Academic journal article Policy Review

The Scapegoats among Us

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Scapegoats among Us

Article excerpt

IF THERE'S ONE all-purpose concept bestriding the Zeitgeist these days, "denial" has to be it. Conventionally defined as "the refusal to acknowledge painful realities, thoughts, or feelings," the term has long since migrated from psychology into politics, where its explanatory power in one case after another appears practically talismanic.

To cite examples from fall 2006 alone, Karl Rove and other Republican strategists were repeatedly charged with "denial" for their rosy assessments of mid-term election prospects; Senator George Allen stood accused of being in "denial" about his (Jewish) ethnic background; conservatives in the wake of the Mark Foley scandal were said to be in "denial" about the influence of gays in the Republican party, even as Foley himself was said to be in "denial" about his sexuality; and numerous books and articles marking the fifth anniversary of 9/11 argued for hanging the scarlet D variously on former President Clinton (for failing to kill Bin Laden), Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (for failing to take the threat of Bin Laden seriously enough), and various other members of the Bush administration, including the president himself. Finally, as if to confirm denial's standing as the it-word of our time, came Bob Woodward's bestselling book about the Iraq war, State of Denial (Simon and Schuster). Its thesis--that Bush and his Cabinet had purposefully, if not perhaps always consciously, misled Americans and even themselves by refusing to acknowledge the severity of the problems in Iraq--resonated not only in the reflexive anti-Bush media venues that repeatedly showcased it, but also with other Americans increasingly skeptical about the war.

Political particulars aside, the ubiquity of that word "denial" is worth pausing over. It connotes that we live in an era of unreality, perhaps even sur-reality, in which what is said in public is at odds with what is true--a shortfall invoked now more or less constantly as a feature of political discussion. And so to the obvious question: Why do so many Americans apparently share the sense that we are all being misled, one way and another, about political reality--and not only about reality in Iraq, but about politics more generally?

I believe the answer to that question is the obvious one: because in some deep sense, it is true. This is not meant to affirm that every current charge of "denial" now circulating is a valid one. It's rather to suggest that the sheer volume of such charges reflects a deeper, underlying truth about the untethering of some current political ideas from firm reality. This is the deeper territory that the ubiquity of that term "denial" invites us to plumb.

One way to begin is to survey the main intellectual and political currents since 9/11, which investigation yields a fact both unexpected and significant. As it turns out, a flight from political reality has indeed been underway on both the left and the right in America in the years since that event, as well as accelerating into more advanced forms in much of Europe. To switch metaphors, in the wake of the 9/11 attack--and later, related Islamist attacks on civilians, most notably in Spain and Britain--many Western observers have responded not by absorbing what we now know to be true about our world, but rather by transposing those brute facts into other, safer, more familiar keys.

One result of that transposition, the record shows, has been the creation of a world of political scapegoats for the unease and anxiety that are the unwanted companions now of Westerners everywhere. These scapegoats, perverse non-explanations for what really ails us, can be identified by features common to the breed everywhere: The passion invested in them by their antagonists is disproportionate to any real problem the scapegoat represents; they are invoked to explain more about the world than they do; they capture some part of the truth, i.e., have a degree of verisimilitude without which a scapegoat cannot exist; and--also like scapegoats everywhere--they pose no threat of retaliation for their overburdening. …

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