Politics Then and Now

The nefarious British. What subsequent damages can not be laid at their feet? It was they, after all, who re-armed the surrendered Japanese soldiers in Indochina at the close of World War II to fight Ho Chi Minh, who had helped the allies defeat the Japanese in the first place.

I’ve always had a fascination, though, for T. E. Lawrence, one of the truly great Britons—and not only because of the name-based taunts I got in grade school when Lawrence of Arabia was filling theaters. I even used a well-known quote of his as the epigram for my science fiction trilogy, and I’d be lying if I pretended that Seven Pillars of Wisdom didn’t contribute to the shaping of my own fictional vision. Now I’m reading an outstanding new book by Scott Anderson: Lawrence in Arabia. It deals not only with Lawrence but with several of his contemporaries—also machinating in the desert in World War I—and the tragicomedy of deceit, incompetence, and hubris that shaped the middle east for the ensuing century. The British diplomats promised the same real estate to the Arabs and the Jews while simultaneously planning to share it out with the French and, to a lesser extent, the Russians. The Russians were still Czarists, then, so it was all right. However, they became communists before that war was over, so they had to be cut out of the deal.

In that war, the politicians quibbled, schemed, and plotted while millions—millions—were consigned to the flames. Governments sacrificed their generations in their pursuit of imperial ambition.

Sound familiar?

So our own congress—though the immediate consequences are less horrific—plays craps with the nation’s wellbeing through that selfsame level of deceit, incompetence, and hubris. John Boehner, apparently unwilling to chance a rebellion from the tea-party Republicans, would sacrifice the country to preserve his job. The tea-party Republicans—self-avowed libertarians—take their paychecks from the taxpayers while they work to dismantle government and do away with taxes.

Do these people actually believe the sewage that spills from their mouths? Or have we become so much a culture of soundbyte and tagline that thought and dialogue have ceased to matter entirely? If a line polls well, say it. If you say it often enough and loud enough it will become true. Truth is not an objective reality but a reflection of numerical acceptance, a construct of the human mind.

Orwell understood that. He wrote a book about it. He was British, too. Dichotomy is a wondrous thing.

After World War I, the British drew the map of modern-day Iraq, where no actual nation existed before. Most of a century later, they were in on the invasion—carried out for a cause that turned out not to exist.

George Orwell—and T. E. Lawrence, for that matter—were capable of looking ahead and considering the possible consequences of decisions made. Is there in fact some prohibition against elected officials exhibiting the same trait? Is it a disqualifying condition to public service?

Shortsightedness, if not actually a virtue, has certainly become a mainstay of American politics. Or maybe I’m being overly harsh: maybe it’s just a human trait, perpetuated through the centuries. Because look at the British. They botched the management of the American Revolution, the administration of India, and the strategy of World War I magnificently—not only in hindsight but in the view of learned contemporaries. And they’re still around, aren’t they?

Maybe failure is the new success.