I never had a chance to hear Mort Sahl perform until my wife and I moved to Los Angeles in the Eighties. By that time his Kennedy-era wit had long gone out of fashion; but there was still a sharp edge to just about everything he said. I particularly remember his conjuring up an image of Charlton Heston stretched out in his hammock behind his house in Topanga Canyon “dreaming of military takeover.” Then, allowing only the slightest pause, Sahl hit his punch line, “Son of a bitch doesn’t realize it has already happened.”
That memory came to mind while reading Howard W. French’s “Looking for Hope in Burma” in the latest issue of The New York Review. The primary book being reviewed by French is Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant by Benedict Rogers. Burma is such a closed society that I was more than a little surprised that French managed to get both into and out of the country, let alone conduct a series of interviews (all conditioned on the anonymity of his subjects) about the future of the country after the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. If anyone was qualified to review a new 256-page book about Than Shwe, it was definitely French; and his article is a highly informative interleaving of Rogers’ account with French’s personal experiences.
What interested me most from French’s side of the story was the narrative of his attempt to get into Naypyidaw, the new capital city of the country, two hundred miles north of Rangoon and accessible only by a single superhighway. The official policy is that foreigners cannot visit this city without a formal invitation. (As one travel agent put it, casual tourist visits are “not convenient.”) French took the risk of hiring a car and driver to go up the superhighway to get at least a glimpse of this secretive site. He discovered that the “virtual barriers” around the city served not only to keep out the tourists but also to confine the bureaucrats. French quoted what one relief worker said about those government workers:
They are trapped there, and can’t leave the city without authorization. What you have basically are lots of unhappy people in an enterprise sustained by fear.
That was the text that triggered my flashback to Sahl, except that I was not thinking about Heston; I was thinking about Dick Cheney. More specifically I realized that our own country had become one of “lots of unhappy people in an enterprise sustained by fear.” That enterprise had been engineered by the Bush Administration through cultivating the fear of terrorism in the wake of 9/11. It is now less than a year until the tenth anniversary of that catastrophe, and electing a new President has not made much difference. Fear of terrorism may have abated to some extent, but irrational suspicion of Muslims is still with us. Meanwhile, our “unhappy people” have had to face a new crop if fears due to a damaged economy that has not yet been adequately repaired. Why worry about terrorists when you have to face the more immediate worry that your house will be foreclosed or that the job you have may no longer exist next week?
Granted, things are much worse in Burma than they have ever been here. Nevertheless, it is hard to resist associating those in our “ruling class” with those fleeting visions of Than Shwe. Like Heston they have long dreamed of an authoritarian takeover that would obliterate the visions of our Founding Fathers from our national consciousness. Unlike Heston, they probably are well aware that their dream has come true.