I can’t help but wonder what John le Carré might have written about the Trump golpe de Estado of 6 January. Le Carré passed away the month before, on 12 December 2020. A contemporary and prolific British writer, he had a knack for telling a story with a moral, if that isn’t too quaint a word, though I suspect a good part of his audience was more attentive to the thrill of his subject matter–spies, treachery, and all manner of intrigue. In commemoration of his death, DemocracyNow! ran an interview le Carré had given ten years earlier, in 2010. In that interview, he tells the program’s co-hosts he feels well and wants to retreat and dedicate whatever time is left to him to write.
Asked to read a passage from Our Kind of Traitor, published that same year, le Carré obliges, describing the novel’s main character, Perry. At the age of thirty, poor Perry is an academic in crisis, shattered by the question he asks his undergraduate audience:
“Would Orwell have believed it possible that the same overfed voices which had haunted him in the 1930s, the same crippling incompetence, addiction to foreign wars and assumptions of entitlement, were happily in place in 2009?”
Perry’s interest in Orwell evokes not only Orwell’s opposition to fascism in the 1930s but also Orwell’s arguments about the relationship between fascism and a particular (mis)use of language, a key concern of le Carré’s.
For Orwell, clarity of expression carries a moral weight, reflecting our willingness to see the world and to respond judiciously. His jeremiad against euphemism in “Politics and the English Language” bears remembering. Imperialism, purges, deportations, and atom bombs are all defensible, he tells us, “but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties.” Euphemism blocks us from seeing the brutality of our actions. It makes the brutality of others easy to rationalize. It makes lying, to ourselves and others, a matter of easy habit, like a terrible coat we don in an act of self-preservation and forgetting.
Latinate “phraseology” allows people who should and do know better the ability “to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” In 1946 Orwell offers these examples:
“Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine−gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.”
Now, Seventy-five years later, we can offer our own examples of the (mis)use of language: “collateral damage,” “shock and awe,” “surgical strikes,” “peacekeeping,” “detainees,” “detention center,” “drawdown,” “black site.” The point of such phrases is to keep us from seeing the shredded bodies of old women and children; how war has become peace; how prisoners of war have become defiled corpses; how habeus corpus has been suspended.
Le Carré expresses regret to his interviewers. He should have taken up The Guardian’s offer to interview Tony Blair. In retrospect, he would have asked the prime minister two questions, the first about how Blair evokes God publicly as the basis for his decisions, and then refuses to answer questions about the role of faith in his decisions because God is, well, a private matter of the soul and conscience. In le Carre’s words, Blair “reports that his actions have been put before God and confirmed, as if somehow God has signed a chit for him.” In my own, “God,” “faith,” “born again”–these have become cards in a game of Three-card Monte played against an audience that wants to believe.
The second question he would pose to the prime minister hearkens to Orwell’s abhorrence of language that keeps understanding (“mental pictures”) at bay. “Have you ever seen what happens when a grenade goes off in a school?” le Carré imagines asking. “Do you really know what you’re doing when you order shock and awe? Are you prepared to kneel beside a dying soldier and tell him why he went to Iraq, or why he went to any war?”
I look up from the transcript of le Carré’s interview and notice the television screen. Fareed Zacharia is interviewing Colin Powell, the same man who, in 2003, in his role as US Secretary of State, sat before the members of the United Nations, a small vial between thumb and forefinger, the prop that gave his argument in favor of invading Iraq all the “evidence” and solemnity it needed. One of the many government officials who lied about Saddam Hussein’s access to weapons of mass destruction, who falsely evoked the threat of a nuclear holocaust, who made the indefensible invasion of Iraq appear defensible for both Bush and Blair, is arguing that Trump’s lies are sui generis, one of a kind, something never before seen in US politics.
As if it were a scribble on a scrap of paper, Powell’s lie has gone down the “memory hole,” the abyss into which inconvenient historical facts are disappeared in Orwell’s novel, 1984. And as if the lie isn’t disturbing enough, there is also the matter of the intelligent, experienced journalist who does not challenge him.
To understand why consider le Carré’s comment on “spin doctors” and their ability to lie: “I worry terribly that the absence of serious critical argument is going to produce a new kind of fanaticism, the new simplicities that are as dangerous as the ones which caused us to march against Iraq and as misunderstood.” Of course, mendacious spin doctors can be defeated, but only by acute critical arguments, and we don’t seem to have much of that, so we are left with the riotous, deadly fanatics of 6 January and mindless slogans such as “Stop the Steal.”
The absence of “serious critical argument” and the tendency to prefer dangerous “simplicities” go hand in hand with corporations and their emphasis on profit over people. Not coincidentally, the trajectory of le Carre’s work shifts after the end of the Cold War, from spies to corporate power, from government to private corporations. Reflecting on the meaning of “corporate power,” le Carré describes how that power separates an individual from what is “instinctual,” and how “[all that’s decent about] humanity seems to be set aside the moment they walk through the corporate doors.” Who you are gets left behind once you cross that threshold, and who you are is the mystery of the human heart and the story.
Le Carré is very clear that “if [a story] doesn’t entertain, there’s no point in the message.” He is also clear about his dislike for “entertaining escapism.” He prefers “entertaining involvement.” The narrative arcs of his stories are determined by his dogged pursuit of his characters. “It always seems to me that the excitement of people is the possibilities of their character–who are you? We don’t know each other, but I could imagine you could be this person, you could be that person. And in my book, you’re that person.”
He eschews “flow charts,” preferring to throw two characters in a “muddle” and then allow them to struggle, following them wherever they go. What the character believes determines the character’s reaction to conflict.
Both Le Carré and Orwell can help us come to terms with the attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Both would insist that what happened on 6 January has a much broader political context, one that extends back for decades. Both would point out how social media and television news reportage fail miserably at offering context, which is often equated with being “in the weeds” or “granular,” involving the sort of tedious detail that would appeal only to an expert. The overall picture is much faster, easier to grasp, and so much more entertaining, an argument Neil Postman makes brilliantly in Amusing Ourselves: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Details require concentration, the willingness to follow a thread of actions and reactions, to sift through the logic, and to check that logic against “the professed aims of political parties.”
“Post-truth is pre-fascism,” writes Yale historian Timothy Snyder, “and Trump has been our post-truth president.” Snyder warns us not to give emotion the same weight as facts; not to love flash over substance because “[w]ithout agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions.” This is the point at which we find ourselves, and it seems to me the cure is fiction of a different sort—stories such as le Carré’s that reveal the society we live in, how we fail ourselves, and how we fail one another.
How can you write a story that entertains and reveals something about the world around us? Do you follow your characters? Do you let them guide you?
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