One of the things I appreciate John for to this day is explaining exactly why children's literature like J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series really are pretty harmless, in comparison to actual ritual magic. John also had enough empathy to understand why well-meaning parents might be anxious.
All Uranium, All the Time
If you believe the prestige media in the US, the public has been talking about little else for the last ten days except the line in the president's State of the Union Speech alleging Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa. The media consensus is that this claim has been resoundingly discredited, and to such effect that the Bush Administration's credibility has become the issue for next year's presidential election. The New York Times covered the matter at length inside the paper this morning, but limited itself to a few telling paragrpahs on the frontpage:
Democratic presidential candidates offered a near-unified assault on President Bush's credibility in the Iraq war, aggressively invoking arguments that most had shunned since the fall of Baghdad
In interviews, town-hall meetings and television appearances, several Democrats -- who had been sharply divided over whether to go to war -- declared that Mr. Bush's credibility had been harmed because of his use of unsubstantiated evidence in supporting the invasion of Iraq.
"When the president's own statements are called into question," Senator John Edwards said, "it's a very serious matter."
No doubt that's true, but the question is: serious for whom? It's possible that I misunderstand the situation, but the Democrat's use of the missing-WMDs as a political issue conjures up an image of a June bug about to have a decisive encounter with a car's windshield.
We know there was early intelligence that some of the evidence about African uranium was forged. However, the British secret services are sticking to the substance of the story. They know about the forgeries, too, as well as about the desultory efforts by the State Department to investigate the question. They are audibly unimpressed.
On the general issue of WMDs, reports began to appear two weeks ago, like this comment from Senator Pat Roberts, to the effect that, yes, hard evidence of weapons programs had indeed been discovered. The Administration is just being cautious about verifying it. Even then, could the Administration be cynical enough to sit on the information until publication will have the maximum political effect? Perish the thought.
Perhaps the credibility issue could be revived with the narrow argument that George Bush and Tony Blair gave their publics the impression that Iraq had large, existing stocks of WMDs, not just the ability to produce them. However, this would lead to awkward interviews, in which presidential candidates would have to explain why a secret, illegal weapons-industry is less threatening than the weapons themselves.
We can expect more discussion of a Medicare drug-benefit, I suspect.
* * *
As a great fan of G. K. Chesterton on several counts, I am quite capable of taking what he has written as a reproach. Consider these words about the Boer War from his Autobiography (1936), and contrast them to my own writings about the place of the Iraq War in macrohistory:
What I hated about it was what a good many people liked about it. It was such a very cheerful war. I hated its confidence, its congratulatory anticipations, its optimism of the Stock Exchange. I hated its vile assurance of victory. It was regarded by many as an automatic process like the operation of a natural law; and I have always hated that sort of heathen notion of natural law.
I think I can say that I never assumed that victory in Iraq was inevitable, but I am reasonably sure that the larger historical process is inevitable. In fact, I have spent the last year or two trying to get clear in my mind why that process need not be a tragedy. (Let me thank those who have been buying The Perfection of the West, by the way.) The fact is that the kind of "natural law" which Chesterton hated rather appeals to me. Does that make me a bad guy in the Chestertonian universe?
Perhaps not. Chesterton's aversion to historical determinism seems to have been linked to his intuitive appreciation of the necessity of free will. Later in his Autobiography he put it this way:
It was the secularists who drove me to theological ethics, by themselves destroying any sane or rational possibility of secular ethics. I might have been a secularist, so long as it meant that I could be merely responsible to secular society. It was the Determinist who told me, at the top of his lungs, that I could not be responsible at all.
History is not completely determined; neither are the lives of individuals. However, we must remember that history conditions the choices we have to make. We don't get to choose the crises we are going to have to deal with, much less the options we will have for dealing with them. And when we do choose, even the most fateful choice will have limited effect. As Gandalf put it in the Last Debate:
Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of these years wherein we are set, uprooting evil in the fields we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.
Now that's a foreign policy for you.
* * *
The New York Times Book Review has given better few notices than the long, adulatory piece it ran yesterday for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Frankly, the Potter series is not among those I make a point of keeping up with, but that review by John Leonard made me want to rush out and pry this installment from the hands of a small, protesting child; but I restrained myself.
There is a problem: the review simply dismissed the objection that the book promotes witchcraft. A reasoned defense of the Potter books is not hard to make in this regard. Leonard himself notes the essentially literary nature of:
Rowling's specialized, somehow domesticated magic, like the whereabouts clock, or the mail-delivering owls, or subjects who abandon their own painted portraits to visit or hide in other people's picture frames, or wizard wands with unicorn hairs and phoenix feathers and dragon heartstrings, or staircases that decide to go up to somewhere else on different days of the week, or getting around by portkey and Floo Powder, or a ''pensieve'' into which to deposit those thoughts and feelings and memories we'd rather not carry around in our heads right now, or the whole idea of Quidditch.
This isn't magic, though maybe it is magic realism. Real magic, to the extent there is such a thing, looks like this. The Potter books do not promote witchcraft, but that is no reason to characterize anxious parents as "Leviticus-reading fruitcakes."
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly