January 31, 2006

Bush's Renewed Declaration of War on Dissent

I will probably comment on additional aspects of Bush's State of the Union address in future essays. The falsehoods, misrepresentations, invalid dichotomies and other errors and dishonest tactics were so numerous that it would take someone several days at least to list and dissect them all.

For the moment, I only want to comment on one part of Bush's remarks, because it struck me with considerable force. Note these two passages in particular:
In a system of two parties, two chambers, and two elected branches, there will always be differences and debate. But even tough debates can be conducted in a civil tone, and our differences cannot be allowed to harden into anger. To confront the great issues before us, we must act in a spirit of good will and respect for one another - and I will do my part.
Followed just a couple of minutes later by this:
Our coalition has learned from experience in Iraq. We have adjusted our military tactics and changed our approach to reconstruction. Along the way, we have benefited from responsible criticism and counsel offered by Members of Congress of both parties. In the coming year, I will continue to reach out and seek your good advice.

Yet there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy. With so much in the balance, those of us in public office have a duty to speak with candor. A sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison -- put men like bin Laden and Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country - and show that a pledge from America means little. Members of Congress: however we feel about the decisions and debates of the past, our Nation has only one option: We must keep our word, defeat our enemies, and stand behind the American military in its vital mission.
I give Bush's writers credit for brazenness, and for the scope of their ambitions. Every American should be absolutely clear about what Bush is attempting here.

It is quite something for Bush to insist that "even tough debates can be conducted in a civil tone," and that we must all "act in a spirit of good will and respect for one another" -- when the party he heads immediately and repeatedly demonizes everyone who disagrees with any aspect of his foreign policy as being on the side of the terrorists, and as aching for the defeat of the United States and for our national humiliation. Not only has Bush not done his "part" in this matter: he and those who do his bidding have consciously, continuously and dangerously done the exact opposite in every conceivable way.

Let me emphasize the conclusion of the second excerpt above. In that passage -- after approving "responsible criticism" and praising the "duty to speak with candor" -- Bush announces that "our Nation has only one option." It's his option, of course, as announced and implemented in his foreign policy.

Now, that's a neat trick. If there is, in fact, "only one option," then there is nothing at all to discuss. Of course, like so much else in his speech tonight, this is a stupefyingly and ludicrously unintelligent lie. Of course there are other options, including with regard to the course of action in Iraq in the coming months.

But what Bush has announced tonight -- in what is clearly an indication of the major strategy to be followed by Republicans generally in the elections this fall -- is that, oh, yes, certainly you may disagree. That's part of the greatness of the American system, after all, and there is that First Amendment too (damn it). However, you may disagree only on the terms and in the manner that Bush, at his will, allows. This is also the strategy that many of Bush's most vehement defenders have been following for several years.

We should remember that this tactic was adopted by the Bush administration immediately after 9/11. Only three months after that day, in response to criticisms of the hastily-passed (and largely unread) Patriot Act, Ashcroft intoned: “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this, your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and ... give ammunition to American’s enemies.” Thus was the tone and method set early on.

So Bush has now announced, in the significant setting of a State of the Union address, that he will continue to prosecute his war on dissent to the fullest extent possible. If you choose to offer criticism or disagreement, make certain that it is "responsible" and "respectful" and "civil." And always, always remember that there is "only one option" -- the one that Bush has already chosen. If enough Americans believed this drivel and followed Bush's advice, neither he nor any other politician would ever need censorship: people would shut themselves down completely in all the ways that matter. National debate about momentous issues of policy would cease forever.

I found these passages worthy of note because of certain issues I began discussing earlier today -- and because I know that far too many Americans will agree with Bush entirely. In the first part of a new series, "The Limits of Politics," I offered an especially relevant passage from Alice Miller. She discusses how the principle of obedience instilled in most children at a very young age -- obedience even to rules that are unintelligible and senseless (and far too often, obedience especially to such rules) -- is the ultimate explanation for why "politicians mouthing empty cliches ... attain the highest positions of power by democratic means. But since voters, who as children would normally have been capable of seeing through these cliches with the aid of their feelings, were specifically forbidden to do so in their early years, they lose this ability as adults."

She goes on:
Our whole system of raising and educating children provides the power-hungry with a ready-made railway network they can use to reach the destination of their choice. They need only push the buttons that parents and educators have already installed.

Crippling ties to certain norms, terminology, and labels can also be clearly observed in the case of many thoroughly honorable people who become passionately engaged in political struggle. For them, political struggle is inseparably associated with party, organization, or ideology.
In the same excerpt that I offer there, Miller explains how a profoundly different upbringing can lead to the opposite result -- and she offers the example of Sophie and Hans Scholl, who became famous because of their work in the German resistance movement known as "The White Rose." The Scholls were able "to see through Hitler's platitudes at the Nuremberg Rally," while most of their peers "were completely won over by the Fuhrer" and continued their enthusiastic participation in Nazi youth organizations. In a similar manner, many Americans today are won over by Bush and his equally empty platitudes.

No, of course we have not reached anything close to the nightmarish horrors of the Third Reich, at least not yet. But the point I make in that essay is that the principles and mechanisms are the same. And so is the danger.

In the second part of "The Limits of Politics," which I hope to post tomorrow morning, I will examine how these same mechanisms lead to certain group dynamics. They, too, have a great number of profoundly uncomfortable echoes today -- and they also carry many very great dangers.

AND: More on these issues here -- Bush and the Legions of the Damned.