The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

public diplomacy and the "reality-based community"

Karen Hughes, the local TV reporter turned undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, inexplicably picked to persuade Arab nations that the U.S. really is a good guy, has been visibly reaching the limits of her competence. In a recent meeting with Indonesian students, Hughes made a mistake that would seem minor only if it didn't so clearly exemplify some of the most significant problems with the Bush administration's way of communicating with the world--and, in fact, its very ability to understand the world outside of its own boardrooms and conference calls.

The NEW YORK TIMES reported Saturday that Hughes told this group of students that Saddam Hussein killed "hundreds of thousands" of his own citizens with chemical weapons, and it was that kind of behavior that justifies the war. Unfortunately for Hughes, her claim just isn't true. Hussein's chemical attacks killed more like 5000; 300,000 is the generally accepted figure for Iraqis that Hussein killed overall.

Now, this seems pretty minor. Hussein was a butcher, and he did use chemical weapons. But it was Hughes' response that is most interesting. As she said,

---"It's something that our U.S. government has said a number of times in the past. It's information that was used very widely after his attack on the Kurds. I believe it was close to 300,000," Hughes said when questioned the first time. She added, "That's something I said every day in the course of the campaign. That's information that we talked about a great deal in America."

When asked again several minutes later, she said, "I think it was almost 300,000. It's my recollection. They were put in mass graves."---

Her spokesperson "clarified" her responses later in the day.

Here's the problem. This so clearly demonstrates the divide between what an unnamed Bush admin official, in a NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE article in 2004, called the "reality-based community" and the Bushies. If you didn't read the article, here's the memorable quote:

---The aide said that guys like [Ron Suskind, the writer] were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''---

Back when things were going well for the Bushies, this was true. Postmodernists to the core, they believed that reality WAS what they said it was--that Kerry was a traitor, that Hussein and bin Laden plotted together, and that as long as they could persuade gullible people of those ideas then they would become sufficiently "true." Now that the wheels are coming off the bus, we get incidents like this one. Hughes' version of reality is this: "That's something I said every day in the course of the campaign."

But as they're learning now, even the most committed postmodernist is occasionally confronted by the need to, as Fredric Jameson put it, "always historicize."


Post a Comment

<< Home