The Age of Uncertainty

All we know is that we know something.


So, how's it going in Iraq? No, really. As we learn to measure the U.S. engagement there in years and (let's face reality) decades, only this much seems absolutely beyond question: On a very basic level, it's virtually impossible to know whether the occupation is going well or horribly wrong. This is above and beyond the question of whether we should be there in the first place.

Walter Lippman once famously suggested that it was hard enough figuring out what was really going on in the neighborhoods of Manhattan, let alone the far-flung nations of the world. Most of us, even the CNN and Fox News obsessives, are relying on second-, third-, and fourth-hand reports by people whose best efforts to understand, say, the Sunni Triangle, are about as reliable as the restaurant prices in a 20-year-old copy of Let's Go: Iraq.

For every shot of mutilated American corpses being dragged through the streets of Fallujah, there are accounts of relatively orderly elections being held in other parts of the country—elections, moreover, in which Islamist candidates have been doing poorly. For every call to avoid another Vietnam, there are reminders that overwhelming majorities in Iraq feel better about their future then they did before the Saddam statues were toppled (yes, yes, by U.S. soldiers).

For those of us with a taste for historical irony, we've been reminded, thanks to the weblog Jessica's Well (, that the eminent novelist John Dos Passos toured post?World War II Europe and declared confidently in the January 7, 1946, issue of Life, "We have swept away Hitlerism, but a great many Europeans feel that the cure has been worse than the disease….Friend and foe alike, look at you accusingly in the face and tell you how bitterly they are disappointed in you as an American."

When it comes to Iraq, are war critics (I'm one) pulling a Dos Passos, whose story was breathlessly titled "Americans Are Losing the Victory in Europe"? Or is this really another Vietnam? (Exactly what that means is rarely clear.) Will Iraq be to us what Afghanistan was to the Soviets? Hell, is Afghanistan—a place that is routinely described as both trudging toward democracy and sliding back under the Taliban's heel—already becoming the quagmire it was for the Soviets?

Such epistemological conundrums are not limited to foreign policy. Especially in a presidential election year, domestic reality is up for grabs: The candidates want you to buy very different depictions of America. Is the economy still in the shitter? (And was it ever there, really, especially given levels of joblessness that were always below what used to be considered inevitable "frictional unemployment"?) Did President Bush's tax cuts (and/or unrestrained government spending) jump start the growth we may or may not be experiencing? Exactly how many jobs have been lost due to offshore outsourcing and how many to automation and other irrefutable signs of what used to be called progress?

This sort of social indeterminacy is not new, but it seems like it's becoming the defining characteristic of our contemporary moment, at least in politics. Surely it's telling that the first presidential election of the current era was a dead heat that could have plausibly gone either candidate's way. And as we slouch toward another such national contest this fall, surely it's meaningful that the most memorable election since Bush defeated Gore was Arnold Schwarzenegger's bizarre gubernatorial gambit in California.

Not only has Gov. Schwarzenegger starred in a memorable movie (Total Recall) based on a story by the great, insane writer Philip K. Dick, but Arnold's victory reads like a story by Dick, whose work is suffused with a sense of unreality, of never knowing whether you're awake or dreaming, seeing straight or hallucinating.

Halfway into the '00s—and barely into a new century—and nothing but big questions that require difficult answers. And more information than ever, none of which may make it any easier to draw the right conclusions.