A most un-American vision, and a few more reasons for Americans to reject it

Bill Millard

March 12, 2004

I won't beat around the Bush about this, so to speak: I'm convinced there is nothing more important in 2004 than the removal of the current quasi-legitimate "president," whose consistent cowardice, dishonesty, demagoguery, shortsightedness, and contempt for the life of the mind combine with his unexamined allegiance to the basest interests in our society to make him the most unfit occupant the White House has had, certainly in our lifetime, if not in the nation's. His administration calls itself conservative but is nothing of the kind; it pursues a cluster of radical policies that reassign and concentrate national and global power to persons, groups, and forces whose disregard for a livable future is breathtakingly irresponsible. It defends itself through lies, smears, cheap shots, smokescreens, and dirty tricks that would put Richard Nixon's Plumbers to shame. Its actions since the 9/11 attacks have transformed widespread good will toward the United States into deep hostility on a global scale. While claiming to be a steadfast custodian of the national security, it is in fact weakening that security in ways that are lasting if not irreversible. If terrorism is the heart attack of the body politic, environmental destruction resembles metastatic cancer, and they are equally lethal. This regime pursues policies that make the former more likely and the latter a certainty.

Anyone who consciously looks forward to a world of steady (or, if we are less lucky, cataclysmic) ecological decline, obscenely exacerbated concentration of wealth, swelling U.S. unemployment, and consumption of those surplus unemployed through endless warfare with the planet's most viciously enraged apocalyptic fanatics (enriched over decades of Western petroleum dependence, then armed and trained, a few short decades ago, through the actions of the same former cold-warriors who now wield power and claim to be defending us from the fanatics) has logical reasons to choose Bushism-Cheneyism. Presumably, people who actively hope for such a world are hard to find, outside of institutions for the mentally ill and sects preaching primitive eschatologies no less deranged than those of their suicidal Wahhabi counterparts. Only a small fraction of the population (albeit a disproportionately powerful fraction) would actually derive material benefit from such circumstances. The Bush-Cheney voting bloc is irrationally far larger than that disaster-profiteer minority because it includes millions who have not recognized the chasm between their own well-being and the likely consequences of imperial Bushism-Cheneyism. For citizens who can connect the dots and decode the implications of this regime's choices, it is imperative to break through the barrage of heavily funded propaganda and foster wider recognition of what this regime is actually doing. The election requires sustained info-warfare on behalf of common sense, or we're in for a far grimmer future.

There are so many reasons to vote these scoundrels out that one hardly knows where to begin; only those as gifted at research and organization as Mark Green and Eric Alterman (or a long roster of impressive specialists: Conason, Palast, Ivins, Corn, Krugman, Phillips, et al.) can present them exhaustively. I'll defer to their expertise on specific concrete issues: deficits and quagmires and WMD and cronyism and unemployment and regressive taxation and deregulation and Enron and Carlyle and Halliburton and Harken and ChoicePoint and Diebold and global warming and Ashcroft and Caspian Sea oil pipelines and lax attention to warnings before 9/11 and the not-just-vicious-but-felonious exposure of Valerie Plame and the jawdroppingly delusional idea that imposing Bello Americano on most of the world will somehow put an end to Evil... all that and more. These are matters for the expert reporters, not for civilians like me. Here, in an essay that frankly does some essaying in the literal sense of speculation, I'd like to try looking at the shape of the whole forest. If there's a unified field theory of Bushist-Cheneyist evil, I believe it involves the specific form of unalterable conviction that logically emanates from an essentially theological world view. Bush cited Jesus as his favorite philosopher, and it is wise to take him at his word. It is also wise to view this preference not only as divisive and anti-intellectual but as a prima facie disqualification from leadership of this nation. Sectarian dogmatism is the core of the problem, not a solution.

It's usually unwise, I'm aware, to attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity ("Hanlon's Razor"). I don't intend by any means to describe the Bush faction simple-mindedly as some form of malicious conspiracy; certainly, stupidity accounts for some categories of their mistakes (as does arrogance, stupidity's overdressed sister). Conspiratorialism, as the term is generally understood, is for permanent adolescents. On the contrary, I see many of the Bushist actions that most plausibly resemble the acts of a conspiracy (four obvious cases being its economic oligarchicalism, its headlong plunge into counterproductive warfare, its hostility toward the natural environment and its protectors, and its attempts to suppress dissent and enforce a pseudopatriotic party line without even the subtle pretense of a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind") as expressions of malice that make sense only as consequences of a specific form of stupidity: the incurious stupor that is inseparable from absolute certainty. The Bushites do not study evidence and arguments, then form conclusions; they begin with unquestionable conclusions, then cynically select or concoct whatever evidence appears to support those conclusions. They reason backward. The problem is not so much that their values are ignoble and their policy choices objectionable (I would contend strongly that they are, but not everyone finds things like a trickle-up economy with a diminishing social safety net repugnant); the deeper problem is the method and form of their thinking, the absolute certainty regardless of inconvenient facts. There is very little of traditional American conservatism -- both principled and skeptical -- in this neocon crowd; there is very little Barry Goldwater or Robert Taft in them. Instead, there's a lot more of Joe McCarthy, and of Warren Harding, and of Elmer Gantry, and of Commanding General Jack D. Ripper.

Neocons typically greet opposing arguments with a smug thuggish sneer rather than a reasoned and respectful discussion, but not simply because they are inherently thuggish. They have no monopoly on that, and on the personal level many of them are entirely civil. Rumsfeld, when not mauling logic and the English language, can crack good jokes, and Ashcroft will even sing Beatles songs on television. Their civility tends to vanish rapidly and completely, however, in political debate. They sneer because the nature of their convictions is to be founded in something other than reason. I'm sure I'm not the only citizen who suspects the Bushites of an essential hostility not just to their political opponents, demographic sectors outside their base, ethnic or sexual minorities, et al. -- in other words, to practical worldly interests other than their own, a common and comprehensible species of hostility in any group, class, or national conflict -- but to something larger and more fundamentally unsettling: they appear to loathe, and to be trying to reverse, the Enlightenment itself.

Regardless of the positive accomplishments that the assorted Christian religions can claim at certain points in American history (support for abolitionism and the civil rights movement being solid points in Christianity's win column, balanced against such embarrassments as Prohibition, revivalist hucksterism, the Scopes trial, and a belatedly exposed plague of cassocked child molesters), America is not a "Christian nation." It can never be one, at least not while remaining honestly American. America is also no longer, luckily, a nation that forms its dominant self-definition in divisive ethnic terms. America is, by design and by history and in its deepest essence, an Enlightenment nation, perhaps the Enlightenment nation. It is a construct of the modern mind, and an admirable one. When it is at its best, it is the Enlightenment incarnated, a set of secular principles bodied forth in a sturdy and flexible political mechanism, a constitutional instrument capable of self-correction and adaptive evolution. This is not something to hide beneath a veneer of pseudo-religious pietisms; this is something to acknowledge and celebrate on its own terms.

Whether one accepts or rejects the concept of American exceptionalism, America's ability to endure and progress as an organic polity stems from the conscious rational artifice of its construction, its grounding in reasoned procedures and interpretive discourses rather than bloodlines or dogmas. For over two centuries, the most far-sighted decisions in American political life were made, at least to some recognizable degree, in a relatively open and increasingly meritocratic public sphere characterized by secularism, rationality, accountability, pragmatism, a recognition of diverse interests, and a set of generally shared norms of what constitutes reliable and communicable criteria for testing the soundness of ideas: logical coherence, evidentiary credibility, openness to revision or refutation in the face of new information, and so forth. (It is no accident that these kinds of criteria can be defined and applied in either politics or science.) The open and meritocratic public sphere may be imperfectly and inconsistently developed, and unworthy interests have sometimes carried the day in ways that are far less than rational, but the at-least-ostensible commitment to a rational public sphere defines a mature modern nation. That is what America at least can be, what it frequently is, and what makes it worth loving and defending.

An open and meritocratic public sphere terrifies the Bushists, as it terrifies the aristocratic but undistinguished Bush family themselves. Along with their allegiance to inherited (read: unearned, unwarranted, and undeserved) economic privileges, Bushist-Cheneyists consistently favor private revelation and unquestioned authority as foundations for belief and action. Their involvement with evangelical theocratism, the irrationalist movement that is trying to hijack Christianity as Wahhabism has hijacked much of Islam, is no cynical flirtation for the sake of attracting a voting bloc; it is a thorough congruence of belief, and it should alarm anyone who respects the Jeffersonian tradition in which a solid church-state wall prevents an official established religion, a combination universally hostile to human freedom. The Bushists reject, and attempt bureaucratically to distort and corrupt, the disinterested procedures of science, the authentically conservative process of organized skepticism that counsels caution in the uses of power and backs up its claims in terms that make them testable, repeatable, and accountable. Science and common-sense circumspection call for a sober re-examination of policies that deplete and contaminate irreplaceable resources, tear up treaties, alienate longtime friends whose good will is a pillar of our own security, and establish appalling precedents such as pre-emptive warfare (a particularly illogical leap of faith: once other nations -- or furtive nationless entities with ugly records and access to ugly technologies -- embrace the same doctrine, will the Bushists feign surprise when the U.S. and its allies become targets?). But neither science nor circumspection nor the precautionary principle nor a civil regard for informed opinion carries serious weight with the true believers.

It should be clear to anyone who has read the documents of the Founders as meaningful texts, not as hollow incantations, that the Bushist-Cheneyist world view is antithetical to the secular rational principles and open deliberative practices that this country, like other Enlightenment democracies whom we once could consider firm allies, is based on. The Bush regime's vision of a future America increasingly appears to the rest of the world as an alien, resented, and unsustainable military/economic empire, and to its own citizens as a fearmongering, secretive, unaccountable, and un-Constitutionally-constrained national-security state. This, were the grand unipolar hallucination of PNAC ever to come about, is no republic worthy of the name; this is no vision capable of providing coherent grounds for national pride; this is very far from what Jefferson and Madison and Franklin and Hamilton had in mind. This is a paranoid rogue hyperpower operating under the delusion that its actions, no matter how destructive, carry divine sanction.

It is also an increasingly isolated and tempting target for terrorism. Since the "catastrophic and catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor" called for in PNAC's manifesto ("Rebuilding America's Defenses," p. 51) already took place on 9/11, yielding distinct short-term domestic political advantages to the Bush-Cheney regime (its only true beneficiaries), a bizarre recursive logic-loop now intertwines the conduct of the terrorists with the interests of a leadership that, at best, ignored warnings of that attack and mounted only a halfhearted response once it occurred. (The Bushies didn't scramble the jets or even interrogate the bin Laden relatives whom they quietly helped out of the country while all other air traffic was grounded, let alone vigorously investigate the incident in the aftermath; this regime's idea of how to respond to attack includes fleeing on Air Force One, calling on citizens to go shopping, and doing its best to prevent serious independent inquiry.) One need not childishly posit the existence of conspiracies (no sane and responsible person can charge the Bush regime with consciously, which is to say treasonously, playing into the hands of al-Qaeda) to note certain patterns, congruences, outcomes, and implications. All the steadfast pseudo-Churchillian rhetoric in the world cannot change the established pattern in which the Bush regime's military unilateralism weakens the civilized world's alliances, creates more failed states, feeds a cycle of martyrdom and terrorist recruitment, and ultimately strengthens al-Qaeda. The way to overcome this kind of enemy, like Blattella germanica, is by changing the conditions that foster it, not by swatting it with brute force; force is one of civilization's indispensable tools, but force alone will only breed more violence. International Bushism is unlikely to produce the beneficent global empire described in PNAC's fairy tales; instead, it is generating more events like the 9/11 and Madrid bombings, more domestic repression in response, and the indefinite or even permanent militarization of the American economy. Ultimately this world order benefits no one except the munitions industries, legal and otherwise. A healthy democracy needs to reject such an image of its future as an organism's immune system attacks toxins and cancer cells.

In important ways Bushism, particularly in its faith-based (i.e., rationality-rejecting) instincts, seems far closer to the antimodern reflexes of Wahhabi Islam than most Bushites would want to let on in public. A superficial awareness of the many atrocious aspects of the closed Saudi regime seems to have taken root among some Republicans, but the tendency to share or adopt features of the ostensible enemy is difficult to ignore. I wonder whether the Bush regime's surface conflict with Islamic fundies (a military conflict, but not necessarily a long-range ideological or strategic one; one should never forget who's been coddling the Saudi petro-theocracy, the mujahedeen, the Middle East's most notorious nuclear-arms proliferator, and the Saddam regime in the first place, and why: as sources of oil, pawns against the godless Soviets, bargaining chips in a bungled and belated manhunt, and opponents of the supposedly more-fanatical Iranians, respectively) amounts to a deeper form of reluctantly interdependent alliance against those they oppose on a more fundamental level: those of us, here or in any nation, who live and think and act in the secular modern world. Which gulf is wider: the one between the Christian religious right and the Wahhabists, or the one between both of them and the urbane secular humanists who direct their reverence toward the Earth and the natural universe rather than any supernatural entities, respect the different sexes equally, tolerate fairly wide ranges of peaceful behavior, recognize the many long-range benefits of weaning the West's economies off petroleum, and support a public sector that redresses some of the inequities of market economics and strives to distribute rewards more fairly? Here as elsewhere, Republicans seem to be masters at ducking critical questions, speaking in code, diverting attention from their essential interests, and chanting "conspiracy theory" or "class war" any time anyone's questions come too close. It doesn't take a conspiratorialist caricature (Cabals of Evil Masterminds in Smoke-Filled Rooms, nyah-ha-ha!) to consider what conspiracy literally means: unpack the etymology of the word, and it denotes those who breathe together, inhalers of the same air. Breathing is an act of the autonomic nervous system, not something one has to be convinced to do, or torqued into doing. The neocons and the Islamic fundies share more than petro-economic interests; they inhabit a common ideological atmosphere. Inhaling antimodernism and closing down the democratic public sphere are what both these groups do as a matter of course, practically without volition. It is not conspiracy theory to analyze the components of that atmosphere, recognize the common features and common interests of civilization's external and internal enemies, and defend the modern democratic republic against both of them.

Multiply the Law of Unintended Consequences by the observable parallelism of interests, assumptions, and habits of mind, and you get a result that bears very little resemblance to the official propaganda. You also get an imperative to reconsider just who is on what side over the long run, not in their intentions and stated aims but in the implications and consequences of their actions.

What is to be done? Everything imaginable, I have to think, beginning with forthright and rhetorically intelligent communication about the full nature of the Bush-Cheney regime to well-meaning people who have not had access to appalling facts, or to coherent interpretations of those facts, through the mainstream corporate media. (Large segments of the electorate may have swallowed, or been force-fed, the purple Kool-aid of Repugnicanism, but most people are fully capable of choking on it and spitting it out once they recognize what's in it.) The two constitutional ways of removing a disastrous president are still available; one is enormously easier, but neither is easy. If an unwinnable war founded in lies, aimed at the wrong enemy, disastrous to our economy, conducted on the cheap with grievous disrespect toward our soldiers, and likely to foster horrific blowback (both in Iraq and in critical areas from which the Iraq goose-chase has diverted our attention, like unstable nuclear-trading Pakistan) doesn't amount to reason enough for impeachment -- surely a more serious compilation of reasons than the petty sexual pretexts used against the previous president, the last one who was elected unambiguously, unhaunted by an ineradicable asterisk in the record book -- then we have to count on what's left of the regular national electoral procedure to get the ideologues out and some responsible adults back in. Considering what's at stake, there's no room in 2004 for the luxury of apathy or the indulgence of quixotic spoilers. It no longer seems reasonable, given the current regime's overt and continued embrace of assorted techniques for illegally disenfranchising their opponents, to assume that the system will be self-correcting or that the inherent common sense of the electorate will inevitably carry the day.

Of the vastly preferable choice, John Kerry, I will say little here; he appears to have the gravity and the mature values we will need from any statesman who can help steer the nation away from a course that one can accurately and soberly describe as suicidal. At any rate, enough is already being said elsewhere on Sen. Kerry's behalf. I will note that during the unwise and undeclared war in Vietnam, some Americans (chiefly the least privileged Americans) had to muster the courage to fight in that war. Other Americans found a different form of courage in opposing it. Those camps were antagonistic at the time, but both those varieties of courage, courage under fire and courage of conscience, have earned legitimate respect. John Kerry, first as a soldier and then as a civilian veteran, was in the rare position to show courage of both kinds. George W. Bush, the no-show party boy of the Champagne Unit, showed neither. Anyone who is exposed in the coming days to Republican campaign rhetoric about character might ponder that contrast, and will probably have to struggle to laugh.


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