What I’m reading…

November 25, 2008

Among other things (a book about the hockey stick by a CBC journalist from Calgary), I’ve just started reading the 9/11 Commission’s report, which I’ve had for about 4 years. I’m sorry I put it off so long. It’s clear and detailed, in an excellent narrative style. And already (I’m about 20 pages in) says some important stuff. I’d say it’s a pleasure, if it had another subject.

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“Angler”

November 17, 2008

Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency is Barton Gellman’s examination of, well, the Cheney vice-presidency.  The author, a Pulitzer Prize winner and 20-year Washington Post veteran, examined public record, political and legislative documents, and carried out hundreds of on- and off-the-record interviews with past and current members of the vice president’s office and staff.  Although Cheney himself declined to be interviewed, and Gellman was “on my own to find sources on national security, intelligence, legal issues, and Cheney’s relationship with George Bush…on domestic policy the vice president’s office encouraged former staff members to grant interviews” (396-397).

This is one of the best works of political non-fiction that I’ve read, and I’d recommend it to anyone with any interest.  It’s a reminder of what really excellent journalism can be: detailed, exciting, and, most importantly, balanced. I was worried reading Angler was going to be like reading Scott McClellan’s book; and there is a lot of scary stuff. But while Angler does show Cheney’s willingness to manipulate people, the flow of information, and the political process for his own ends, Gellman demonstrates that this was not necessarily self-interest:

“Cheney had prodigious talents and appetite for work and, above all, force of will. He knew what he wanted. In previous roles – chief of staff, minority whip, defense secretary – he had learned finesse and compromise. After September 11, most of the battles he fought involved core principles on which he was disinclined to look for middle ground…he created the conditions that brought about his defeat.

“Cheney served his country with devotion, at some cost to himself. The stresses of the job did not improve his health. After more than a decade without incident, Cheney suffered eight cardiac events in eight years. He relinquished mllions of dollars in stock options and income forgone. The author found no evidence of self-dealing behaviour in office, involving Halliburton or anything else. There were times when Cheney stretched the truth, times he may have snapped it clean in half, but he was fundamentally honest about his objectives.”  (389).

I don’t think Gellman means to imply that any of this excuses Cheney, or makes him any less dangerous. From the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when Cheney apparently issued orders to shoot down hijacked passenger planes without Bush’s authority (119-127), to his office’s outrageous claims to secrecy in the name of security (138, and throughout), to his claims and motivation about Iraq (216-233), to warrantless wiretapping (242-320), Gellman offers a fully-realized examination of the way in which this vice president extended the purview and power of his office.

The scariest thing about it, though, is that I can’t even say something like, “This is something citizens and members of government must never allow again.” Because the man who was so up front about operating “on the dark side” made sure we never knew in the first place.

Gellman, Barton.  Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.  New York: Penguin. 2008.

Happy Birthday

November 7, 2008

Happy Birthday to Albert Camus and Billy Graham. There’s a weird combination.

Optimism and Pessimism

November 6, 2008

Two last, relevant comments on 1984, writing, politics, humanity, and optimism and pessimism:

“I would never write a pessimistic book. I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” Michael Cunningham

“This is why I say that the individual’s most potent weapon is a stubborn belief in the triumph of common decency. It is a simple belief, but it is not at all naive. It is, in fact, the shrewdest attitude possible. It is the best way to sabotage evil.” Paul Rusesabagina

Rusesabagina’s book (An Ordinary Man) is quite wonderful. It’s obvious that he’s not a writer, and it was only undertaken after the making of the movie Hotel Rwanda. But, in looking over his life and those fateful events of April 1994, he offers a story that’s personal, insightful, horrifying, and, at times, funny (when he says he’s happy to have been played by Don Cheadle, “for he is a fine actor and much better looking than I”). Most of the book is specifically focused on his own experience, although he does venture some broader comments – he suggests Dallaire could have been a worse soldier and a better man, and ignored his orders.

If people are interested in the subject, I’d also recommend: Boubacar Boris Diop’s novel, Murambi, The Book of Bones (translated by Fiona McLaughlin); Dallaire’s book Shake Hands With the Devil; and, one I’m looking to read, Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. I’m sure there are many others. On the broader human tragedy of genocide, Don Cheadle and John Prendergast’s Not On Our Watch and Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide are both important, helpful works.

After a couple weeks of catching up on some magazines, I’ve finally finished 1984.

And I have no idea what to do with it.

It’s absolutely horrifying. It made me incredibly angry.

It becomes, eventually, the story of a man succumbing to the mind- and spirit-crushing forces at work on him. And while I completely understand Orwell’s impulse to show us all the potential terrors of our ways of life and thought, I honestly can’t decide whether 1984‘s bleak ending is any more successful or truthful than the extraordinarily resolved endings I’ve discussed before.

Because, to me, the truth is always somewhere in between.

The next book on my reading list is the autobiography of Paul Rusesabagina, An Ordinary Man (he was the man who inspired the movie Hotel Rwanda). And, 1984 aside, I can’t think of any situation more utterly inhuman than what he lived through. I think the hope that can be found in the midst of that incredible tragedy belies Orwell’s vision, as striking as it is.