Something on Political Theatre (finally)

I share an insight with Christopher Lasch. Of course he thought of it almost thirty years ago, but I did think of it on my own before I read this now much quoted passage in his Culture of Narcissism:

Success in our society has to be ratified by publicity… all politics becomes a form of spectacle. It is well known that Madison Avenue packages politicians and markets them as if they were cereals or deodorants; but the art of public relations penetrates more deeply into political life… The modern prince [an apt turn of phrase for the current member of the Bush political dynasty] … confuses successful completion of the task at hand with the impression he makes or hopes to make on others. Thus American officials blundered into the war in Vietnam… More concerned with the
trappings than with the reality of power, they convinced themselves that failure to intervene would damage American ‘credibility…’ [They] fret about their ability to rise to crisis, to project an image of decisiveness, to give a convincing performance of executive power… Public relations and propaganda have exalted the image and the pseudo-event.

The point of the passage was to observe that America in the 1970s had so lost perspective on itself and its material interests that we could only define positive and negative through the perceptions of others. In other words, we did not conduct foreign policy to acheive any stated ends–we didn’t seem able to decide what those ends should be–we conducted foreign policy to maintain a elusive thing called “credibility.”

When politicians and administrators have no other aim than to sell their leadership to the public, they deprive themselves of intelligible standards by which to define the goals of specific policies or to evaluate success or failure. It was because prestige and credibility had become the only measure of effectiveness that American policy in Vietnam could be conducted without regard to the strategic importance of Vietnam or the political situation in that country. Since there were no clearly defined objectives in view, it was not even possible to say how defeat or victory was to be recognized, except that American prestige must not suffer as a result. The object of American policy in Vietnam was defined from the outset as the preservation of American credibility. This consideration, which amounted to an obsession, repeatedly overrode such elementary principles of statecraft as avoidance of excessive risks, assessment of the likelihood of success and failure, and the calculation of the strategic and political consequences of defeat.

(Christopher Lasch, Culture of Narcissism, 146-47, Warner, 1979.)

In the absense of material interests to pursue, we strived mightily to give the appearance of a country that would act decisively to protect its interests.

The war in Vietnam dragged out for years because Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon could not bring themselves to do what they finally did anyway: cut Vietnam loose and cut our losses. Kissinger and Nixon found it difficulkt to do this because they felt it would be a grave sacrifice to our “credibility,” our reputation for fulfilling our commitments even when they are stupidly undertaken.

I’ve often thought of the Kissinger line on credibility as the “barricaded house” approach to foreign policy–it makes the United States sound kind of like one of life’s losers, who has taken hostages and barricaded himself in somewhere, carrying out his idiotic threats because, though he’s a loser and a practitioner of senseless violence on innocents, he is a man of his word.

more later



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