Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner

Brain Awry

George W. Bush appears to be obsessed by two extremely false ideas. One is that all the bad stuff in the world is caused by bad people. The other is that he's one of the good people.

Natural egotism causes many people to give way to the second delusion. That the president is captive to it in an excessive way is unfortunate but understandable. Where the first comes from, though, is more of a mystery. Mr. Bush seems incapable of recognizing that people have diverse interests and that, often, these cause them to oppose one another. If you listen to his rhetoric you'll be led to believe that the people who don't agree with him have no legitimate motives whatsoever. In the president's mind it seems to be the case that the only explanation conceivable is that opposition to him comes from evil.

This is a mental condition that must have a name but I confess I don't know what it is. I suppose it might be called Manichaeism run berserk, but that would be simply to call it what it is. In any case, it's a sad affliction for a president because it undermines all prospects for diplomacy. The Iraq Study Group must have known that their recommendation for discussions with Syria and Iran would be rejected. But political insiders have their own mental problem. They're so mesmerized by the pomp of power they can't face up to the kind of mind they're dealing with.

The Big Contest

I've seen much speculation lately about whether George W. Bush is the worst president ever. In the race for the bottom spot his principal rival seems to be Richard M. Nixon. In, for example, I just read an article by historian Jon Wiener who says that if we use the measure of how many unnecessary deaths a president caused Nixon is still in the lead but that Bush is closing and still has the chance to surpass him.

Setting up a complete calculus for presidential badness is such a complex business I don't think I can engage in it. But I will say that of all the presidents George Bush strikes me as the one who would disgust me the most if I had to be in the same room with him. Each of us, I guess, has identified a characteristic he or she finds superbly vile, and for me it it's dull-minded egotism. I don't think any other president approaches Mr. Bush in this category.

From the beginning of his administration it has been widely reported that he never asks questions of those who report to him. He simply sits and tries to intimidate them with various forms of facial misbehavior (in the latter practice Mr. Bush is also far more practiced than any other chief executive). The message he sends is that he already knows everything he wants to know, and he's simply indulging his companions for the show of it. Unwillingness to converse is the epitome of a deliberately dead mind. And with respect to it, there's really no more contest.

Heart Change, Mind Stubborn

An article in the New York Times reports that the downfall of evangelical stars Ted Haggard and Paul Barnes-- because they admitted to sexual relations with men -- has caused some in the fundamentalist community to feel greater sympathy towards people with homosexual desires. But it has not led, says Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, to any rethinking about the acceptability of same-sex relations. They remain bad, bad, bad.

I guess we can conclude that rethinking is not a popular process among evangelicals.

Why people get so aroused over consensual sexual practices remains one of our most perplexing social mysteries. Evidently, many people, and perhaps a majority, are sure they know what's right and what's wrong in sexual behavior. And the thought that something is neither right nor wrong but simply a preference seems incapable of penetrating the skulls of sexual moralists.

Why is this so? Why do people feel so prescriptive about sexuality?

Regulation of how people express passion and affection, when it bears on no one except themselves, has probably caused more human misery down the ages than anything else. And, yet, we hold onto it as though it were the essence of life. Our attitudes about sex may be the strongest evidence that humanity is, essentially, insane.

Forced Testimony

On Friday, the Army will begin trying Lieutenant Ehren Watada on the charge of conduct unbecoming an officer because he said that President Bush had lied about the reasons for the invasion of Iraq and refused to be sent there. Army prosecutor Dan Kuecker has said he will issue subpoenas to require reporters who spoke to Watada about his protest to come to the court martial and testify against him.

The reporters, of course, don't want to do it. They do not want to become an investigatory arm of the Army or of any other government agency. Their position seems eminently sensible. But the Army doesn't care.

If the government can, in effect, use journalists as their agents, the possibility that anyone can report the news will decline precipitously.

Surely this is a case that should interest the judiciary committees of both houses of Congress. It will be a case to test whether the declared intention of the Democrats to protect civil liberties has substance or is just talk.

A Cankered Slice

I read an analysis recently which said that if we were to consider only those voters who identify themselves as Democrats or independents we would be dealing with a population similar to the populations of Europe. Those two groups, however, make up, at most, 70% of the American electorate. Slightly more than 30% of our voters hold views which don't afflict significant numbers in other western democracies. This group is sunk in a murderous, xenophobic grouch. They want the United States to rule the world and they don't care what happens to anyone outside our borders. They have almost no respect for the Constitution. The idea of civil liberties is anathema to them. Their chief voice in the media is promoted by Fox News and, especially, by Bill O'Reilly. They like to hear people like Jay Severin and and Ann Coulter say that all Muslims should be killed.

These citizens cannot be described by politicians as being what they are. A frank assessment of them would be considered disrespectful. That they are not worthy of respect doesn't matter.

Still, those of us who don't need to curry political favor need to remind one another that this group continues to exist. It always lusts for power. And it is extremely dangerous because certain events can swing ill-informed voters to its side. We can hope -- and work -- to see it discredited but we have to remember that it is not amenable to reasoned discourse. So, there is little doubt, we will have it with us for a long time to come.

Threats to Democracy

The notion that the Bush administration has learned anything from recent events is dubious. Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, has rebuked Senator Bill Nelson of Florida for visiting Syria. Snow says the senator's trip undermines democracy in the region. How it has done so, the White House can't be bothered to say. The president, however, did issue a statement which proclaimed that "Syrians deserve a government whose legitimacy is grounded in the consent of the people, not brute force."

We might well ask, what kind of government do Americans deserve?

At the same time the president was having his minions chastise Senator Nelson, federal lawyers were in court trying to get a document from the ACLU before that organization can report on its contents. And this document has nothing to do with national security. The White House doesn't want it to be known because it contains some criticisms of government policy. The New York Times calls the government action a "trampling on the First Amendment."

Mr. Bush may not want Syrians to be governed by brute force -- at least not the current brute force -- but, it's for sure, he doesn't want an American government whose legitimacy is grounded in the consent of well-informed people. Keeping information away from the citizenry has been a fundamental policy of the Bush administration.

Political Positioning

I have never known what it means to be a centrist, or a moderate, in politics. It strikes me that to be a centrist is to stand for nothing at all, but merely to discern the current political spectrum and get right in the middle of it. Then if it moves to the left, you'll move to the left, and if to the right, you'll move to the right. What kind of politics is that?

Distrusting centrism, I was happy when I read George Lakoff's recent article in Truthout, titled "Building on the Progressive Victory."  He argues that Democrats won the election because they began to speak up for their central political beliefs and didn't spend much time harping on peripheral matters like gay marriage or gun control. Whether or not they were "moderate" didn't matter. What counted was their having sound political values and running on them.

He cites Heath Schuler, the young former football star, who won as a Democrat in North Carolina. Schuler is against both gay marriage and gun control. But he didn't say much about either during the campaign. Instead he emphasized that he is a Democrat because Democrats want to help people who can't help themselves. He said we should be spending our money on education, Social Security, universal health care, preserving the environment, and renewable energy.  That's a good program which can be defended vigorously and without apology. And that's what Democrats should be doing rather than worrying about whether they can seem as tough as Republicans.  The toughness of Republicans should never enter a Democrat's head because it's about nothing. There is no such thing as Republican toughness, but there certainly is Republican selfishness. And the latter is what Democrats should be talking about.

Both Lakoff and Schuler have given me a lift and I thank them for it.


If you want to know what the future of the U.S. government will be over the next six years, pay close attention to the activities of the Senate's Armed Services and Judiciary Committees during January and February. I doubt that that any senators have ever had greater responsibility, or opportunity, to serve the nation, than the chairmen of these two bodies, Carl Levin and Patrick Leahy.

Both in recent speeches have promised a thorough investigation of the Bush administration's conduct in the national security area. Now they must perform this task not only energetically, but carefully and intelligently. There must be no witch hunts, but, on the other, hand, the full scale of the administration's falsehood, abuse of civil liberties, and reckless use of resources should be laid clearly before the nation. If the chairmen do their job well, it is unlikely the national government will fall into the hands of politicians like Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld for decades to come.

The media also have a duty in this regard, which involves a full measure of redemption. They should report on the activities of the two committees as the most important business of the nation. The shameful bowing down to the deceptive practices of the president and his chief officers can be at least partially offset if the media now insist on telling the full story of these investigations.

These are chances to place the federal government on a decent course and it will constitute incompetence and misbehavior of the worst sort if they are lost.

Winning Models

In his Sunday New York Times column, David Brooks, after surveying the doleful tone of the leading periodical articles over the past year, says we shouldn't be too worried because "the Sadrs of the world simply do not have a social model that large numbers of people will want to live under." Guess what David? Neither do George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Carl Rove.

To return to periodical literature, I have seen dozens of pieces asking why people follow leaders like Sadr instead of turning to American ways. The answer is clear. Sadr fights against Bush and people like Bush who see the mass of people simply as tools to enrich and empower themselves. And the American way is identified in the mind of the world with the Bush vision. Is America a champion of civil liberties? You wouldn't know it by looking at Bush. Does America want to use its power to insure that all its citizens lead healthy, free lives? Check the Republican legislative agenda. Does America believe in a peaceful, cooperative world? Who sent an army to invade another country when the rest of the world was shouting, no?

If Mr. Brooks and other right-wing commentators really want America to present a definite contrast to Sadr and other illiberal voices around the world, they had better start examining who it is they support here at home.

Early in his piece Brooks announced, "we're oblivious to anything we can't drive over or kill." Who promotes this obliviousness, Mr. Brooks? Haven't you with this phrase identified the entire policy of the Bush administration? So why have you so consistently given it your approval?

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Harvard Square Commentary, December 18, 2006