August 14, 2006

Killing Arabs: Bush, Camus and the Politics Of The Absurd

Oh. My. God. Bush has been reading Camus:
Bush puts down his summer reading -- including Albert Camus' "The Stranger," and two books on Civil War President Abraham Lincoln -- in favor of presidential briefing books.
I find this particularly disgusting because L’Etranger (The Stranger) is my favourite Camus book.

For those not familiar with the name, Albert Camus was a famous French-Algerian writer whose work is synonymous with the concept of absurdity.
”At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.” - Camus
Along with Jean-Paul Sartre and other intellectuals, Camus developed a school of thought known as Existentialism. Adherents simply refused to believe anything that could not be universally proven to be true. And what can be proven to be true, other than the simple fact that we exist? As Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” All else is conjecture.

Stripped to such bare bones, even the basic concept of life itself becomes absurd. Most of us find such a stark reality unpalatable. We lean on various psychological props – religion, wealth, fantasy - to help us ignore this core dilemma of existence. But Camus and his fellow Existentialists bravely embraced such absurdity as the foundation for an ultimately life-affirming philosophy.
“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” - Camus
For a telling recent example of the absurd, nothing can match the Bush administration's Weapons of Mass Destruction ruse. Bush sent a team of men scouring the desert sands of Iraq for more than a year, searching in vain for Saddam’s “elusive” WMDs. And yet at least some of the senior figures in the Bush administration knew those WMDs did not exist – because they themselves had set up a secretive Office Of Special Plans to help fabricate the WMD ruse. As a metaphor for man’s life on earth, Camus cited the eternal task of Sisyphus: repeatedly pushing a rock to the top of a mountain, only to watch it roll down the other side. The mission of Charles Deulfer’s Iraq Survey Group was no less absurd.
”The only real progress lies in learning to be wrong all alone.“ – Camus
To fully appreciate Camus, it is important to distinguish between absurdity and similar concepts such as irony and ridiculousness. For example, it is ridiculous that an intellectual lightweight like George W. Bush ever became President of the USA. It’s ironic that the man who holds probably the most powerful office in the history of our planet is a shallow, easily manipulated fool. But we begin to approach the absurd when we realize that, after half a decade of death, war, stuff-ups, and cover-ups, millions of people across the USA still do not know, or refuse to acknowledge, how criminally incompetent Bush truly is.

Some, including top politicians and government officials, refuse to acknowledge this harsh truth because they do not want to consciously have to deal with it. Others, even as they are forced to acknowledge the truth, willfully refuse to learn the lessons implicit in the unfolding disaster. Such self-constructed fantasies help us all deal with forces - including wars and hurricanes, terror and absurdity - which are seemingly beyond our ability to influence.
”Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful.” - Camus
Camus’ writing is marked by an intellectual rigor that shines like a bright light through all his work. By contrast, Bush cannot even be bothered to analyze complex issues in anything more than a superficial way.
“What they need to do is get Syria to get Hizbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over.” – G. W. Bush
L'Etranger, the book that Bush has (we are told) been reading (did he understand it?) makes repeated use of the scorching Algerian sun as a metaphor for the glaring illumination of objective truth in our lives. Bathed in this white-hot glow, the absurdity of our petty human follies becomes all the more obvious...
President Bush on Tuesday dismissed a human rights report as "absurd " for its harsh criticism of U.S. treatment of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying the allegations were made by prisoners "who hate America."

"It's an absurd allegation. The United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world," Bush said of the Amnesty International report that compared Guantanamo to a Soviet-era gulag...

Standing in the sun, sweat beading on his forehead, Bush said the job of the U.S. forces in Iraq is to help train the nation's own forces to defeat insurgents.

"I think the Iraqi people dealt the insurgents a serious blow when we had the elections," Bush said. "In other words, what the insurgents fear is democracy because democracy is the opposition of their vision."
Bush actually quoted Camus once, at the start of his second term, when he was visiting Brussels and desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to mend fences with “Old Europe” :
”We know there are many obstacles, and we know the road is long. Albert Camus said that, "Freedom is a long-distance race." We're in that race for the duration -- and there is reason for optimism. Oppression is not the wave of the future; it is the desperate tactic of a few backward-looking men. Democratic nations grow in strength because they reward and respect the creative gifts of their people. And freedom is the direction of history, because freedom is the permanent hope of humanity.” - George W. Bush, February 22, 2005
However well-intentioned the gesture may have been, the Camus quote was generally not well received. Gary Leupp’s reaction spoke for many of us:
For Bush, a cocksure man full of worthless certainties, who seeks to impose fundamentalist Christian morality, sideline science and actually diminish freedom in the name of the "war on terror," to invoke Camus is an outrage. Surely some in the Brussels audience wanted to puke.
To make matters worse, Bush’s speech-writers had actually taken Camus out of context. A careful reading reveals that Camus was being sarcastic:
The paragraph from which the president quoted begins by having Clamence extolling slavery, as Camus believed Sartre had done by aligning himself with the French Communist Party. Then Camus has Clamence condemn himself of hypocrisy, for which Camus criticized Sartre in his journal, by saying that that he "was always talking of freedom. At breakfast I used to spread it on my toast, I used to chew it all day long, and in company my breath was delightfully redolent of freedom. With that key word I would bludgeon whoever contradicted me; I made it serve my desires and my power."
Ah, yes! Freedom, one of George W. Bush’s favourite words!
“When a war breaks out, people say: "It's too stupid, it can't last long." But though a war may be "too stupid," that doesn't prevent its lasting. “ – Camus
Fear and terror. Politics and war. Democracy and Dictatorship. These arenas illustrate the awful differences between an obfuscator like Bush and a man of real moral clarity, like Camus.
“Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear.” – Camus
Camus was born in the dying days of the French Empire, in a colony that became synonymous with militant Islamic fundamentalism before the World Trade Centre had even been built:
Born November 7th, 1913 in Algeria son of French 'pied-noir' settlers Camus grew up in poverty in the proletarian neighbourhood of Belcourt in Algiers. Camus's mother, Catherine Hélène Sintés, was an illiterate cleaning woman. She came from a family of Spanish origin. Lucien Auguste Camus, his father, was an itinerant agricultural laborer. He died of his wounds in 1914 after the Battle of the Marne - Camus was less than a year old at that time.
In his early twenties, Camus was expelled from the Algerian Communist Party because he supported the nationalist aspirations of down-trodden native Algerians. At the same age, George W. Bush was busy going AWOL from the National Guard.

In his early thirties, Camus wrote and edited Combat, the underground newspaper of the French Resistance in WWII. By this time, Camus was already becoming famous beyond the intellectual classes. At the same age, George W. Bush was busy snorting cocaine and being arrested for DUI.

In his early forties, during the Algerian War of Independence, Camus argued for peaceful coexistence and called for a truce to spare civilians, which both warring sides regarded as foolish. He worked clandestinely for imprisoned Algerians facing the death penalty.
”There will be no lasting peace either in the heart of individuals or in social customs until death is outlawed.” – Camus
At the same age, George W. Bush was just embarking on his political career, helping his father win the US Presidency before successfully running for Governor of Texas. As governor, Bush sent a record 150 prison inmates to their deaths. As President, he has blithely overseen the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans and (more recently) Lebanese.

Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Three years later, he died in a car accident.

Bush is still alive and dangerous, with a further two years to run on his Presidency. He remains surrounded by people with no more intellectual capacity or moral clarity than himself.
“I don't know anybody who has even talked or contemplated the prospect of a nuclear strike in Iran and that would be absolutely absurd." - Tony Blair


“Blair and Bush are now alone in their own theatre of the absurd.” - Alan Simpson, a UK MP.


* * *

Selected quotes from Albert Camus:
There are already too many dead on the field, and we cannot be generous with any but our own blood.

If there is sin against life, it consists… in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.

Don't wait for the last judgment - it takes place every day.

By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.

The modern mind is in complete disarray. Knowledge has stretched itself to the point where neither the world nor our intelligence can find any foot-hold. It is a fact that we are suffering from nihilism.

The myth of unlimited production brings war in its train as inevitably as clouds announce a storm.

The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants.

A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.

A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.

A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.

A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.

After all manner of professors have done their best for us, the place we are to get knowledge is in books. The true university of these days is a collection of books.

After all, every murderer when he kills runs the risk of the most dreadful of deaths, whereas those who kill him risk nothing except promotion.

Alas, after a certain age every man is responsible for his face.

To assert in any case that a man must be absolutely cut off from society because he is absolutely evil amounts to saying that society is absolutely good, and no-one in his right mind will believe this today.

To insure the adoration of a theorem for any length of time, faith is not enough, a police force is needed as well.

Virtue cannot separate itself from reality without becoming a principle of evil.

We call first truths those we discover after all the others.

What the world requires of the Christians is that they should continue to be Christians.

It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.

The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.

We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives...inside ourselves.
UPDATE: Apparently Bush found L'Etranger "a quick read"...
He was reading Richard Carwardine's biography of Abraham Lincoln, another president whose tenure was dominated by a morally difficult war, and who was willing to test the boundaries of presidential power at a time of war.

However, it was another book that offered a more revealing glimpse into the mind of the vacationing president.

He read Albert Camus's The Stranger, triggering a discussion about existentialism with his aides. "He found it an interesting book and a quick read," said Mr Snow. "I don't want to go too deep into it, but we discussed the origins of existentialism."

For a man whose defining philosophy during his tenure has been a policy of pre-emptive action against terror threats, his interest in a philosophy emphasising that meaning is not provided by the natural order but can be created by human action, seems apt.
ePluribus Media has some more thoughtful analysis. Bush may have read the book because both Blair and Olhmert have been calling Iran "an existential threat to Israel". This is actually quite a different meaning for the word "existentialist" (i.e. threatening the existence of) compared to the philosophy of Existentialism (i.e. based on pure existence). ePluribus Media also cites some interesting parallels between Bush and Camus' book which (dare we hope?) could give a glimpse into Bush's future:
1. Fight with Arabs
2. Pre-Emptive Strike; Disproportionate Use of Force: Go to Jail
3. The Trial: The Whole World is Watching
4. A Media Circus
5. His Character on Trial: Betrayed by his intimate friend
6. Exposed in Court as An Apathetic Monster
7. Convicted of Premeditated Murder, Sentenced to Death
8. Time in Prison to Ruminate Over His Life and Actions
9. There Is No God
9.5 Protagonist Comes to Awareness
10. Excited about the day of his execution, he hopes everyone cheers for his death


UPDATE NNN: Why does Maureen Dowd get paid for writing about this in the NYT, when my well-informed take can't even get 500,000+ hits?

UPDATE 200,435 (cubed): Even more here.

3 comments:

Az said...

While I think your own analysis of Camus' philosophy is incorrect, your presentation of the irony of Bush reading Camus was - dare I say - fun. Although I'm surprised no one has brought out the ridiculousness of Bush having anything to do with something so French. Keep up the good work!

gandhi said...

Sorry, but I have to question the "analysis of Camus' philosophy is incorrect" bit...

If you wanna say that, please supply your own interpretation.

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