Eliot Weinberger is a New York editor, translator (most notably of Octavio Paz’s poetry), anthologist, essayist, and throwback to the day when American literary intellectuals more regularly spoke their political views in print. Most of the essays collected in What Happened Here first appeared in European and Asian publications and on the Internet. This book and Weinberger’s recent essay published in the London Review of Books, “What I Heard About Iraq in 2005,” brings his intelligent dissent home where it might do some good.
In the early essays, Weinberger gives an eyewitness report of life in Manhattan’s West Village on and immediately after September 11. He revisits New York “One Year After” and then “Sixteen Months After” the fall of the Twin Towers. His stance is that of “one person who reads the newspapers,” a version of the man in the street. He pays readers the compliment of imagining that they’re as baffled and angered by what they read as he is. His prose is clean and precise, and he delivers his opinions in calm, measured tones. He’s outraged by the coup d’état that, he’s convinced, criminal manipulation of the presidential vote in Florida and the Rehnquist Supreme Court staged for George W. Bush, but he’s not bombastic. It’s as if he sought to be heard by lowering his voice so that it flies under the radar with which we protect ourselves from the professional blowhards who pass on news and opinion these days.
By accepting what he reads as fact and organizing them in simple, elegant forms, Weinberger raises obvious questions and subtler ones as well. In “What I Heard About Iraq,” he begins each sentence with “I heard.” The result is a document of Bush government words and deeds that any attentive newspaper reader might have come across. “I heard Donald Rumsfield say: ‘I don’t believe anyone that I know in the administration ever said that Iraq had nuclear weapons.’ ” What is there to think but that Rumsfield, speaking from the power of his Defense Department podium, is lying? If challenged, which will not happen in the forums Rumsfield controls, the Secretary might demand that his challenger come up with one such statement. I don’t have one on the tip of my tongue, and neither does Weinberger, but we know that Rumsfield is lying. We know, as Weinberger shows, because his heap of quotations demonstrates that Rumsfield and others in the Bush administration lie consistently. This is hardly news.
What are we to do about it? Here Weinberger’s deadpan recitation of what he heard chills. We are an audience, talked to, lectured, and hectored like miscreant children by stern parents. We hear but are not asked, not consulted, and the assumption is that we must be reminded that we are powerless, that father and mother know best. Weinberger is aware that there is a Catch-22 hilarity about our position. You will laugh out loud when reading this book, laugh at the gall of Rumsfield, Rice, Bush, and Cheney and laugh too to think that they cannot hear and see themselves as others do.