Reflections on an interview I only sort of half watched

Oh, admit it: you didn’t watch the whole thing either. Who would!? Chavez’s blood pressure raising hour-long tussle with the BBC’s Stephen Sackur never risked showing us anything we didn’t already know. In a long series of evasions, ad hominem attacks, and sheer question begging tomfoolery, Hugo Chavez merely confirmed what we already know: that this guy just ain’t cut out for the cut-and-thrust of democratic debate.

For my money, the only thing that was really interesting about this interview is how rare it is: Chavez almost never gives this kind of access to interviewers, especially in terms of allowing them to ask follow-up questions. Rarity breeds interest.

But just think how sad it is that the only hint of accountability we get, the only time we can actually see our leader pressed for answers on the affairs of the body politic, is when Chavez’s adviser’s blunder badly and allow an independent journalist access to the guy.

But, in the end, this isn’t real accountability. This is just a cheap facsimile thereof.

Real accountability is about more than people in power being questioned, even repeatedly. It requires those in power accept the legitimacy of being questioned. Real accountability demands that those in power inwardly accept that it is their duty to provide actual answers to the questions they face, answers that connect logically to the questions posed to them. It requires, in other words, a certain disposition of mind, a particular type of understanding about the proper role of leaders in democratic life.

And that implies a certain humility: an acceptance that other people may see things differently from the way you see them not out of evil intentions, not because they are complicit in a malevolent plot to overthrow you, but simply as an unavoidable consequence of human freedom, of separate intelligences acting on the world independently of one another.

It’s that predisposition toward intersubjectivity that’s the key, that willingness to accept that you are you and I am me, and you see the world from your point of view and I see the world from my point of view and those points of view can be different without one being necessarily wrong and the other right. That’s the thing that makes the difference between two people trading words in succession and two people communicating.

Without that predisposition, there can be no democratic accountability. Before it can act as a system of institutions, democracy needs to be a habit of mind.

Trouble is, Chavez manifestly does not share the habits of mind that make accountability possible. When he subjects himself to close questioning what we get is not accountability but rather a curiosity, a kind of circus side-show. Which explains the odd feeling you have watching that Sackur interview that what you’re seeing is just off-kilter somehow. Not quite right.

There’s a reason the interview felt like that, and it’s that, deep down, Hugo Chavez does not accept that questioning his power is a legitimate thing to do.

That’s why – and we see this time and time again in the BBC interview as well as in every other interview he’s ever given – Chavez appears congenitally unable to answer a question in its own terms, to engage with it, to wrestle with the logic implicit in its formulation. Instead, any question that betrays even a hint of ideological heterodoxy – let alone the open hostility shown by Sackur – is treated as evidence of the questioner’s guilt, and is treated as a chance to launch a vicious personal attack against him, his employers, or whomever Chavez identifies is responsible for the line of questioning.

Why does it go this way, time and again? The key, I think, is to understand Chavez as an Auto-Manichaean.

While a garden variety Manichaean divides the world between good and evil, an Auto-Manichaean divides the reality neatly between himself and evil.

To an Auto-Manichaean, other people, countries, media organizations, Hollywood celebrities, Argentine football coaches, etc. can be assimilated into the category of the good only to the extent that they subjugate their wills to his. Others can reflect his goodness (by proving themselves entirely and uniformly submissive to him) but they can’t be good in themselves.

Why? Because to recognize another as good would be to recognize good in the Other. And that the Auto-Manichaean cannot do: the equation of otherness with evil is the center of the Auto-Manichaean’s understanding of the world. 

My point is simply that within this deeply disturbed psychology, no communicative action can take place.

You have to see these things from the Auto-Manichaean’s point of view. As far as he can tell, in that meta-cosmic confrontation pitting him (and those who agree to make themselves an extension of his will) against pure, unadulterated evil, the only useful piece of information he needs about any other person, country, media organization, Hollywood celebrity, or Argentine football coach, is whether they accept his authority completely and unquestioningly. The answer to that question, alone, will determine their worth, and his response.

Questioning an Auto-Manichaean, as Sackur tried to do, may produce words, perhaps even words spoken in succession, but it cannot produce communication. The two are not the same thing.

My sense is that anyone who has spent any time analyzing Venezuela in the  Chavez era already knows all of this. I imagine the interview will have come as a bit of a shock to those who haven’t. 

Among those who pay only intermittent attention, one struggles to see how any but an insignificant rump of Soviet era nostalgics, die hard fidelista holdouts, and other assorted ideological detritus from the Cold War could have seen anything but the mind of a dictator at work in that interview. The time has long passed when anyone with genuine democratic sensibilities could buy the snake oil.

There was a time when I might have counted this interview as a good result, but that time is past. I really don’t think there are very many genuine "persuadables" out there in the realm of international public opinion anymore: worldwide, the authoritarian left will continue to rally to Chavez while the other 98% of the world’s politically engaged people will continue to be in equal measures amused at his buffoonery and appalled by his authoritarianism.

And, tomorrow, the world will spin on its axis exactly one time.