"Have we forgotten how beautiful it is to be on fire for justice?"

No matter the country, our foreign policy seems to make the same mistake over and over. What's behind this pattern?

Published October 31, 2014 5:43PM (EDT)

"Novelists write the secret histories of nations.” I am not sure who made this bull’s eye remark. But I cite it even without attribution because it has been much on my mind of late. For one thing, so much of the history we now make is buried that unearthing it becomes the project, and for this we need writers other than the usual opinion-page hacks. They, indeed, are typically among those doing the burying.

For another, there is the related problem of monotony, and this I will explain.

After a time, any foreign affairs columnist is bound to find a certain nonsensical consistency in the work. Every question taken up—China, Syria, Ukraine, Latin America, name it—is altogether different and altogether the same. One watches American policy people make identical mistakes in every case. Make that “tragic mistakes,” for the innately destructive character of American foreign policy is, post-September 11, far beyond denial now—the unclothed emperor our tethered media insist on honoring.

If consistency is the mark of dull minds, we are forced to conclude that those populating our foreign policy cliques are in the last row of class. “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them,” Einstein famously observed. It is a pithy point, and it has been the problem since Teddy Roosevelt invented reasons to attack the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898, so launching us into the pockmarked “American century.”

Why is this? We cannot assume stupidity—that would lead in the very most misleading direction. “The same level of thinking” is what we have to consider as 2014, an unusually messy year, draws gradually to its close.

So it is not a question of mere policy, in my view. And policy is not the true topic of these columns. The subject taken up in this space is closer to “ourselves among others,” a deeper and larger question. As a correspondent in Asia years ago, I sometimes wrote of “Japaneseness” or “Chineseness.” O.K., if we want to argue for a more constructive foreign policy, one that does humanity some good for a change, we have to think about the “Americanness” of our consciousness—what cast of mind causes us to conduct ourselves abroad as we do. Policy is nothing more than a reflection of this consciousness.

This is not to be got at in any kind of “news analysis.” Almost all pieces in this mode offer the glancing dressed up as the penetrating. As a correspondent and now a columnist, I have often found it useful to travel to other realms—to the space of novelists, for instance. And there is one writing now who gets at the consciousness leading us from disaster to disaster better than any pen-for-hire pundit.

In fairness, Peter Dimock is trained as an historian and is keenly current in the scholarship. But at bottom he is an artist of the kind who changes minds and lives.  (In transparency, I knew Dimock professionally and personally, connections long lost and not germane here.)

Critics of policy, no matter how immediately they address their subject, can learn from writers such as this. In a single sentence, Dimock gives us the tools we need to do the necessary unearthing.

His output is slim, two brief novels so far, and difficult as one adjusts to being in the presence of an original mind. “A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family” came out in 1998; “George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time” was out last year. Consider Dimock’s birth, in 1950: This is a man nearly drowned, like so many others of us, in Cold War consciousness. These books, fair to say, are rich records of his struggle to find breathable air.

Briefly, then:

“A Short Rhetoric” is written as a letter from one Jarlath Lanham to his nephew and another younger man who could be his son, although this is not clear. Lanham is your classic New England WASP, the well-born offspring of a man who served as a national security adviser during the Vietnam War and was the author of memoranda that were key justifications of the escalation of American aggression in Indochina.

Right away, the question is our imperial legacy. Lanham’s letter accompanies a bequest of $1million and explains that he hopes his two charges will use it to escape their families—implicitly their inheritance, the legacy. In Lanham’s analysis, this requires two things, and these, indeed, are what we need, now, to answer this legacy as we have it and build something beyond it.

One is language, clear words—the rhetoric of the title. Lanham goes into numerous of rhetoric’s formal devices—apostrophe, repetition, brevity, and so on—and makes generous reference to Catullus in the Latin writer’s phase of questioning Caesar from exile: “Was it for this that you went to open up the western lands? Was it for this that you disturbed the world and created ruin?” Lanham’s intent, he explains, is “to make it possible for all three of us to hold events in memory so that we are able to speak directly concerning ourselves and others in the perfected pleasure of the burning air.”

That last passage is a taste of how Dimock puts literate writing in the service of our public life and shared politics. One of his virtues as a novelist is that he is never out of touch with either.

Unsullied language, immune from all intimidation, must be learned, dredged from the polluted swamp of orthodox discourse, Lanham tells his young relatives—and Dimock tells us. This is essential to escape generations of willful obscuring, to address honestly what we Americans have done in “our” century, and this language will be spoken into the air set afire by all our incendiary calamities.

Maybe the second part of Dimock’s theme is evident by now. This is the notion of history as essential equipment for anyone intent on countering the prevailing culture. It would be hard to overstate this case. Without a command of the history that is unsayable, let’s call it, one can summon little strength; endurance is unlikely.

“Invent some public speech with which to make the presence of the dead visible,” Lanham urges, “some other history, some practical method by which to be able to speak capably concerning those things which law and custom have assigned to the uses of citizenship and to secure, as far as it is possible to do so, the agreement of your listeners.”

I wonder if readers find this kind of passage, of which there are many, as moving as I do. True enough, Dimock hits me in the head, heart and gut all at once in part because of my profession. But he also lands squarely because I am one week older than he is so far as I recall, lived the Cold War grotesquerie more or less congruently, and because I count myself, maybe as he does, an ordinary American with the responsibilities this brings with it.

“George Anderson,” the more recent book, is 160 pages that took 15 years to write and may be a more confident, less exploratory rendering of Dimock’s themes. “I have been convinced for a long time that Americans lack a language adequate to the history we are living,” Dimock writes. The remark comes in an endnote but could just as well have made a preface.

This book is also in the form of a letter—no surprise, given Dimock’s concern with how Americans address one another. Theo Fales begins his long epistle, “In the vision I had two years ago I came to the end of myself and found other people standing there—and knew that the present was a gift of time in which to sing a true history of equal historical selves.”

Sheer beauty, in my view: I died to who I was supposed to be, became who I am and discovered others had done the same. Then I understood: You waste no more time and begin with a true understanding of who you are, why and who you are among others.

This book has an immediacy almost all readers can recognize. Fales addresses an old Harvard classmate, David Kallen, who is a classically ambivalent figure. In 2004, Bush II had him write a legal memorandum defining the status of torture techniques. Remember all that just after the September 11 attacks?

Kallen wrote the memo, but only after he submitted himself to waterboarding. With that experience, he declared torture illegal. But when White House legal hacks—John Yoo and that mob—inserted a footnote nullifying the finding, Kallen signed the document anyway—so legalizing the “enhanced interrogation techniques” for which Bush II is justly infamous.

Apart from the fictional Theo Fales, this is drawn from life. Kallen is a take on Daniel Levin, who indeed wrote the memo, indeed had the waterboarding, and indeed signed the adulterated document. The footnote, Footnote 8, is there in the real document, which is reproduced at the end of the narrative. Clearly, Dimock wants Fales to talk to us even more directly than Jarlath Lanham did.

“How do we devise a method for living the present moment within a frame of redemptive, universal history?” Fales asks. In other words, how do we establish a truth about America that is cleansed of the narrative of the exceptionalists and in line with what the rest of the world knows to be so?

Fales’s answer to this most essential question is a series of carefully designed mental calisthenics intended as a kind of purge—my word, not Dimock’s. There are 32 of these and they begin this way:

First Day’s Exercise: Choose some master narrative by which to live other than our present complacent fairy tale of destined consumer’s empire.”

Fales chose the story of a former slave named George Anderson—hence our title—who survived well into the 20th century in Trenton, New Jersey, where as an old man he related to the local paper (and thus the record) the story of a whipping he was forced to witness a slave boy of 12.

This column is not lit crit. I leave it to interested readers to discover the splendid complexities of Dimock’s work, wherein care worthy of Joyce is taken with every detail. There is not a syllable in either book without a purpose.

I am probably making use of these novels in a way Dimock never intended, but so be it. I find three things of use in these books for those looking for another kind of American foreign policy.

One, Dimock identifies two essential tools. Just as diplomats and policy planners speak of “tools”—negotiation, sanctions, subversion and so on—critics of the cliques have theirs. We now see what these are language and history, and anyone purporting to address the consciousness that produces America’s countless mistakes and crimes requires at least a modest mastery of both.

Two, we find in a writer such as Dimock the makings of a sustaining literature, an intellectual and even aesthetic foundation, the first stones of what can be built—will be—into the very narrative these novels express his longing for. We are nourished, at last. Think of it this way: Novels are implicitly an address to a certain community, and Dimock identifies the one more Americans than are officially counted belong to.

And last, I take the books to be exemplary of a need. Writers and all others can take a lesson here. To live purely in the posture of opposition ends up parching the spirit—it is too bleak, too bitter and cannot be made the whole of the project. The project also consists in those among us who can creating things of grace and beauty in the name all that is worthy of them. In a remarkable speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco earlier this month, Cornel West asked, “Have we forgotten how beautiful it is to be on fire for justice?” It goes straight to my point, and I imagine Peter Dimock’s.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

MORE FROM Patrick L. Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cornel West Foreign Policy Peter Dimock September 11 Torture