The Breakfast Table

The Appeal of Yes

Dear Michael,

I think the question underlying all our “answers,” and the questions you are really asking, is that the events of the day that actually surface—the ICC, WorldCom, political malfeasance—are subtext to what is really going on, most of which we cannot and will not ever know. I am not a subscriber to conspiracy theories. In fact, my first response to nearly everything—much to my chagrin—is a strange cocktail of naiveté (because I want to believe) and skepticism (because I almost never do). Not that politicians—Powell in this case—always seek power in order to line their pockets, but power means many things, and political office is just one of them. I think about the jet on the Albany, N.Y., runway in 1991 waiting with engines running to take Mario Cuomo to New Hampshire to declare his candidacy, only to have Cuomo never board—what specifically, and intuitively, about the presidency, and its power, did he reject? What about himself did he think he’d compromise? I do not pretend to understand the pressures of political office—which is one of the many reasons I cannot condemn Clinton for his personal (and boring) transgressions (why do we really care?)—but I do understand and believe that power brings with it an opportunity for generosity and resistance. Most of us, given multiple chances to say yes to, shall we say, “self-improvements,” just can’t say no—which is a shame, because there is more power in saying no than in saying yes yes yes. It’s just a hard thing to remember when “yes” can feel so damn good. (Though, as I said earlier, none of us ever thinks we will get caught.)

But back to subtext and surface. Two stories this morning struck me. The John Walker Lindh “confession” (read: plea agreement), and the New York Times piece about spiraling and unabated bedlam in the Congo. Lindh reminds me of some of the Kosovo Liberation Army thugs I met in Kosovo, teen-age malcontents who were bored, who don’t really hate anyone (Serb, Muslim, or otherwise) or anything except their own boredom, their own self-aggrandizing fiction-history, who, when given a shiny uniform and gun, earned themselves an “add-water-and-mix” identity and focus. War basically gave them something to do. And a KLA leader I spoke to in Djakove, where I spent much of my time, admitted as much. I don’t know a thing about Lindh’s personal life, except that he sounds like he got better start-up material than most kids I see on America’s streets. He reminds me of Patty Hearst—lost, rebellious, rejectionist, self-pitying, delusional, and desperate for something to believe in, desperate for something to do. His rotten luck that he ended up in the eye of the biggest shit-storm, and possibly the single most defining moment, in recent world history. Lindh is interesting for about 90 seconds—until you realize who and what he really is—a symbol of nothing. His story, and the time we waste on it, is just a way to appease our sense of “getting to the bottom” of 9/11, while in reality we do nothing of the kind.

And now Congo, where no less than five African nations (plus assorted mercenaries) are playing out a vile chess match at the expense of the already-ravaged and the ever-more-diseased. Like the Taliban, like Noriega, Mobutu Sese Seko was once Our Man, a Graham Greenian tyrant who became boring and expendable when the Iron Curtain fell. The U.S. government abandoned Congo (then Zaire), just as it did Afghanistan, and the result is much the same. Only in Congo there are, so far, an incomprehensible 2 million dead. (In neighboring Rwanda, the Clinton administration navel-gazed and dithered about the definition of genocide while 1 million were hacked to  pieces.) The question is, what is really going on in Congo? Is this “civil war” really about ideology or national sovereignty (almost nothing going on in Africa is)? Or is it a diamond-gold-copper-tin-cobalt rush? Or is it something even more malevolent? Forget conspiracy, Michael. The screenwriters in us do not need to make this stuff up. The French, English, Belgian, and American governments have always treated that part of the world as a remote chessboard. I think it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it, that what we read in the papers is, as we say in our other profession, the “B-story.” To put it another way, why is it that the very first order of actual business conducted in Afghanistan after things calmed and Karzai got his grip, was the signing of an oil pipeline contract among Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan?

Maybe the only place on earth where ideology is practical, warranted, and used—where what you see is unfortunately exactly what you get—is the bitter, unforgiving, and insoluble Middle East. But that’s your terrain, Michael. You were in Beirut during its ugliest days. You tell me.

Your friend,