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Frozen Scandal

1.

I thought, “My God, she’s not going to get away with this.” But you have got away with it….
—Gethsemane
1

Scandal is our growth industry. Revelation of wrongdoing leads not to definitive investigation, punishment, and expiation but to more scandal. Permanent scandal. Frozen scandal. The weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist. The torture of detainees who remain forever detained. The firing of prosecutors which is forever investigated. These and other frozen scandals metastasize, ramify, self-replicate, clogging the cable news shows and the blogosphere and the bookstores. The titillating story that never ends, the pundit gabfest that never ceases, the gift that never stops giving: what is indestructible, irresolvable, unexpiatable is too valuable not to be made into a source of profit. Scandal, unpurged and unresolved, transcends political reality to become commercial fact.

We remember, many of us, a different time. However cynically we look to our political past, it is there that we find our political Eden: Vietnam and its domestic denouement, Watergate—the climax of a different time of scandal that ended a war and brought down a president. In retrospect those events unfold with the clear logic of utopian dream. First, revelation: intrepid journalists exposing the gaudy, interlocking crimes of the Nixon administration. Then, investigation: not just by the press—for that was but precursor, the necessary condition—but by Congress and the courts. Investigation, that is, by the polity, working through its institutions to construct a story of grim truth that citizens can in common accept. And finally expiation: the handing down of sentences, the politicians in shackles led off to jail, the orgy of public repentance. The exorcism of shame, the purging of the political system, and the return to a state, however imperfect, of societal grace.

It is a myth, of course, but a lovely one. It relies on images of power, the press, and the people that fit our collective longing—for justice, for heroism, and for ultimate goodness residing in a people who, once alerted to wrongdoing, insist on its rectification. The obstacle to this natural self-cleansing of our political life can only be the people’s ignorance. For if they know, and the corruption and scandals persist—well, how can the people be good? No, what must be missing then—so the myth implies—is clarity, revelation. What is missing is the gatekeepers of our ignorance whose duty it is to draw the curtain back from scandal and show the people everything, thereby starting the polity on the road to inexorable justice. Information is all. Information, together with the people’s natural sense of the good and the right, leads to expiation and society’s inevitable cleansing.

However tenaciously the mythmakers of our society—and especially journalists, who are after all the stars of this idealized drama—cling to this happy scenario, recent history has not been kind to it. For it rests on an image of journalists and journalism that has become, to put it charitably, outdated. Journalists as the self-abnegating seekers after truth, defenders of society’s conscience: had this happy description ever been true, even during Watergate, it now bears little resemblance to the scandal-mongering world of cable news shows and gabfests, for which scandal, the gaudier the better, provides the vast and complicated narratives that are the lifeblood of the twenty-four-hour news cycles. As the first Persian Gulf War begot CNN so did Monica Lewinsky’s pouty lips beget Fox News.

Scandals, the more complicated and richer the plotlines the better, have above all to endure. Scandals provide the fodder for on-air confrontation, the verbal slash and parry—which is what television, a terrible medium for conveying information of any complexity, does best, and does most cheaply. Scandals provide subplots and minor characters and spin-offs. They offer, to the post-Watergate, high-profile, well-coiffed, colleague-of-the-powerful journalist hero of today—could anything be further from the deeply irreverent working stiff cracking wise in Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940)?—the true venue for the highest practice of his art, the television studio.

That art relies on, or anyway thrives on, scandal. Scandal denotes success. Scandal shows he is doing his job. Scandal means pay dirt. And scandal represents that media-age dream, the perpetual story. Scandal can be rehashed, debated, photographed, from initial leak, to perp walk, to hearing, to trial, to appeal. Scandal offers an endless stream of what the business is after all supposed to be about: news. As in: what is new. Scandal brings the heart-pumping, breath-gulping surge of stop-the-presses excitement, letting us know that into our fallen world the Gods of Great Events have finally come down from on high to intervene. Scandal represents movement, the audible cracking of the ice. And yet it is all an illusion, for beneath the rapidly moving train of gaudily hyped “breaking news,” beneath all the grave and breathless stand-ups before the inevitable pillars of public buildings, beneath the swirling, gyrating phantasmagoria of scandal lies a kind of dystopian stasis. Everything changes and nothing does.

2.

Something’s wrong…. Something’s deeply wrong. I can’t say if your government is the symptom, or if it’s the fucking problem. Whichever it is, it’s ugly….
—Gethsemane

It is not information, it is politics. If we have learned anything this past decade it is that “the people,” that vaunted repository of public good—“the people always find out”—the people are willing and able to live with quite a lot. They read, watch television, grunt a pox on all their houses, and turn back to their dinners. Thanks to the efficiency of our age of scandal we now know as never before what the public is willing to live with. “Now you have shown independence, commendable independence,” Barack Obama said to John McCain in the third debate, “on some key issues—torture, for example.” Torture has metamorphosed, these past few years, from an execrable war crime to a “key issue.” From something forbidden by international treaty and condemned by domestic law to…something to be debated. Something one can stand on either side of. Something we can live with.

The story of how this happened is long and elaborate but one thing is clear: it has not happened for lack of revelation. The Abu Ghraib scandal broke in the spring of 2004. The images of Hooded Man, Leashed Man, Man Menaced by Dog—all quickly became “iconic,” the stuff of end-of-the-year news tableaux and faded murals on the walls of minor cities in the Middle East. This first and last occasion when torture became vivid, fertile scandal—when torture emerged, thanks to the photographs, as that most valuable of products: televisual scandal—came and went in the spring and summer of 2004, leaving a harvest of rapidly aging images and leaked documents. Those documents—many hundreds of pages, which told in great and precise detail the story of how United States officials, from the President on down, came in the wake of the September 11 attacks to order Americans to torture—were quickly published by journalists and writers, myself included, who no doubt expected that the investigative committees, the televised hearings, and the prison sentences would quickly follow.2

In the event, the investigations did come, a dozen or more of them, and their very proliferation was the means by which the story was converted from shocking crime into perpetual news, then minor story, and then, at last, “key issue.” But for a handful of hapless soldiers—the smallest of small fish —there were no real prosecutions, no images of high officials in handcuffs. The leakers, who had risked their careers to make the documents public, must have been profoundly disappointed. For it was they, as it happened, who had committed one of the era’s signal crimes: unguarded idealism. At Guantánamo, at the “dark sites,” at various venues around the world, known and unknown, torture continued, even as it was studied and passed by due legislative oversight into the law of the land. Only the courts seemed, intermittently, to have a different idea. And all the while the torture story was well reported, mostly in the newspapers—for after that initial rush of photographs, which quickly became cliché, there followed nothing juicy enough to raise the story to the golden level of the televisual—and it continued to be reported even as it made its way through the complicated and mysterious transformational process by which a war crime becomes a “key issue.”

All the while, it must be said, the public, that repository of right, showed relatively little interest. Neither, following the lead of their constituents, did the politicians. John Kerry, running for president in the immediate wake of Abu Ghraib—and perhaps remembering his own unrecompensed temerity in calling attention, as a young returning vet, to war crimes in Vietnam—hardly mentioned it. (In this sense Barack Obama’s acknowledging of the “key issue,” however offhand, represents a distinct advance.)

Indeed, one might argue that the most visible effect America’s use of official torture had on the public consciousness during this era was the smashing success of the Fox television series 24, each episode of which, in its heyday, was juiced with at least one and frequently many instances of lurid, explicit, and government-sponsored torture, during which heroic super-agent Jack Bauer, acting to save the country from imminent disaster, does what needs to be done. My personal favorite is the scene in which the President orders his National Security Agency director, whom he suspects of disloyalty, to be tortured by his chief Secret Service agent in the White House basement, using (note the American can-do spirit of this) a handy defibrillator, while the commander in chief watches the proceedings on closed-circuit television hookup. Perhaps this enthusiasm should not surprise us: we have known at least since the success of Clint Eastwood’s iconic Dirty Harry (1971) about the reassuring effect on the public of the image of untrammeled power. But Harry was a rogue cop, raging against “the system” of the early Seventies; Jack Bauer, as we are endlessly reminded, works directly for the President.

3.

That’s why, these days, it’s so interesting being a politician. Sorry, but you have to trust us. You have no choice.
—Gethsemane

What notes on scandal could be complete without mention of the presiding master-scandal of our age, The War. One uses capitals to denote not a set of discrete events—a set of particular people being cut down or blown apart by particular violent actions at particular times—but a state of mind. Threat becomes not only a political shield but what is in the end much more dangerous: a source of bottomless self-justification. What is dangerous is not only that our leaders have endlessly maintained that they are right but that they believe they are. George Bush, as he declared to the world in a proudly emphatic phrase, had been reborn as a “war president.”

George Orwell has long since surveyed this ground, most famously in 1984, in his perpetual war between Eastasia, Eurasia, and Oceania, a never-ending, shape-shifting struggle that,

if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture. It is like the battles between certain ruminant animals whose horns are set at such an angle that they are incapable of hurting one another. But though it is unreal it is not meaningless…. It helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs.

Wars are immensely valuable to those who sit atop “hierarchical societies” because they supply an overarching rationale for power and its expansion while choking off questions, not least by increasingly limiting the information on which those questions must be based. The War on Terror, of course, has been far from bloodless, embodying itself in at least two “real” wars—one of which, in Afghanistan, was launched to respond directly to attack; the other, in Iraq, to achieve less specific, more grandiose goals—as well as in a great number of secret operations of varying ambition carried out “on the dark side.” Still, unbounded as it is in space and time, serving as it has as a handy and near-inexhaustible rationale for accruing centralized power, the War on Terror has approached as close as we have yet come in reality to Orwell’s imagined perpetual war, accruing to those in control the increased power that comes with war but without the endless costs. Or it would have, had the war not brought in its train its own frozen scandal.

4.

There’s a general sense of weirdness—wars which last for ever and are going nowhere, and policies which are nothing but rhetoric… they bear no relation to the facts….
—Gethsemane

How will history choose to explain a war launched in the cause of ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist? It is a tantalizing question. Will the Iraq War take its place as a historical curiosity, alongside the Guano War of the nineteenth nentury or the Soccer War of the twentieth? And how interested will our descendants be in the response of our democratic polity: the investigations that, like dinosaurs slowly rousing themselves from the mudhole, ever so slowly got under way and then, after years of lumbering effort—hundreds of hours of testimony, thousands of documents examined—finally discovered…what? In the end, there was, alas, no “smoking gun.”

Another legacy of Watergate, that image, made for a simpler time, when as devious a man as Richard Nixon could insouciantly tape-record every word he uttered. In our own less happy day, we can pore over the ever so explicit Downing Street Memo and scores of similar documents leaked fast and furiously from within the bureaucracy but find them, according to the rules of the scandal game, all too large and obvious to be taken to mean what to any normal person they precisely do mean, which is that those in power—wanting war, not diplomacy, and working hard to “wrong-foot Saddam” into war, as the Downing Street memoranda make explicitly clear—lied us into war. And now they have got us a war that has managed to be at once unnecessary and unending.

Of course the Law of the Smoking Gun tells us that this case, however evident the truth of it is to all, can never (failing the discovery of a tape recording in which the American president or the British prime minister can be heard chortling demonically about the grand charade they are about to perpetrate on their respective publics) be taken as definitively proved. The Law of Frozen Scandal means the case must remain forever open. Forever “alleged.” Fodder still for a thousand investigative reports and a thousand revelations that reveal only what is already known. Can you not hear the wheels of scandal spinning? It is the music of our age.

  1. 1

    David Hare’s new play, opening at the National Theatre, London, in November. This piece is adapted from the essay in its program.

  2. 2

    See Mark Danner, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (New York Review Books, 2004). See also, for a more compendious collection, The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, edited by Karen J. Greenberg et al. (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

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