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Washington Diarist


One of the most troublesome qualities of reason is that it is not always reasonable. The man of reason is committed to follow only where deliberation leads, but the reasonable man has other commitments. His rationality answers to more than itself. Reasonableness is an acknowledgment of the social setting in which reason, even in its most private exercise, does its work. It introduces into the activity of reason an extrarational consideration--the desire for agreement, the aspiration to consensus. That is why the concept of reasonableness figures conspicuously in law and political philosophy, which are always searching for the grounds of cooperation, for society's grease. Reasonableness is warm and welcoming, as in Prospero's assurance that "the approaching tide will shortly fill the reasonable shores." It is a virtue as much it is a method. Its conclusions must be not only true but also broadly acceptable, and therefore moderate and even practical. But not so reason. It is extreme, even when its conclusions are not. It owes its integrity in part to its insularity, its indifference. That is why tyrants always fear it--because it, too, is sovereign. Reasonableness, by contrast, is the beginning of the end of dissidence. In an unjust society, after all, agreement may be acquiescence, and cooperation may be collaboration. The bad guys are counting on the victory of reasonableness over reason. But the dissident, I mean the genuine one, is the unreasonable man of reason.

Or so he used to be. But the ideal of inflexibility is buckling. It enjoys scant prestige in a technological time, in which the smartest analysis of anything is the analysis of how it works. In the gaming view of life, you do not refuse to play. (The refusal to play is just the dumbest way to lose.) How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Praxis, praxis. But I am being too general. The degradation of dissidence that I have in mind is taking place in China, notwithstanding the many counter-examples of heroism, such as the blogger Hu Jia. Consider the case of Zhang Yimou. Not long ago he was China's great dissident film director. Last week he directed the dazzling fascist spectacle at the opening of the Olympics in Beijing. Raise the red lantern, indeed. They censored him and banned him and did what they could to deprive him of honor abroad, and then they invited him to dine, and he came. "One reality of a rising China," The New York Times reported, "[is that] many leading artists now work with, or at least not against, the ruling Communist Party." A famous Beijing artist explained that "people really are selling their talent in a way that can make them money." As in everything else, China is breaking new ground in the sell-out of high culture. It almost makes you feel a pang of pity for Brezhnev: was the Soviet Union broken only because it was broke? Yet somehow I doubt that Paradjanov could have been bought, or Brodsky, or Sinyavsky, or Bukovsky. The mere mention of their names remoralizes the discussion.

Consider also the case of the Dalai Lama. A few weeks ago he allowed to Nicholas Kristof of his "willingness to deal. ... For the first time, the Dalai Lama is willing to state that he can accept the socialist system in Tibet under Communist Party rule." His Holiness averred that "the main thing is to preserve our culture, to preserve the character of Tibet. ... That is what is most important, not politics." Here I must declare my own shortcoming. I have always found the Dalai Lama, his smiles and his simplicities, risible. His worldly unworldliness makes me cringe. And I have never understood why the restoration of theocracy in Tibet is a proper passion for liberals. Last spring Kristof's column floated an early version of the truce with tyranny: "The Dalai Lama would return to Tibet as a spiritual leader, and Tibetans would be permitted to possess his picture and revere him, while he would unequivocally accept Chinese sovereignty." His picture! This is the stuff of which classical anti-clericalism was rightly made. In my unilluminated state I have been under the impression that the cause of Tibet is the cause of freedom--and not just religious freedom, which is not the only kind of freedom that matters. I cannot restrain the suspicion that what we have here are the consequences for politics of the Buddhist doctrine of equanimity. Zhang Yimou also asserts that "I have no interest in politics." I appreciate the magnitude of the obstacles that stand in the way of freedom in China, but gentlemen, you are fools. Politics is your only hope--for your art, your religion, your country. Your renunciation of politics is precisely Hu Jintao's plan. From political liberty other liberties flow. About this you must, please, be unreasonable.

The fashion in accommodationism may be found here at home, too. I am not referring only to the mad stigmatization of every change of mind as "flip-flopping." Uncompromising is not the same as unthinking, though hypocrisy is more galling when it is preceded by holiness. Barack Obama is tacking--I mean growing intellectually--the way all high-stakes politicians tack. But his statement on the Georgian crisis alarmed me, because it exposed his belief in the plasticity of things. The nice thing about Abkhazia and South Ossetia is that almost nobody knows almost anything about them, so that one's first response reveals not an analysis but an inclination. Obama "condemn[ed] the outbreak of violence in Georgia," as if it happened on its own, and called on Georgia and Russia "to show restraint," as if Georgia should have restrained itself from being invaded, and summoned "all sides [to] enter into direct talks on behalf of stability in Georgia." There was no anger on our friends' behalf: Obama is too fine for outrage. It was the voice of sweet reason, and spoken like an umpire, or an international civil servant. (At least he did not allude to les forces de paix russes.) The larger question is Obama's attitude to conflict. He seems to view it as an aberration, an error, a misunderstanding, and therefore to regard it as an opportunity for arbitration, which is to say, as generally tractable. Diplomacy for him is more than an instrument, it is a mentality. Last winter the Times ran a devastating study of an extended negotiation that Obama conducted as a state senator with a nuclear polluter called Exelon, in which he was outplayed by, well, the assholes and his flexibility came to nothing. No, I am not looking for a Heraclitean tough guy in the White House for whom war is the father and king of all; but a little reason of the unsweet kind would go a long way.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. 

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By Leon Wieseltier