A Lack of Balance

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Gouzenko on my mind: Hard to believe a body could already miss the Cold War, but I found it rustling my memory like a nostalgic breeze this week, when George W. Bush announced his new security doctrine.I mean what can you say (to paraphrase Eric Segal) about a conflict that was over seventy years old and it died? That it was connected to ideas and social visions that people could argue about, in stripped-down, propagandized ways to be sure.

That it had some relation to the structures and history of modernity. That it brought the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe often but did not slide over. That it offered a little bargaining leverage for the smaller players in the developing world, to create some improvement in the lives of their compatriots.

The new U.S. version of the world, on the other hand, is not so much premodern as ahistoric. Its premise that (American) might is right may sound 19th century, but back then there were competing powers. The U.S. version is based on it being the sole power, which is more in the realm of myth, where one god or monarch reigns alone. (This will surely not continue, even if the U.S. spends more on its military than all others combined.)

As for ideas, there are none, beyond a notion that “we are biggest, and also best; take it or get smushed.” Maybe they could translate it into Latin and lose the e pluribus unum.

Canada’s unique place in the Cold War (sigh) was defined by Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa who defected in 1945 with papers exposing a spy ring trying to get atomic secrets. This then became a major pretext for the West’s breaking its wartime alliance with the Soviets and embarking on the Cold War.

I don’t mean to deny serious elements in the affair but, in true Canadian fashion, it had a satiric, comedic quality. Gouzenko and his family spent several days wandering around Ottawa begging for protection and being turned away, even by the prime minister.

Eventually, Ottawa police took him in. Subsequently, he took to making public appearances with a ridiculous sack on his head, which is how people recall him. I wrote a TV drama involving him years ago in which the very funny Saul Rubinek played the part.

This summer, Heritage Minister Sheila Copps named the Gouzenko defection an “event of National Historic Significance,” along with Stephen Avenue in Calgary, marking the early urbanization of the Prairies, and the Reindeer Trek of 1908 in Newfoundland. Ah, Canada. Ah, Cold War.

Ditto for Reagan: Even Ronald Reagan is starting to look good, by comparison. He at least had some political views, and experience on which to base them: first in Hollywood’s left-right wars of the 1940s and ’50s; then shilling for General Electric and capitalism generally (“Progress is our most important product”); then as California’s right-wing governor in an era of leftish ferment. His fans defend him as a “simple man,” implying he wasn’t too smart or informed, but the point is, he had a political core of his own.

You can’t say that for George W. Bush, who became president after a failed congressional race and an undistinguished stretch as Texas governor, certainly nothing to help him think about September 11 — making him dependent on others who had a developed politics: Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, etc.

You could see it in his ashen, lost quality that day, as journalists have described it. He gradually learned the words and motions they taught him; his manner was halting at first but, by this week, especially in campaign contexts, he’d gone hyper, his movements herky-jerky, the volume higher, his eyes a bit fevered. As if he’d learned it well enough to speed everything up, but it still lacked a core in him.

Or as if the strings had been cut because he could now do it by rote but lacked any ability to improvise or create; he can only magnify what’s already there. I think I preferred the zombier version of September 11. It felt more human.

Sept. 11 as performance art: British artist-controversialist Damien Hirst, who called September 11 “a work of art” and “visually stunning,” has had to apologize, not a good career move for an enfant terrible.

Surely he never meant to deny it was a hideous atrocity, but to say it also had, beyond the shock at loss of life, an immense dramatic and symbolic impact. In fact, this could help resolve some of the confusion around understanding the event, between those who say it was one more awful act in a world full of terror and those who say it was unique.

You don’t have to choose. It was both, in different ways. Of course, Damien Hirst meant “art” metaphorically, not literally; he might even have said performance art, with its relation to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. A National Post article increased the muddle by drawing in the controversy over literal works of art about the event, like Eric Fischl’s Tumbling Woman. It’s what often happens when you try to clear things up.

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