The Breakfast Table

John Ashcroft: the Real American Taliban

Hey, buddy.

You know, when I wrote you that Dickens was more relevant than ever, or whatever it was, I was just being sardonic; I need an emoticon that gives a smirk—that or the ability to make my tone clear. But then I began to think; at one point when all the Enron news was breaking I’d thought about writing a piece about Mr. Merdle in Little Dorrit, the financier who runs this pyramid scheme that finally goes belly-up and in which several of the characters have invested. (There’s a similar scam in Martin Chuzzlewit, the Anglo-Bengalee life insurance company.) And you do continue to see real-life Dickens characters—Martha Stewart, Donald Rumsfeld, Joe Lieberman, W. and Poppy—and some of them even come equipped with Dickens names, like Bob Barr or Jerry Falwell or Al Sharpton.

How Dickens would hate what’s going on now—not that he didn’t hate what was going on then. I’m circling around to what you said about theocrats and theological intoxication: Bin Laden and the Taliban wouldn’t have interested him much (too one-note even for Dickens), but he would’ve savored John Ashcroft, who strikes me as the real American Taliban. (As somebody—wish to hell I could think who—has recently said, there’s something that makes more-than-political sense about Ashcroft’s obsession with the pathetic John Walker Lindh.) Dickens would hate the flag stuff, the United We Stand stuff, the under-God stuff, the rituals of American civil religion, the encroachments of that old-time religion. Of course Dickens would also hate the Muslims—he was a racist and xenophobe who also, in Dorrit’s Mr. Meagles, did a lovely send-up of xenophobia—but that’s another issue.

Irony may be what you and I are fighting for—by the way, what time are we meeting on the rifle range this Sunday?—but it’s hardly what the Bushies are fighting for. This stuff about how the furriners “hate our freedom” (as W. puts it) or (as Susan Sontag puts it in today’s Times) “oppose[s] most of what I cherish: democracy, pluralism, secularism, the equality of the sexes, beardless men, dancing (all kinds), skimpy clothing and, well, fun.” Except for the stuff about beards, isn’t this the Ashcroft agenda? Yes, the Islamist crazies are the enemies of sex, fun, and irony, but in this country they haven’t got around to dealing with that yet. They didn’t fly planes into the HOLLYWOOD sign, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Disney World. Sept. 11 was an attack on empire: economic power (the WTC), military power (the Pentagon), and political power (presumably the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was heading for the White House or the Capitol) and not specifically on the culture that such power enables and protects. This is where my head starts to hurt: I’m not a huge fan of big biz, the military, and the government myself. And that my freedom to smirk at them should be protected by locked-and-loaded weaponry and financed by corporate mega-entitites … well, irony lives, huh?