The politics of paranoia

decision_points_gerogewbushIn his scathing review of George W. Bush’s account of his Presidency, Decision Points, at the LRB, Eliot Weinberger suggests that the most likely Republican candidate for the US presidency in 2012, is Jeb Bush. The fact that we might find ourselves heaving a covert sigh of relief at this news, that at least Jeb Bush isn’t Sarah Palin, shows how much our sense of what is mad and what is dangerous have been elided in the past few years. Of brother George, Weinberger writes:

Bush is beginning to seem like a reasonable man compared to the Republicans who have now been elected to higher office. Unlike them, he was not a ‘family values’ Christian who liked to have prostitutes dress him in diapers; he did not have to pay a fine of $1.7 billion (yes, billion) for defrauding the government; he does not advocate burning the Quran; he does not believe that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim allied with terrorists who is building internment camps for dissidents; he does not believe that people of Hispanic origin should be randomly stopped and asked to prove their immigration status; he does not support a military invasion of Mexico or a constitutional amendment stating that the United States cannot be subject to Sharia law or an electric fence along the entire Canadian border or the death penalty for doctors who provide abortions; he does not believe that bicycle lanes in major cities are part of a plot by the United Nations to impose a single world government.

As barmy and sinister as the Bush 2 administration was, and as bizarre as Bush 2’s upbringing was (see Weinberger for the very disturbing ‘foetus-in-the-jar’ moment), it was probably inevitable that there would be something mind-bogglingly weird about the production of Decision Points – a book in which there are apparently no actual decision points. It seems highly unlikely to me that Bush, who has notable problems with literacy and with verbal expression, wrote anything in it. The whole project was bolted together and promoted by a compliant, greedy and morally bankrupt publishing industry that paid Bush US$7m for the privilege of creating a complete fiction that reads as though a trailer for Syriana has been rewritten to make it look like an ad for Return of the Jedi, but with dialogue and narrative that would look cheesy even there.

When things in our lives go really mad, when we find ourselves in utterly incomprehensible situations, there can be a point where the madness moves off the register, where the mind starts to wonder if it is hallucinating, and in extremity finally itself becomes consumed by the apparent hallucination. During the reigns of Junior Bush in the US and Little John in Australia, reality started to seriously bend out of shape. Helpless refugees became ‘terrorists’, murdered children were categorised as ‘insurgents’, climate change became ‘the drought’, Iraq was portrayed as a nation on the brink of launching nuclear or biological attacks on the US, the structural collapse of the international financial system was tidily acronymed as the GFC, refugees in a sinking boat were accused of deliberately drowning their own children, Iraq was democratically reconstructed by giving billions of dollars to US military contractors, and the restoration of limitless bankers bonuses and the wholesale looting of the public purse were repackaged as ‘austerity measures’. The Bush 2 administration labelled its dramatic increase in wilderness logging the Healthy Forests Initiative, green-lit wholesale increases in air pollution through the Clear Skies Act, and completely abandoned the devastated city of New Orleans as a form of disaster-response. Maddest of all, I discovered from Weinberger, Bush proposed the New Freedom Initiative a program that wanted to test all Americans, children and adults, for mental illness. Of course, one would imagine that on the basis of any measure of mental health that valued concern for others and understanding of moral and social wellbeing, Donald Rumsfeld would be chained to a rock in a cave deep underneath the Colorado Mountains, guarded by ravening wolves and with ten kilometres of sophisticated and lethal booby traps between him and the outside world. On the other hand, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who after the Tucson shootings equated bigotry and hatred with the causes of violence and positioned Arizona as the evil twin of Mecca, must be an instant candidate for Cop of the Year.

Julia Gillard, a late but unsurprising admission to this asylum run by the sinister for the sinister, has given us the ‘illegal’ WikiLeaks cables that have broken no laws and demonstrated that public election of a designated individual as Prime Minister is no guarantee that that person will remain as Prime Minister if he or she is deemed by persons unknown to have ‘lost their way.’ The Obama administration has delivered promised whistleblower protection that actually decreases the protection to whistleblowers, closed Guantanamo by keeping it open and freed its prisoners by preventing them from leaving. But the most inventive contribution to all this hallucinatory madness may have come from John Howard, who gave humanity the mind-bending concept of the ‘non-core promise.’

In introducing Edward Said when Said gave his lecture Freud and the Non-European in London shortly before his death in 2003, the writer and psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas called this psychotic process of writing outright lies as unimpeachable truth, ‘negative hallucination’ and used the Israeli attitude to the Palestinians to illustrate it. Not only do violent oppressors label the oppressed as ruthless brutal terrorists, but at the same time vehemently deny their existence, despising them, says Bollas, as ‘a fecal entity that is so odious that it cannot be recognised, except when and if it is out of sight and finally eliminated’.

If you think that you’re going mad when you try to comprehend the concept of the non-core promise or understand how Guantánamo can be closed while open, or how WikiLeaks can be a criminal organisation while having done nothing illegal, or how old growth forests can be healthier when clear felled, or how stone-throwing children can be terrorists, that’s because there is madness at work, something psychotic and hallucinatory that is being broadcast and amplified without dissent.

The structural madness of our systems of political power and control can only exist within a sphere of lies masquerading as eternal verities, lies that very often contradict each other. That’s when things start going seriously pear-shaped, when the more lies there are, and the more they contradict each other, the more adamantly truth must be proclaimed, truths that rapidly make their way into the culture museum where they establish themselves as gold-plated accounts of the past and unchallengeable maps of the future.

Any dissonance reverberating within a political system because of the promulgation of the lies that make up Bollas’ ‘negative hallucination’ often makes itself manifest through strategies of violence, in an attempt to both legitimise the lies further and obliterate the contradictions caused by them. War then becomes marketed as an avenue to peace, and the moral complexities of the world neatly divided between Them and Us, between the evil-doers and the freedom fighters, the patriots and the tyrants. Everything good and pure and innocent resides in Us. Everything unacceptable about ourselves and unthinkable about our political structures and attitudes is contained within Them. Subscribe to this hallucination and everything will be fine. To raise your hand in even mild dissent can become an act of terror to a paranoid matrix of power that is always scanning in fear for its imaginary enemies.

The paranoid system is a very frightened system, and the problem with the frightened and the paranoid is that they are inclined to be unpredictably vicious. Every argument that counters their point of view is always experienced as an attack, no matter how mildly it is delivered, something that it’s worth remembering if you happen to feel like arguing with someone with paranoid politics. The paranoid bigotry of the Tea Party and Fox News is self-perpetuating. Perfectly reasonable challenges to their arguments only ratchets up their paranoia. For example, any definitive evidence that could be produced to prove that Barack Obama is not a Kenyan, say a US birth certificate, is actually proof that there has been a sophisticated liberal cover up.

It’s a state of mind that’s terribly split. Either you are in total agreement with me, or you are against me, a mindset that has become something of an institutional position in the past decade; you’re one of us, or you’re a terrorist or a traitor. If you are my friend, you will do as I say and be subsequently rewarded at my discretion. If you are against me, I have no option but to destroy you, because what is against me, what is terrifying me, what is revealing me to myself, must not be allowed to exist.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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  1. Good morning and no problem. The literary productions of Junior Bush could not be allowed to pass without comment.

  2. I’m impressed that you made time to read it let alone write about it, Stephen. Thanks for sparing us the ordeal and providing the insights.

  3. ‘It seems highly unlikely to me that Bush, who has notable problems with literacy and with verbal expression, wrote anything in it.’
    Yeah, the book was written by a twenty something speechwriter, on the basis of notes provided by W. It’s a very, very strange text. A bunch of American reviewers have accused it of plagiarism, cos it lifts dialogue from other journalistic accounts. Which seems odd until you read it. But it’s got this weird rushed quality to it, almost as if the authors couldn’t maintain their interest in the story they were supposed to be telling.

  4. Brilliantly lucid and evocative account of the madness pervading the Bush administration. Agree it would be highly unlikely Bush would have written this. As for plagiarism the Bush era is something I associate with plagiarism. I vividly recall three reports of investigators written back in 1992 being presented by the Bush administration as current evidence of Iraqs’ possession of weapons of mass destruction years later. When the academics came forward and told us that these reports were written by them and not even the punctuation errors removed it reminded me of how mad and corrupt the administration had become, if not mind numbingly stupid.

    1. Yes, I think that’s something that is easily overlooked. Sure there is a kind of stupidity that the powerful and arrogant are heir to, that goes with not having to seriously consider the consequences of your own actions. But the Bush administration was very largely composed of men and women who were not very bright, to put it kindly, and whose stupidity had never been challenged in any way.

  5. Brilliant lucid account of the madness that pervaded the Bush administration. I doubt that he wrote it. It isn’t difficult to associate plagiarism closely with the Bush administration. The most striking example that comes to mind is my vivid recollection of the three reports, written by experts in 1992, passed off as ‘current’ by GW Bush as evidence that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. The academics came forward and informed us that these reports were written in 1992 and furthermore even the punctuation errors were not removed from their works which were used without their consent of permission.

  6. I found it a very very weird book, and that weirdness is hard to transmit through a critique. All I can say is that the ‘foetus-in-the-jar’ moment sums up the kind of bizarre, creeped out sense that one is reading something very, very, very strange. It is an eerie kind of book. Its so dislocated from anyone else’s commonly agreed reality

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