Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner

Monday: About a week ago, I pasted into my political scrapbook an article from the Chicago Tribune titled, "European Confidence in U.S. Leadership Plumbs New Depths." It reported that in Europe Mr. Bush's overall approval rating is 18%. As we move southeast from Europe, dislike is transformed into hatred. And the hatred extends beyond the president to the American people themselves. Americans are supposedly befuddled by this hostility towards themselves and their leaders all around the world. John Powers offers one of the better explanations I've seen: "They hate us because we don't even know why they hate us." For the past several years the American discourse, especially as represented by journalism, has been particularly weak in addressing how things are connected in the world. There's an implicit assumption that all phenomena are distinct and have little to do with one another. Therefore, so-called Islamic fascism -- which is itself a dishonest term and one of the reasons why we're hated -- is assumed to be a movement which fuels itself out of unreasoning bigotry and has little connection to other global sentiments. We're making a serious mistake to continue with that assumption. When there's a worldwide attitude, it's only commonsense to conclude that in some areas it will be moderate and in others radical. But that doesn't mean the radical elements are completely disconnected from the less intense manifestations. Anti-Americanism is now a widespread and unified thing and we would do well to begin understanding why that's the case. Comprehending our standing in the world community need not be a black or white thing. We don't have to decide that we're always right or always wrong. But we do need to know why others see us as they do, and come to some conclusions about how justified they are.

Tuesday: I clicked on The O'Reilly Factor last night and managed to get through about a quarter hour of it. I wonder if my stomach is growing effete. I used to be able to watch the whole thing.  The brief exposure left me asking, as I have so often before, how is the country going to emerge from the pandemonium of propaganda we've built up around us? O'Reilly's propaganda is particularly sleazy but that's not what makes it characteristic of our age. It's most notable feature is its loudness, and in that it demonstrates the purpose of propaganda in our time -- not to persuade but to drown out, everything, even its own trash. Earlier, on Hardball, I heard Chris Matthews say that the Democrats can't make anything of the facts and the Republicans don't need the facts. It was an accurate statement, but who heard it? For that matter who heard Katy Couric an hour earlier report that violence in Iraq is ripping the country apart. The government is failing. Death squads, many of them made up of government forces now pose a greater threat than the insurgency does. Even our own State Department says the country is fast approaching a crisis.  "Pandemonium" of course, is the name of the capital of Hell in Milton's Paradise Lost. And the main feature of it, for the damned, according to poet Randall Jarrell, is that they not only like it there; they feel loyal to the place. Clearly, we have a lot of loyalists among us. They think they're reaping rewards. And that thought -- as the expressions on poor Bill O'Reilly's face amply demonstrate -- is the most lousy propaganda of all.

Wednesday: David Brooks of the New York Times has decided to dive completely into silly mode. In his column this morning he says this, in essence: "Bush vision, tremendous. Bush tactics, not so hot." This, I suppose, is his version of fair and balanced. What is Brooks's reading of Bush's overpowering perception? The president thinks he sees that our actions now will determine the future fifty years hence, and that if we don't follow his lead, and kill all the people he wants to kill, then the world will have subsided into radical Islam. Is Brooks telling us he thinks this is a genuinely serious possibility? If the Osamas of the world didn't have Bush and his tactics to use as boogeymen, they wouldn't have much standing now in the countries that are formally Islamic. And the notion that they could gain political stature outside those areas is so fatuous only a man of Bush's mental condition could speak of it without giggling. Does Brooks think that China, or India, or South America -- to name just a trio of vast populations -- are actually in danger of adopting the kind of political system that Osama evidently advocates (I say "evidently" because the reporting on him in the United States has been so childish it's hard to know what he actually does want)? If anything that tyrannical does happen in America it will not be because of people from outside the country. Rather, it will be that Americans who, presumably, have brains, like Brooks, will get so twitter pated by the accessories of power they will project vision into intellects that are little more than husks. Any man who thinks Bush has real historical vision is so cut off from history he's wrapped up in a virtual bobble head bubble.

Thursday: Bill Frist, the smarmiest man in American politics, went on PBS's News Hour, to say that Democrats want to wave the white flag, cut and run, surrender. All this intensely original commentary was made in support of President Bush's torture bill, which some members of his own party, including the former secretary of state, are too confused to get behind. The president's mind, of course, is crystal clear. There are no facts there to muddy it. I have said before, so I'll say again, that torture is an issue which is either backed or opposed according to one's tastes. If one likes the idea of torture, he will come up with arguments to justify it. And if one doesn't, he won't. There's no evidence that it does any good. Mr. Bush is gambling on the premise that a majority of Americans enjoy the thought of torture. It excites them to think of virtuous CIA agents putting the screws to swarthy Islamofascists, all done, of course, to protect the innocent here in this most innocent of lands. Obviously, there are a good many Americans who would thrill to that scenario. But whether they constitute more than fifty percent of us remains to be seen. It could be that Bush, Rummy, Rove, et cetera are miscalculating. While that question is being answered, we'll be treated to a full menu of Fristy pronunciamentoes to the effect that if you don't want to torture then you aren't really an American and your only desire lies in running away.

Friday: Tonight on Washington Week in Review someone raised the question of whether President Bush is projecting an ever-widening circle of enemies with whom we are bound to have an everlasting conflict? How will the American people respond to that notion? Will they seize on it as a life purpose for adding drama to otherwise dull and harried existence? Or will they turn away from it as a big pain? That Mr. Bush is trying to habituate us to perpetual warfare is fairly obvious. Only if we believe in that state of being will we continue to accept him as  a leader. He has nothing else to offer than being a tough guy who will kill our enemies (actually, he has not even that, but in the world nowadays, it's the image that counts). Some say that in a media-drenched world, where the flashing image and the quickest of sound bites are all that matter, leaders like Bush are an inevitability. Most people can't take time to examine the simplistic unreality of his message. And only a man of his intellectual character can stand to repeat it incessantly, without even a tincture of variation. Our mode of living brings forth leaders who are too stupid to bore themselves to death. It's a droopy thesis but it does seem to have a certain force.  In my hopeful moments I tell myself it's not right. But my hopeful moments haven't been perfectly ascendant lately. At any rate, that thesis does mark the political fate of our era. And its rightness or wrongness lies not in the stars but in ourselves.

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Harvard Square Commentary, September 18, 2006