Shunning the Mirror
According to the Buddhist writer Pema Chodron, “not harming ourselves or others is the basis of enlightened society. It is how there could be a sane world.” In Chodron’s view, “the first and most fundamental harm” is done by and to our selves. It is “to remain ignorant by not having the courage to look at ourselves honestly.” When we do exhibit that courage, she argues, “it comes as quite a shock to realize how much we’ve blinded ourselves to the ways in which we cause harm. Our style is so ingrained that we can’t hear when people try to tell us, either kindly or rudely, that we’re causing harm by the way we are or the way we relate to others. We’ve become so used to the way we do things that somehow we think that others are used to it too.”
George W. Bush’s recent speech before the National Endowment for Democracy (“President Bush Discusses Freedom in Iraq and the Middle East,” available online at www.whitehouse.gov) is an excellent case in point. It epitomizes the cowardly, moral self-blindness that Chodron sees at the heart of global insanity. According to the arch-conservative New York Times columnist William Safire, it is “Bush’s best speech,” and it “is worth reading.” (Safire, “The Age of Liberty,” New York Times,November 10, 2003). Bush’ address certainly merits a careful reading, though not for the reasons Safire thinks.
It is an eloquent, well-crafted monument to self-delusion and the deep resistance powerful people and nations have to taking an honest look in the mirror of past and current history. Focused largely on the Middle East, it is a gold mine for students of elite ideology, one of whose core projects is precisely to prevent the powerful from feeling the “shock” to which Pema Chodron refers – to keep, in other words, the mirrors turned away from the main architects of harm and shining back at the victims and others with the blinding light of mass confusion. Again and again, Bush reveals his utter inability to grasp why the majority of the world’s people view him and his government as the greatest threat to world peace, a rogue state of greater danger than any of the states he once absurdly lumped together in an “Axis of Evil.” He is equally oblivious to the intimately related harm and alienation that is experienced by masses of people in his own country, thanks to his own actions and to the broader domestic power structures he works to represent.
“Respecting The People?”
Take, for example, Bush’s opening approval of Ronald Reagan’s statement that (in Bush’s words) “Soviet communism…failed…because it did not respect its own people.” This statement contains no small measure of truth. We are entitled, however, to follow up by asking what sort of “respect” the White House under Bush has shown for “its own people.” Beneath the cover of the “war on terrorism” since the terrible jetliner attacks of September 2001, the president and his “posse” (as he likes to call his inner circle) have launched a deeply contemptuous two-pronged assault on the American population. The first prong is a radical and elaborate campaign to redistribute American wealth and hence power yet further upward through massive tax cuts consciously calculated to overwhelmingly benefit the richest Americans and to devastate the nation’s ability to meet basic social and civic needs, including even basic homeland security against terrorist attack. The second prong is an attack on American civil liberties, democracy and public space, the worst such assault in fifty years, designed to marginalize dissent, restrict the spectrum of acceptable debate and constrict democratic imagination.
The two prongs are inseparably linked. Policymakers and corporate interests seeking to increase the already extreme concentration and centralization of American wealth and power have found it useful and all-too-easy to smear their critics as “anti-Americans” in the post-9/11 environment. A time of (apparently endless) public emergency is not an appropriate moment, we are told, to question the Leaders’ noble schemes to stuff Fat Cat pockets yet fuller with cash originally marked for the most vulnerable among an increasingly insecure populace. To criticize such vile plutocracy “while we are fighting our war on terrorism” – to quote the not-yet-disgraced close Bush ally Trent Lott rebuking that subversive radical Tom Daschle last year – is to flirt, we have been told, with treason.
“Respect” for the people? When George W. Bush spoke on behalf of “free trade” (corporate globalization) and his regressive tax cut in a St. Louis trucking company warehouse last January, he huffed and sneered about the superiority of the American System in front of “a printed canvas backdrop of faux cardboard boxes, which featured ‘Made in America’ in large black letters” (New York Times, January 23, 2003). The canvass read “STRENGTHENING THE AMERICAN ECONOMY.” A handful of warehouse officials applauded in the background, framed by two American flags. But the only real warehouse boxes that White House “volunteers” could find to arrange in front of Bush had large pieces of dark brown duct tape placed on their lower left corner. When reporters peeled the tape off, they found three magic words the White House wished to hide: “Made in China.”
When many millions across the world, including masses of angry Americans took to the streets against the “war” even before it was technically launched, consistent with US public opinion numbers showing majority opposition to unilateral war, Bush and his “posse” dismissed this remarkable outpouring of pre-war antiwar sentiment as irrelevant. Telling reporters that he also remembered many Americans and others wrongly (in his view) protesting “trade” (his Orwellian description for the top down corporate globalization that global-activists actually oppose) and refused to directly answer reporters’ questions about the reasons for mass opposition to his Iraq policy at home and abroad. Following standard White House doctrine, Bush, Rice and Rumsfeld lectured us on how fortunate we are to possess the very right to protest, unlike the people of Iraq, as if this was granted to us conditionally by benevolent masters and not a longstanding freedom won through deadly struggle and asserted as our birthright. As if this birthright was more seriously endangered by Saddam Hussein than by the Christian Fundamentalist Confederacy enthusiast John Ashcroft and other sponsors of the Patriot Act and Total Information Awareness.
Last July, Bush expressed his respect for American working people by taunting Iraqi guerillas to attack their many children deployed inIraq. “There are some who feel like the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring ‘em on.” Like many of fighting age from his privileged, super-wealthy circle, of course, “bring ‘em on Bush” avoided real military service during the Vietnam War. He dodged the central military engagement of his time by “making occasional appearances at the Texas National Guard.” Given the opportunity to express his rugged, West-Texas sentiments against the “Communist” enemies of American “freedom” in the jungles ofSoutheast Asia, he was content to leave the bloody and dirty work to the sons of the American working-class, who are joined now by blue-collar daughters to comprise to the core basis ofAmerica’s armed forces today. He recoiled in horror at the supposedly “elitist” anti-war movement but was pleased to eggAmerica’s predominantly poor and working-class soldiers on to murder and death from the sheltered sidelines of aristocratic advantage.
The list of plutocratic and authoritarian outrages inflicted on theUSpopulace under the guise of the “war on terrorism” and the “leadership” of the Bush administration – by far the wealthiest White House in history – goes on and on. Perhaps nothing, however, epitomizes the sheer contempt in which that administration and its allies hold the American people and democracy more perfectly than the propaganda campaign it conducted since last September to convince Americans to accept the utterly false notion that Saddam posed a serious threat to Americans and world peace, linking him to 9/11 and Islamic terrorism. This idea cannot withstand scrutiny, which is why it was quickly replaced byAmerica’s supposed mission to spread “freedom” and “democracy” – the main theme of Bush’s recent speech – as the reason we illegally and immorally invadedIraq. But, of course, Bush’s deceptions are so monumentally profuse that authors are already filling entire books with lists and diagnoses of the president’s many lies.
Love for Democracy: Plutocracy At Home, Polyarchy (and Worse) Abroad
Later in “Bush’s Best Speech,” the president claims that the world has undergone the “swiftest advance of freedom in the 2500-year story of democracy” during the last 30 years, which have seen the number of democracies in the world rise (according to the calculations of the right-wing think-tank “Freedom House”) from 40 to 120. It is “no accident,” Bush argues, that “the rise of so many democracies took place in a time when the world’s most influential nation was a democracy.”
But is America truly “a democracy” in the true (dictionary) sense of one-person vote, one vote, with an equal policymaking influence for all, regardless of wealth and other factors of socially constructed inequality?. Not exactly: the top 1 percent owns more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth and possesses vastly greater capacity to fund campaigns and win policies tailored to its interests than the non-affluent majority. That top hundredth makes more than 80 percent of campaign contributions above $200 in theUS, helping contribute toAmerica’s reputation as the “best democracy that money can buy”and generating truly remarkable levels of voter disengagement and political apathy in theUS. Reflecting the massive media-driven costs of American campaigns, the candidates who win the race for private dollars tend to win elections in the great preponderance of cases. Candidates serious about winning are beholden to wealthy corporate donors, who possess massive stashes of political cash they use as a profitable investment in the policy process. American elections are generally “wealth primaries,” with incumbents routinely out-raising challengers because officeholder’s position in policymaking power means they can most effectively act on the political investments of the wealthy.
Thanks to this and a host of related factors including highly concentrated media ownership, it is absurdly difficult for people who might dare to speak against concentrated wealth within (Kucinich) our outside (Nader) the two-party system to win elections or even get a meaningful public hearing. Such candidates are censored by the nature of the nation’s political system, as American elections are becoming little more than a recurrent celebration of big capital’s permanent dictatorship. The democratic ideal is widely understood by Americans to have been negated by the harsh realities of “dollar democracy” and the “golden rule” (“those who have the gold rule”). “As theUnited Statesapproaches the 2000 presidential race,” columnist William Pfaff wrote three years ago, “the fact must be faced thatAmericahas become a plutocracy, rather than a democracy.”
In 2000, of course, even record-breaking private financial investments inAmerica’s electoral process were not enough to guarantee Bush’s ascendancy over the expressed popular will. He also required some help from the vote scrubbers ofFloridaand some scandalous support from high-placed allies in the most explicitly aristocratic branch of the federal government – the Supreme Court.
The policy and related socioeconomic consequences of American plutocracy are all too evident. American governmentlacks the resources to provide universal health coverage (leaving more than 42 million American without basic medical insurance), to properly match unemployment benefits to millions out of work, and to meet the needs of veterans. It can afford, however, to spend trillions on Fat Cat Tax Cuts that reward those least in need and to spend more on the military than all of its possible enemy (“evildoer”) states combined many times over, providing massive subsidy to the high-tech corporate sector, including billions on weapons and “defense” systems that bear no meaningful relations to any real threat faced by the American people.
Turning abroad, many if not most of Bush’s 120 “democracies”(a count generated by the right-wing think-tank “Freedom House”),supposedly brought to life under the benevolent influence of the freedom-lovingUnited Statesare democracies in name only. The real term for the prevailing political system in many of them (as in the homeland) is “polyarchy,” a US-favored “system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision making is confined to leadership choice carefully managed by competing elites. The polyarchic concept of democracy,” notes sociologist William I. Robinson, “is an effective arrangement for legitimating and sustaining inequalities within and between nations (deepening in a global economy) far more effectively than authoritarian solutions.” Under this watered down system of “democracy” promoted by the NED and theUS, Noam Chomsky has noted, the big decisions belong to “leading sectors of the business community and related elites.” The “public are to be only ‘spectators of action,’ not ‘participants’ …They are permitted to ratify the decisions of their betters and to lend their support to one or another of them, but not to interfere with matters – like public policy – that are none of their business. If segments of the public depart from their apathy and begin to organize and enter the public arena [as in Venezuala today] that’s not democracy. Rather it’s a crisis of democracy in proper technical usage, a threat that has to be overcome in one or another way: in El Salvador, by death squads – at home by more subtle and indirect means.”
When democracy and elections are perceived as incompatible with perceived USeconomic and military interests, as in Vietnam during the 1950s, Chilein the 1970s, or in Iraq today, to give just three of many possible examples, US policymakers have always preferred dictatorship and authoritarianism. From the 1950s through the 1970s, this preference cost millions of Vietnamese lives, snuffed out in the interest of freedom’s salvation. It claimed hundreds of thousands inIndonesia during the 1960s and in Central America during the 1970s and 1980s. Other examples are abundant.
The Bush administration recently displayed its love for democracy in Venezeula, a leading oil exporter to the US. In April 2002, it actively fostered a short-lived coup against that nation’s popularly elected leader Hugo Chavez, whose commitment to national self-determination, social justice, and popular political engagement and related critic of US imposed neo-liberal globalization made him a target for US efforts at regime change. The NED, interestingly enough, provided nearly $900,000 to dissident anti-Chavez forces from within Venezuela’s socioeconomic elite and military in the year leading up to the coup, which the White House immediately welcomed – only to be embarrassed when a mass popular rebellion of the nation’s newly empowered non-affluent majority put that country’s supposed “hated” dictator back in office (see the amazing documentary, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” screenings available at www.chavezthefilm.com ).
Nearly one year later, American leaders’ commitment to the democratic ideal was displayed in the Bush administration’s biting rhetorical division between an archaic “Old [because officially anti-war]Europe” and a progressive, forward-looking “New [because officially pro-war]Europe” – a distinction that neglected to note that the very preponderant majority of all (including “New”) Europeans opposed Bush’s attack onIraq. The White House criticized Turkey’s refusal to serve as an imperial staging ground as anti-democratic when it knew full well that refusal was demanded by a huge majority of the Turkish population.
Meanwhile, authoritarian US-sponsored war- and drug-lords have replaced the Taliban as the American-approved rulers ofAfghanistan. The US enrages the people of South Korean by reversing previous policies of engagement with North Korea and turns a wary eye at a heroic but (for US policymakers) disturbing outburst of mass protest in defense of national resources in Bolivia. Americacontinues to supportIsrael’s bloody, illegal occupation ofPalestineand deepens its alliance with authoritarian and state-terrorist forces inRussia,Indonesia, andColumbia. It does so in the name of supposed “wars” “on” “terrorism” and “drugs” that have emerged from and displaced the war on Communism as official new pretexts for a permanent imperial campaign in the not-so post-Cold War era.
Sacrificing for “Rescue and Liberation”
Beyond the inspiring influence exercised by America’s brilliant model, Bush’s speech claims that part of the explanation for the planet’s supposed spectacular “advance of freedom” is found in the willingness of America’s “free people” to “sacrifice for liberty” with their blood. This “sacrifice” has occurred through battlefield activities he made sure to avoid “in the trenches of World War I, through a two-front war in the 1940s, the difficult battles of Korea and Vietnam, and in [unspecified] missions of rescue and liberation on nearly every continent,” including the recent operations in Iraq. “Because we and our allies were steadfast,” Bush noted, “Germany and Japan are democratic nations that no longer threaten the world” and ‘every nation has learned” that “freedom is worth fighting for, dying for, and standing for”…unless you happen to be a child of privilege who counts on connections to keep you out of the booby-trapped jungles where freedom’s march is measured in brown-skinned body counts.
Too bad America’s supposed historical and ongoing supposed mission of “rescue and liberation” couldn’t have been put into practice in Rwandaor, more recently, Liberia, where Bush was shamed into making small gestures towards humanitarian intervention by the population’s resort to the practice of literally piling up corpses outside the US Embassy in Monrovia. This mission does not extend to the whole of Africa, where the Bush administration resists trade, health care and other reforms that might stem the ravages of AIDS and poverty.
Too bad, for that matter,America’s passion for “rescue” and “liberation” did not extend to European Jewry during the 1930s and the Second World War. Truth is, beneath all of Republican’s recent talk about saving Europefrom Hitler, the US was relatively pleased with German’s fascist, racist, and pillaging ways well into the late 1930s. It saw Italian and even German fascism as understandable and even useful development in America’s efforts to keep theSoviet Union and the left at bay. It was only when history’s real “evil Axis” moved to seriously attack US global interests that US policymakers undertook to battle it in the name of “liberty,” making sure along the way to expand the global “open door” for US corporate power and working afterward to keep both West Germany and Japan firmly under strict US control. During the war, American rejected repeated Jewish pleas to make special efforts to halt Hitler’s genocide.
In Vietnam during the 1960s, young Bush watched from the sidelines of privilege while 56,000 Americans were “sacrificed” to the cause of preventing national self-determination and social revolution. A good portion died simply to save presidential and establishment face after the White House and Pentagon had given up on full military victory. Ever since Vietnam, US policymakers have been terrified by the volatile political affect of civilian casualties on a US population that repeatedly learns all-too well who does and doesn’t [get] sacrifice[d] for empire.
During the first Gulf War, the US actually called Iraqis out to rebel for “liberty” and then stood by while the US-designated monster butchered his opposition. The rebels were sacrificed to America’s drive to control Iraqi affairs, as were the 500,000 or more Iraqi children who died as a result of US-imposed economic sanctions that killed without a single American sacrifice. Consistent with this ruthless insensitivity, our “rescue” instincts have not led us to acknowledge the large number of innocent civilians we have killed and injured during our recent liberation ofIraq, whose numbers US policymakers don’t even bother to count
Speaking of sacrifice, liberty, and Iraq, we can safely predict that Bush’s speech writers will never have him reference one of John Stuart Mill’s famous arguments in his classic text On Liberty ) – the one where Mill noted that people need to fight and sacrifice for their own rights to truly cherish them. “Freedom” imposed by foreigners, Mill argued, inevitably reverts to slavery, an argument that calls into question the very possibility ofAmericaliberating anyone other than itself. You cannot export democracy through the barrel of a gun.
“Inclusion and Justice”
And speaking of theMiddle East, where the US has long worked to subsidize, equip and otherwise sustain widespread dictatorship and authoritarianism, Bush’s speech claims that “working democracies always need time to develop – as did our own. We’ve taken a 200-year journey toward inclusion and justice – and this makes us patient and understanding as other nations are at different stages of this journey.”
Well, that’s nice to know, but if America is so advanced on the long and winding road to “inclusion and justice,” why doesthe average white person in metropolitan America live in a neighborhood that is 80% white and only 7% black while a typical black American individual lives in a neighborhood that is only 33% white and as much as 51% black (see the work John Logan and colleagues at the Lewis Mumford Center, online at www.albany.edu/mumford/ census)?. Why are African-Americans twice as likely to be unemployed as whites and why is the poverty rate for blacks in the US is more than twice the poverty rate for whites? Why is black families’ median household net worth less than 10 percent that of whites? Why are blacks still disproportionately concentrated in the country’s worst urban ghettoes, in neighborhoods that host the worst public school systems in the country and are home to a tragic tangled web of pathologies that emerge wherever disadvantaged people are concentrated and cordoned off from “respectable society”? Their predominantly African-American populations live, writes African-America writer and activist Elaine Brown, “in conditions of deterioration and disrepair, lacking needed services, with few community-based businesses.” A shocking number and percentage of their younger residents now provide crucial raw material for the nation’s massive prison-industrial complex, one of the great growth industries to emerge in the wake of the loss of industrial jobs that used to employ millions of urban African-Americans. Such are just a tiny share of the many disturbing facts of life in the savagely unequal nation that Madeline Albright said “stands taller and sees farther” than the rest of the world – the country that Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson calls “the beacon to the world of the way life should be.”
The Making of “Successful Societies”
“Bush’s best speech” reaches new depths of narcissistic self-delusion when he sermonizes on the “essential principles common to every successful society, in every culture.” Among these principles he includes the requirement that “governments respond to the will of the people and not the will of an elite,” “invest in the health and education of their people,” and recognize the “impartial rule of law.” Successful societies, Bush notes, “allow room” for “healthy civic institutions,” including “labor unions and independent newspapers and broadcast media” and they “prohibit and punish official corruption.”
All true but the problem is that America’s economic “elite” routinely dominates US policy to cut investment in health and education for the populace, rollback the power of organized labor (targeted for major diminishment under the design of Bush’s Department of Homeland Security), stack the decks of justice and prevent serious punishment of powerful corporate criminals (who go free after demolishing droves of jobs and savings accounts while hundreds of thousands of impoverished African-Americans rot in Hellish jails and prisons for minor narcotics offenses), deepen the ever-increasing corporate concentration of print and electronic media ownership, and relentlessly manipulate public opinion (“taking the risk out of democracy” in the late Alex Carey’s wonderfully suggestive words) from inside and outside that dominant media. This is a structural, bipartisan reality, graphically evident under a Bill Clinton as well as a Bush, though the latter is an especially dedicated, energetic, shameless, and resolute agent of the American “elite’s” agenda of starving the left (social and democratic) hand and feeding the right (regressive and repressive) hand of the state. The corporate-plutocratic “welfare reformer” Clinton, who worked to distance the “new” Democratic Party from its social-democratic New Deal (and related Great Society) legacy, is appalled by the depth and degree of his successor’s commitment to socioeconomic and policy regression.
Speaking of shamelessness, consider Bush’s last line on what makes a good society. “Instead of directing hatred and resentment against others,” Bush says, “successful societies appeal to the hopes of their own people.” This from the president who told the world it is “either with us or against us” in an apparently permanent and borderless war against “the enemies of freedom.” This from a sneering violator of the most basic edicts on the books of post-Nuremberg international law who pushes fear and loathing of shifting and falsely merged Evil Others to marshal mass support and divert attention from the consequences of his aristocratic domestic policies.
Perhaps a psychoanalyst should be sent to the White House to examine the remarkable inversion that occurs in Bush’s depiction of the rest of the world’s problems: he and his team are masters of almost everything he reproaches in others – the fiendish foes of “freedom.” In the meantime, fellow Americans, let us reflect on the harm we are doing ourselves and others by permitting “leaders” like Bush to remain so dreadfully oblivious to the painful reality of how America relates to itself and the world.
PaulStreet([email protected]) writes on race, class, imperialism, and thought control. His book Empire Abroad, Inequality at Home: Writings onAmericaand The World(Paradigm Publishers) will be published next year.