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Washington Diarist: Platon's Cave

I am as worldly as the next dreamer, but the scales fell from my eyes, the same ones that keep finding their way back to my eyes, when I opened The New Yorker a few weeks ago and found, in a portfolio of “portraits of power,” Mussolini’s full-page face piggishly staring at me in chicly lurid detail, the very emblem of brutality made aesthetically acceptable. And when I turned the page there was Franco, in full generalissimo kit gazing coldly forward, every hair on his heartless mustache uncannily vivid in a miracle of photographic verisimilitude. Is nobody any longer beyond the pale? Is moral judgment now bad form? Is repugnance a thing of the past? I’m lying, of course. Neither Mussolini nor Franco appeared in The New Yorker’s exciting feature. But Ahmadinejad, Mugabe, Chávez, and Qaddafi did. They were shot--sorry, I’m dreaming again--they were photographed by Platon at the United Nations in September, where, according to an unsigned editor’s note, he set up a little studio not far from the General Assembly. “For months, members of the magazine’s staff had been writing letters to various governments and embassies”--imagine some of those letters!--“but the project was a five-day-long improvisation, with Platon doing his best to lure the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chávez, and Muammar Qaddafi to his camera.” I guess Omar Al Bashir was out of town. The photographer made things worse with an unbelievable audio account of the adventure. “To get Chávez was a big, big deal,” he exulted. And “Ahmadinejad is, believe it or not, a very childlike man. He’s short, shorter than me, I think. He giggles like a little boy. I didn’t want to paint a caricature of him: tough and mean. I wanted to show this irony that there’s an innocence about his eyes. So that’s what this picture is about.” Actually, that’s not what this picture is about. It is a perfectly familiar photo that conveys, in unfascinating close-up, only the sitter’s trademark smirk. The picture is about the art of the get, and nothing more. The editor’s note compares Platon’s project to Avedon--and alludes to Velázquez, like any undergraduate discussion of portraits of power--but these pictures display none of Avedon’s revelations, or interpretations, in portraiture. Avedon’s distortions were at least the evidence of a temperament; but there is no temperament in Platon’s people, there is just a pushy frontality and a phony intimacy, as if you capture a person when you capture his pores. These pictures are exercises in a stylized neutrality, a willful indifference to everything we know about their subjects. There is not “an innocence” about Ahmadinejad’s eyes, or ears, or nose. He is, in his every detail, guilty. He represses his society and subjugates its women and shoots its young people and steals its elections and threatens to incinerate another country. Fuck his giggle.

What these silly sanitizations really capture is the American moment, the Obama coolness. Fareed Zakaria, the black-tie barometer, recently praised Obama as “the anti-Churchill.” Now that’s a contemporary compliment! We have become too smart and too sensitive for indignation. We regard the hatred of evil, even the talk of evil, as a preparation for war. We are beyond good and evil and we are beyond zero sum. To be sure, hatred is not quite an analysis; but still a word must be said on its behalf. Hatred may be a sign that something has been properly understood. If you do not hate racism, then you do not understand what it is. If you do not hate Ahmadinejad, then you do not understand who he is. In Washington, however, indignation is scorned as impractical. It is the business of the government of our state, after all, to do business with the governments of other states; and we do not choose who governs other states. We have objectives that we cannot achieve on our own. We cannot prevent the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, for example, without the cooperation of the Iranians. For this reason, we have elected to deny democratization a prominent place in our Iran policy. This, we are told, is the responsible thing to do. But what if one believes that it cannot be done? There is nothing, certainly, in the history of the ayatollahs’ diplomacy that suggests an inclination to compromise, or to honesty. What if one holds that the only reliable way to guarantee that Iran will not threaten its region with weapons of mass destruction is the establishment of a legitimate and decent and rational government in Tehran that will not make such a threat? If this is what one believes, and there are plentiful grounds for such a view, then it is the suppression of indignation, the refusal to side--to engage!--in strong and sophisticated ways with the democracy movement, that is impractical. Sometimes I hear that such arguments and passions--such “brickbats”--are fine “on the outside,” but the president cannot afford them, because he has problems to solve. This is exactly backward. It is the president who has the authority to educate the American people in the purposes of our policy, and it is the president who has the power to make those purposes historically consequential. This, I think, was the education of Bosnia; and we are witnessing the disappearance of the Bosnian education from the making of American foreign policy.

In an interesting volume called Civil Resistance and Power Politics, edited by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash, I am startled to find among the case studies of non-violent revolution a chapter on the Iranian revolution of 1978–1979. It is described as “an outstanding case of a revolution through civil disobedience.” The author, Ervand Abrahamian, declares that Khomeini’s uprising “would have won the admiration of ... Rosa Luxemburg and even Mahatma Gandhi.” Khomeini himself, we are instructed, “was consistent in shunning violence.” This I have never seen before: Gandhi, King, Havel, Walesa, Khomeini. Not a mention by the progressive professor of the mass savageries, the shootings and the burnings, that attended the seizure of power and its aftermath. This revolution that “‘came’ from below rather than was ‘made’ from above” was in fact quite a bloodbath. The essay concludes, not surprisingly, with the reassurance that the opposition to the theocracy will call “not for the overthrow of the Islamic republic but for its democratization.” This is apologetics. Are they not the same thing? Anyway, those words have already been refuted in the streets of Tehran. You see? Sometimes it is the absence of hatred that addles the mind.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

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