandoning him to the radical forces in his own military?) In my own case, the word I’ve found myself resorting to again and again is democracy. It stands for whatever I think is good. In a recent issue of this publication, I offered it as the solution to the problems of the Muslim world without offering any detailed guide to what that meant or how it could be achieved. Depending on your viewpoint, you can pull out a term like anti-American or imperialist to dismiss your opponent’s entire worldview — without any of the work of trying to understand what that worldview actually is.

One striking thing about the new political vocabulary is that it obfuscates with what sounds like clarity. A few decades ago, the characteristic examples of propaganda were Latinate, quasi-technical terms like pacification or counterrevolutionary. Now an apparently simple, tough-minded word like blowback or evildoer releases just as much theatrical smoke as the jargon of the Pentagon or the Soviet Central Committee once did. The new style of deception reflects the pervasiveness of ad lingo, just as older political language accompanied the rise of 20th-century bureaucracies; in the mouths of public figures after September 11, “Let’s roll” was a variation on Nike’s “Just do it.”

Liquid facts.

Living in a state of permanent confusion — in some ways the only appropriate response to the current crisis — is more than most of us are capable of. We badly want the world to make sense; we want a unified field theory that explains everything and justifies all our views. But unified field theories require you to pour large batches of facts into small, oddly shaped containers, and to throw out whatever won’t fit. If, for example, you oppose Saudi Arabia’s ruling family for its corruption, repressiveness, and hypocrisy, and you advocate liberal reform for the sake of people there as well as our own security, then it’s easy to overlook the fact that the main engine of reform in that country is the ruling family, and that “the people” tend to be more conservative, more anti-Western, and more open to Islamist extremism than their leaders. The more confusing and contradictory reality becomes, the more we cling to our fantasies of how things should be; facts, it turns out, can be far less stubborn things than opinions.

Vanishing positions.

If, on the other hand, it becomes too hard (or inconvenient or unpopular) to maintain a particular belief, you can always pretend you never held it. Once you’ve concealed the change from others, it’s only a matter of time before you’ve hidden it from yourself. The same person who once wanted to shut down the CIA can still score points by jeering at the agency’s failure to head off the terror attacks. The president himself campaigned not long ago for a more “humble” foreign policy. These days, each of us has an inner press secretary who delivers “clarifications” with a straight face, a psychological mechanism by which yesterday’s statement automatically becomes inoperative.

A shifting position is much easier to notice in someone other than yourself, especially if he happens to be a columnist whose views are regularly published. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times made his reputation as a pundit by writing about the inevitability of globalization — the idea that trade, technology, and information flow are making the world more integrated and ultimately more peaceful. This is an idea that the events since September 11 have at the very least complicated; yet now Friedman writes twice a week about a world in perpetual conflict with every bit as much assurance as he used to write about a world becoming one. Former Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens has dumped many of the positions of an entire career (two years ago he chastised the Clinton and Bush administrations for refusing to cooperate with international institutions; today he endorses unilateral war), with no suggestion that any reconsideration took place. Hitchens’ willingness to change after September 11 shows an intellectual courage that many of his detractors lack (it’s also more interesting), but a public accounting would have shown more.

The Told-You-So Principle.

Perhaps the easiest way to win an argument — including one with yourself — is to simply declare that the other side is wrong. You might not know what to do about a nuclear North Korea, but you can be certain that the Bush administration is making the situation worse. You might not know the rights and wrongs of the Pakistan-India standoff, but you’re against nuclear weapons and you’re convinced that the United States should have done much more to prevent their proliferation — so you throw up your hands and say, essentially, “I told you so.”

All these strategies are a natural and often unconscious response to unimaginably complex times. They are not unique to this country or this moment, but crisis requires their overuse — and eventually they make all of us coconspirators in the demise of honest public debate. What Hannah Arendt called a new thing in the world — a response to crisis that goes beyond simply repeating history — requires an openness to uncertainty and confusion that few of us can now tolerate, especially in public.

Clarity and conviction are wonderful things; I wouldn’t want to be told that I can never have them again. But a better test of mental health and civic responsibility just now may be whether you can endure inconsistency, hold a fact without manipulating its shape, use words that will expose the falseness of your own thoughts, and accept that you will be embarrassed tomorrow by much of what you think and say today.


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