Truth In Fiction

I am a firm believer that there is truth in fiction and, indeed, profound truth in the fiction of people like Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Eliot. George Eliot is one of my favorite writers and she always provides a wealth of food for thought. One of her novels is a special treasure despite the fact that many people find it a “hard read.” It is the novel Romola which is set in 15th century Florence and focuses on a most interesting character named Tito Melema who is described by the narrator as having a “soft, pleasure-loving nature.” We might add he is also spoiled: the adopted son of a wealthy, adoring father who made his life as easy as possible while turning him into an accomplished scholar somewhat resentful of his father’s demands on his time. In fact, the story centers around Tito’s failure to rescue his father from pirates with a purse filled with jewels including a valuable ring his father entrusted to him. When these jewels are sold and kept by Tito who decides not to pay the ransom, they make Tito a very wealthy man — and one who finds that his charm, outgoing personality, and scholarly abilities suit him splendidly for success and status in Florence.

The novel is historical in the manner of Walter Scott. It mixes the fictional Tito and his eventual wife Romola with such figures as Savonarola, Lorenzo Medici, Machiavelli, and Pico della Mirandola — among others. It is masterfully done. But, again, the main interest for this reader is the character Tito and his remarkable resemblance to growing numbers of people I find myself surrounded by each and every day. Note how Eliot described this “soft” man as he gradually reconciles himself to the fact that he has abandoned his father for the wealth and fame he finds irresistible:

“. . .he was not out of love with goodness, or prepared to plunge into vice: he was in his fresh youth, with soft pulses for all charm and loveliness. . .with the ready inoffensive sociability which belong to a good nature . . .he had still a healthy appetite for ordinary human joys, and the poison could only work by degrees. He had sold himself to evil, but at present life seemed so nearly the same to him that he was not conscious of the bond. He meant things to go on as they had done before, both within and without him: he meant to win golden opinions by meritorious exertion, by ingenious learning, by amiable compliance: he was not going to do anything that would throw him out of harmony with the beings he cared for.”

This remarkable description, coupled with the ensuing story of Tito’s growing lust for wealth and power, not to mention the suffering he brings upon himself and those close to him, presents us with a likeable, easy-going man who doesn’t set out to do the wrong thing but who lacks the will-power to resist. In fact, I would say this is a novel about character (“the reiterated choice of good or evil which gradually determines character”) and the growing awareness on Eliot’s part that the world around her was beginning to turn its back on the Victorian notion of virtue and duty to others which set the age apart (despite its many shortcomings). She saw more clearly than most of those around her what lack of strong character and the disintegration of the self could mean to the people involved. Tito never means to do the wrong thing; he simply does not bother to think about what the right thing might be in a particular case. Moreover, he doesn’t have the strength of will to resist temptation and do the right thing even when he knows what it is. He becomes the master of rationalization and as a consequence he follows mindlessly the easy path to self-ruin.

The novel was written in 1863 but it tells us a great deal about ourselves today. Tito may have been an unlikely character in 15th century Florence, but he is a token of a type  — “soft, pleasure-loving” people who have never learned the meaning of the word “no” — that is becoming more and more familiar in 21st century America.

National Interest

In an episode of “Inspector Lewis” Dame Grace Orde has written an autobiography of her years with MI5 that promises to reveal all (some?) of the dirty little secrets of that organization. During a presentation prior to a book signing, she tells her audience that it is sometimes necessary to set aside ethics when it is a matter of national interest. That, of course, is right out of Machiavelli’s Prince. Or, if you prefer, it is out of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism where he insists that the right thing to do is that action that produces “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In a word, the end justifies the means. In the real world of dirty tricks this is a given and I have less trouble with it as an abstract principle than I do as a concrete action or set of actions. where it is used to “justify” such things as waterboarding. The really hard question is: who decides what is in the “national interest,” or what will produce the “greatest good”?

A  case in point is the invasion of Iraq which was undertaken in “the national interest” by the United States with a “coalition” consisting of a few other countries for show. Even at the time there was considerable doubt about the wisdom of such a war which was initially undertaken to uncover “weapons of mass destruction” that weren’t there. When their non-existence was revealed, the rationale shifted to the capture of Saddam Hussein. When that was accomplished, the rationale morphed into bringing peace and security to a troubled country — whose troubles largely began with the invasion and the killing or displacement of millions of Iraqi citizens.

In any case, George W. Bush insisted later that he only undertook the invasion under duress, that he was “reluctant” to start a war in that region. There was considerable doubt about that claim at the time it was made, but there is even more now that Colin Powell has revealed in an upcoming book that the issue was never discussed in the Security Council. Powell’s claims, of course, directly conflict with those of the Shrub. But, given the weight of evidence on Powell’s side, and the fact that he has much less reason to say an untruth, I side with him on this. As a recent blurb surrounding the publication of Powell’s book puts it, But Powell supports the increasingly well-documented conclusion that there was actually no decision-making point — or decision-making process — during the events between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, which had nothing to do with those attacks.

With the possible collusion of Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, and perhaps his wife, the Shrub pretty much did this on his own in the name of “National Security,” or “Iraqi Freedom,” or whatever else came to his troubled mind. One man, pretty much on his own, decided to order the invasion of a sovereign nation on the spurious grounds of “National Security.” The man ought to be tried as a war criminal.

The point is that the principle advanced by Dame Grace Orde, or anyone else, may have the appearance of respectability when found in the pages of books by philosophers like John Stuart Mill or even the pages of Machiavelli’s Prince. But when push comes to shove, it translates into unmitigated evil — murder and mayhem, and even widespread disaster brought on by the fact that humans in power are motivated by greed and the love of that power and they seldom think about the consequences of their actions.

Justifying Torture

A recent Senate study revealed that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the C.I.A. on al Qaeda did not produce measurable benefits in the war on terror. As a story explains, at the start, (Reuters) – A nearly three-year-long investigation by Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats is expected to find there is little evidence the harsh “enhanced interrogation techniques” the CIA used on high-value prisoners produced counter-terrorism breakthroughs.

Official sources insist upon using the euphemism for “torture,” which means they don’t want to call a spade a spade. It sounds better if we refer to waterboarding, sleep deprivation, not to mention making people crouch or stretch in stressful positions and slamming detainees against a flexible wall, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Some people call this “torture.” Our country chooses elaborate euphemisms. Welcome to “Newspeak.” In any event, whatever we call them, this committee has determined that they didn’t produce any benefits in the war on terror.

There are a number of interesting implications here. To begin with, that argument implies that  if there had been benefits, that is American lives had been saved or bin Laden had been captured or killed as a result of these measures (as Dick Cheney insisted at the time), it would have been justified. The end justifies the means., Machiavelli would be proud.

A second implication is that American lives are more valuable than non-American lives. All persons do not have equal moral value. This is a very serious implication, since it flies in the face of one of the very few sound moral precepts that underlies the fabric of this nation and allows us, from time to time, to claim the “moral high ground.” We can no longer do that if we insist that the lives of Americans are superior to the lives of other people. If all persons are not morally equal, then many, if not all, of the moral “advances” that have been made in recent years — equal rights of all persons regardless of race, color, gender, or creed; laws against discrimination; extension of suffrage, etc. — fall by the wayside.

I honestly do not see how we can morally justify torture, even if we call it something else. It most assuredly defies the Geneva Convention which was supposed to inject some semblance of morality in wartime — if such a thing is possible. Articles 13 to 16, for example, state that prisoners of war must be treated humanely without any adverse discrimination and that their medical needs must be met. But it also lowers us to the level of the people we fight against who also refuse to acknowledge that all persons are morally equal and none can be claimed to have moral privileges. That is the axiom that has been tested in the fires of the war on terrorism and has failed. That is a serious matter indeed.

The one bright note in this dark story is the comment by Senator Dianne Feinstein, who noted that the lack of evidence that torture benefitted this country in its war on terror is not really the issue.  Only days after the commando raid in which bin Laden was killed, Feinstein told journalists: “I happen to know a good deal about how those interrogations were conducted, and, in my view, nothing justifies the kind of procedures that were used.” She was right. Nothing justifies them.