Burning Down the House

An essay of Charles Baxter's resurfaces appropriately close to election time to remind voters of the passively political use of deniability and the making of mistakes.

Book Digest It is not beyond reason to assert that the small segment of humanity devoted to the written word can be further divided into those who find reading as an escape or departure from the real day-to-day world and those for whom it is, in part, a lens with which to view the festivities.

Somewhere in one of his books, Christopher Hitchens makes a point of expounding on the origin of the word "idiot," which he asserts was the term in the Greek city-state of Athens, assigned to those who were disinterested in civil affairs--unengaged citizens, if you will. For reasons I should think are obvious, the state of the nation inescapably pervades the public ether and causes one to wonder about citizens in this great nation who fail to vote in political elections. (I haven't checked but is it possible that more people vote on American Idol?)

Naturally, as all right-thinking Americans, I am looking to lay blame for the shameful turn from acceptable hardball politics (as it always was) to the current smash-mouth style favored by the self-righteous Right of our divided polity. I nominate Richard Nixon, who among other things brought West Coast advertising apparatchiks like Erlichman and Haldeman into his '68 campaign and then into the White House. You grasped that, yes? Advertising executives in the highest reaches of government. A few years ago Charles Baxter, another of our greatly underappreciated American writers, produced a very engaging collection of essays entitled Burning Down the House, which contained "Dysfunctional Narratives, Or 'Mistakes Were Made.'"

Baxter lucidly opines:
The greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years may have been the author of RN, not in his writing but in his public character. He is the inventor, for our purposes and for our time, of the concept of deniability. Deniability is the almost complete disavowal of intention in relation to bad consequences. This is a made-up word, and it reeks of the landfill-scented landscape of lawyers and litigation and high school. Following Richard Nixon in influence on recent fiction would be two runners-up, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
Their administrations put the passive voice, politically, on the rhetorical map. In their efforts to acquire deniability on the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran, their administrations managed to achieve considerable notoriety for self-righteousness, public befuddlement about facts, forgetfulness under oath, and constant disavowals of political error and criminality, culminating in the quasi-confessional, passive voice-mode sentence, "Mistakes were made."

Well, to make an obvious point, they create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading. Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling.

And that is not the worst of it, is it?
blog comments powered by Disqus