T.S. Eliot famously said, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality."
It was a notion that as an English major I smugly agreed with until I heard my friend Bill Sweetland say, "Fuck T.S. Eliot." Because how exactly did Eliot think himself uniquely worthy of making such a statement about people he never met.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni criticized President Obama yesterday for saying things like this:
"If you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart."
"The world has always been messy."
"We don't have a strategy yet" for dealing with Islamic extremists in Syria.
"America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything."
Bruni acknowledges those statements are all true. "But that doesn't make it the right message for the world's lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate," Bruni writes.
Why not? Because, I guess, Bruni seems to believe that world stability relies upon a lie, that the world is ruled by an omniscient Sherrif Andy Taylor who, in time, will know and solve everything.
And maybe world order does rely on that lie. But a lie, it surely is. And I think President Obama's instinct is to try to breathe max reality (as he sees it) into the public conversation geopolitics. I've written before about my essential agreement with Obama's communication instincts.
I'm not sure he's doing the right thing here. Sometimes I do think his intellectual, academic side—which I don't despise, but rather admire—speaks when his inner Tony Soprano ought to be in charge.
But I do understand why he's saying these kinds of things: out of at least a theoretical respect for me and you, and the belief that we can indeed bear very much reality—that we already fucking do bear very much reality, no matter what the President says. And that the mere uttering of reality won't make the world like a bubble burst, all at once and nothing first.
Who does President Obama think he is, trying his mad experiments when the stakes are so high? How can he depart from the Guaranteed Geopolitical Best Practices that brought you Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq and North Korea, all while Russia and China, at intervals, murderously repressed billions of their citizens behind an Iron Curtain and a Great Wall?
He can, because he's the President of the United States, the current Guesser in Chief. That's who.
And what if we learn as a result of the professor's plain talk that the President of the United States can publicly throw up his hands every once in awhile? What if it turns out that when the president does that in some situations, other countries suddenly find a way to step up themselves to a dictatorial douche like Putin. Well, then President Obama will have made a contribution to honesty in geopolitics, and he'll have added a sane caveat or two to our current Paternal Desperation Policy of Pretending We Really Do Control Everything (Oh Fuck, Who Drank All the Scotch?).
And if President Obama is wrong? Well, he can retire and take up watercolor painting, like the rest of us do when we have tried and failed.
Meanwhile, what does ISIS think, aside from being irritated that President Obama keeps calling them ISIL?
They know damn well that the very first chance he gets, he's going to wipe their ass out, no matter what he tells the world.