There were hardly any -gates around when I was young. By that, I do not mean the world was a safer or better place (the proverbial “people could leave their doors open at night”), but that the suffix was generally reserved for the most serious scandals. The original -gate – Watergate – busted open a sluice of sleaze that demeaned the White House so severely it helped normalize a distrust of politics (the teleological trickle-down effect of which is Trump). A flurry of good legislation followed Watergate to plug the leakage of belief. The Freedom of Information Act was strengthened and a precedent was set for presidents to release their tax returns. The scandal also led to the axiomatic expression “follow the money” (thanks to the multi-Oscar-winning All the President’s Men). Perhaps most usefully, it provided an urgent and enduring reminder of the need for good investigative journalism to keep the powerful in check; it sent out a powerful message for decades to come that corruption, at even the highest levels of state, could be exposed. Strait indeed was the -gate
Four decades later and there are -gates flapping about all over the place. We have Nipplegate, Monicagate, Climategate, and two Pizzagates (one a disgraceful example of fake news about a paedophile ring within the Democratic Party; the other a humorous reference to banning pineapple toppings on pizzas, something the Icelandic president jokingly said he would do in an interview with a student). There is even a Gategate, for goodness sake, also known as Plebgate or Plodgate; -gates are now begetting their own sub-gates. At this rate the entire dictionary is at risk of being subsumed by scandal. Interestingly, the suffix was deliberately helped to popularity by the serial -gater William Safire, a former New York Times columnist and Nixon speechwriter. Wikipedia lists 20 of Safire’s copious -gates and quotes him as saying: “My best was the encapsulation of a minor scandal as doublebillingsgate”).
What was a useful suffix, locking scandal into a word with an implicit guarantee of authenticity thanks to the diligent Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism behind the original -gate, is now a useless latch that doesn’t catch because it gets attached to anything. -Gates glibly pop up everywhere like convenient little portals into an underlying world of universal corruption and fraud. It props up conspiracies with fallacious legitimacy and contributes to the paranoia and cynicism that has led to a White House administration so unorthodox and controversial that it acts more like a –gated community of cultist billionaires (the chaos they are deliberately cultivating will soon unhinge our rickety little -gate into semantic redundancy). In this distressingly uncertain climate, I feel obliged to float my own coinage of Realitygate…
Before Trump, I didn’t think I could hate a president more than George W. Bush. He didn’t deserve a -gate so much as a drawbridge to dramatize his misdeeds. The mangling of modern political discourse into shameless non-sense began with the axis of evil that was Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld famously said in 2002:
“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
His cryptic comments were widely derided at the time. Martin Amis wrote an epically meandering essay for The Guardian (The age of horrorism) that alluded at length to an abandoned novella about Islamic fundamentalist terrorism called The Unknown Known. Errol Morris later made a documentary about Rumsfeld also called The Unknown Known. Language, it seemed, was unravelling under the Bush administration. No one knew nothing no more. No more of Reagan’s reassuringly velvety diction, or Bush Senior’s sturdy proclamations. Bush Junior was unabashedly folksy and cacological, while Rumsfeld spoke in quasi-philosophical riddles. Were they deliberately deflecting attention from the war in Iraq with their sideshow of gaffes and semantic wrangling? Was it knowingly known or unknowingly unknown? The extraordinary thing is that I now look on Bush and Rumsfeld – two men I passionately loathed for what they did and how they barefacedly lied about it – with something approaching affection. The Bush presidency seems posthumously statesmanlike (“I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully…”), while Rumsfeld is the height of eloquence and epitome of nuance compared with the word dumps of Trump’s jittery twittery (Rumsfeld used to debate the meaning of words with journalists in his fascinating press conferences). Nostalgia for anything better; a great leveller.
The third of three short essays by Jean Baudrillard, published in March 1991 (shortly after the end of the first Gulf War), was titled The Gulf War did not take place. Inevitably, it upset a lot of Americans because they knew the war had taken place, they had seen images of it on CNN (that was the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle). What Baudrillard meant is that the war was not a conventional war; it was won almost entirely through aerial bombardment using laser-guided missiles. The war did not happen inasmuch as it was not a personal experience for Americans but a slickly mediated representation of war (daily press briefings showed aerial footage of reputedly successful strikes). It was a virtual war enabled by superior technology: it all came to a swift and anti-climactic end with minimal casualties (compared to what would happen in Part II). What, I wonder, would Baudrillard have made of the drone program? That takes his theoretical simulacrum to a whole new level of disconnectedness: young, often hot-headed recruits, sit in an air-conditioned trailer in the Nevada desert, remotely controlling a killing machine via a joystick. A grainy image that almost never provides irrefutable proof of identity is their sole source of sensory input with which to make an informed decision about whether or not to blow bad dudes up. In clandestine strikes that only make the news when they go wrong, news that no one cares about, because the Reaper and the American do not coexist.
National Bird, a documentary about the American drone program, is essential but frustrating viewing. It is full, so to speak, of redacted information and legal restrictions preventing interviewees from speaking openly, and the disturbing footage it shows of civilians being accidentally targeted is so unclear it looks more like a live Rorschach test (do I care about these faraway dots or not?).
One of the most heartbreaking scenes is an interview with an Afghan man who lost a leg in a drone strike that killed 23 innocent people (children, women, men). We see hard-to-follow footage of the attack accompanied by a transcript of what was said by the trigger-happy operators (or gamers) before they gave the go-ahead to nearby helicopters to strike. It makes for surreal, horrifying viewing. Your eyes strain to make sense of what is happening down on the ground. Is that black bundle a baby? Are those white blotches white handkerchiefs being waved at the night sky in a frantic sign of submission? The strikingly handsome man who lost his leg in the attack said: “When your leg is torn off and your gait slows, it also burdens your spirit. Sometimes I am so sad that my heart wants to explode.”
Unlike real pilots, who immediately zoom away from the destruction they wreak, drone operators have to pick through the remains of the victims, identifying limbs and other body parts, as they piece together the fuzzy puzzle of the most nebulous war ever fought. Some operators see their victims as “fun-sized terrorists” (“Ever step on ants and never give it another thought?”); the more conscientious among them suffer severe psychological stress as a result of their actions. I recently wrote about accidentally getting struck on the head by a falling object (hammers, bricks, icicles). In Afghanistan, people have to worry – to actually worry – about a missile mistakenly obliterating them as they step out of their adobe mud houses (or mansions) or drive along the wrong road at the wrong time. Drone warfare personifies the disconnect between cause and effect that is surely one of the defining phenomena of our age. We voraciously consume goods and services without giving a thought to where they were sourced or what impact it has on the environment. We slide towards xenophobia and fear of Muslims without knowing anything about the extraordinary degree of American and British interference in the Middle East long before Patriot missiles rained down on Baghdad in 1991. Through apathy and self-obsession, we have contributed to a profound destabilisation of reality – let’s call it the common ground we once shared and occasionally stared at each other across with a vaguely curious look. I do not want to be sensationalist; maybe things like ‘news’ and ‘reality will again revert to their dictionary definitions for the leaders of the world’s superpowers. But at this rate we will all be looking up to see if an eye in the sky is looking down at us.
When I was 18 years old I devoured Mauriac’s The Knot of Vipers (lying on the grass of my local park). After finishing it, I bought a new copy and wrote an inscription in it to my father. I hoped that – just as the bitter old man in the novel belatedly finds redemption – my father would read it and be inspired to become a better person. He never read it (it got filed away under M among his alphabetically arranged books). Many years later I urged him to watch the wonderful About Schmidt (Schmidt says hatefully of his wife: “Who is this old woman who lives in my house?”). Again, my father didn’t take the hint. I love redemption stories because, evidently, they are so rare in reality. How utterly disconcerting, then, to find that the architect-in-chief of the chaos in the Middle East and Afghanistan appears to be… painting his way to redemption.
We first got a glimpse of George W. Bush’s paintings in 2013 when his sister’s email account (among others) was hacked. He took up painting as a hobby after leaving the White House and retiring from politics. The pictures were surprisingly vulnerable and endearingly naïve: Bush’s feet as he takes a bath, Bush’s poodle, Bush in a shower cap (or is that his hair?). It momentarily made you forget the lies, deceit and carnage. It was also encouraging to see that he was spending his free time productively and doing something worthwhile (I’d assumed he’d play golf all day long and smugly clink beers on his veranda with his elite clique of friends; I still recall with a shudder when he praised “Brownie”, the then-director of FEMA, for doing a “heckuva job” during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina).
Several years on, he has released a new book entitled Portraits of Courage, a collection of 98 portraits of maimed war veterans, each one accompanied by a short essay penned by Bush. The paintings are now more than mere curiosities; they display admirable technique, a good eye for composition, a subtle sense of colour. Bush names Lucian Freud as an influence. He appears to genuinely care about the people whose limbs were lost and lives destroyed through his policies and decisions. What the heck is going on? Bush was a known known to me: I knew that I hated him. Now he is an unknown unknown. I always wondered to what extent he was influenced by the far cleverer and more devious Cheney and Rumsfeld. That is something we will never know. But, ahem, sorry, there is some phlegm in my throat, I would allow for an infinitesimal distinction between Bush the Younger and Bush the Older. Perhaps, as many have suggested, Bush is working through his sense of guilt (at least over the American casualties; he will need to produce a proportionately far larger volume for the Iraqi, Afghan and, by that axis, Syrian victims of his ill-advised decision to go to war over a cache of weapons that didn’t exist). In truth, no amount of acrylic will make up for the blood on his hands (an oil well-sized gush, still spilling), including, lest we forget, the record 152 prisoners executed under his governorship of Texas (still standing).
I don’t know anything about anything; I feel it more keenly as I get older. I feel strangely touched when I see Bush the Older but know this is largely because he is preferable to the incumbent president, a man you can say with absolute certainty will never take up painting as a hobby when he is forced into retirement. A floodgate is being prised open which will deluge the world with unknown unknowns. It will rain bricks, it will hail surprise, fifty shades of grey will be my new favourite book. As one old slogan prophesied: “The future’s bright. The future’s orange.”
PS: I never bore people with my dreams but this one is worth mentioning. I’m leaning against the side of a shallow rocky pit when I sense something is wrong. I look up. A tiger is standing over me, its face just above mine. At first it looks at me with what appears to be curiosity. I am excited and terrified. Naturally, there is no point in trying to run. I pray it really is a dream and admire the beauty of this most awe-inspiring of creatures. The tiger’s prolonged stare is confusing: is it morally judging me or deciding if my body would be tasty enough to go to the trouble of killing me? Just as I start thinking it might walk away, it lunges with bared teeth. Cut. My brain, I think, wanted to save me from feeling the pain of the mauling. In the next scene I am badly maimed. My hands and feet are gone, I am all stumps, my body is caked in blood. I decide there is no way I can live in that condition. Cut. I enter a brightly lit bedroom with a beautiful view; I have resolved to kill myself (by overdosing on pills). I decide to have one last, symbolic shot for the road. I knock it back. It tastes so, too good. It makes everything make sense. How on earth can I give up such a pleasure? No, no, I’ll just have to live on as a cripple. Vodka is my elixir, there’s no way I can relinquish it forever. Besides, it’s a nice day outside…