Monday, October 16, 2006

Nicholas Lemann on "Paranoid Style"

Nicholas Lemann's piece in this week's New Yorker discusses recent documentary films about Iraq (especially Why We Fight, Uncovered, and Hijacking Catastrophe) against a backdrop of what historian Richard Hofstadter once called the paranoid style in American politics.

There's an odd tension in the piece that arises from Lemann's standards of evidence. I wonder what would persuade him at this point that neoconservatives and certain corporate interests helped push this administration toward a disastrous policy in Iraq. He suggests that the films should choose whether the neoconservatives or the corporations pushed the war. (To conclude that both groups did so is to risk incongruency.)

But then he says that the bigger problem with these films is that the political world is "not so neatly explicable"; sometimes tragedy can be traced not to malignancy but to "people screwing up." Here he suggests that the films are pursuing a false precision that disallows the possibility of profound tragedy. But if malignancy and human error can blend to create bad outcomes, why not neoconservative ideology and corporate interests? Come to think of it, why can't all four things cooperate to create those bad outcomes?

There are other tensions as well. For example, he worries that documentaries don't lend themselves to clear, rational argumentation but instead depend on associative leaps and logical shortcuts. He acknowledges that there's already "a substantial shelf of well-documented books covering the same sort of subject matter," but he still wants to see the films as paranoid, not just popular versions of the more replete and analytical books on the same subject. Hey, I like books, and I wish more people read them--or at least bought them! But I also know most people prefer a 90-minute film to a shelf of serious books.

And here's where I go philosophical. If we substitute "poems" for "documentaries," we have a rehearsal of Plato's decision to banish poets from his ideal Republic because they weren't truthful and logical enough. The real problem for Plato, of course, was that more people listened to poets than to philosophers because it was easier and more fun. Could it be that Plato was a little paranoid himself?

I know there are lots of kooky theories and films out there, but I've seen a couple of these documentaries and thought they were pretty good.


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