Friday, June 6, 2008

A Third Bush Term

The Bush Administration wasn’t just an ideological shift. It was a retreat from thinking itself. This was, of course, exacerbated by 9/11. But the deeper narrative of this period was the rejection of rationality, the retreat to magical thinking, the move away from “the reality-based community.” Al Gore’s Assault on Reason isn’t especially interesting – but he’s onto an important point.

These bozos came into town with a hard-on for anybody who actually knew anything. In that sense, they were like the Khmer Rouge or the young storm troopers of the Cultural Revolution. Anybody wearing glasses – metaphorically speaking – was suspect.

This goes a lot deeper than simple big-business greed – just as the Nazi phenomenon went a lot deeper than world conquest. There was a kind of profound despair underlying and uniting the crazy quilt of wingnuttery in W’s White House, and by extension in the rotting hulk of the GOP. It ranged from Rumsfeld’s technocratic fantasies, to Wolfowitz’s delusions of being a Johnny Appleseed of democracy, to W’s own feckless, faux “optimism,” to Cheney’s bottomless darkness, and on and on. A perfect storm.

But under it all, what united its various strains? What was consistent here? I’d say it was a throwing-up of hands, a despair over the possibility of people of intelligence and goodwill using their brains, figuring stuff out and making a better future. Bush outsourced the future to some providential power. When Woodward asked him how he thought history would judge his term in office, he said, “Who knows? We’ll all be dead.”

The antithesis of this isn’t Obama’s “hope” and “change.” Absent more specificity, those are just the flip-side of “stay the course.” In both cases, we're being invited not to think. They’re both the marks of “movements,” which are all about fantasy trajectories, and not so much about actual work and real progress. The real antithesis to the anti-rationalist despair of the last eight years – and the assault on the institutions of the U.S. government, at all levels, that accompanied it – is Hillary’s grounded, detailed, wonkish program of policy and institutional transformation.

In Adam Curtis’s flawed but fascinating BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares, he showed how the jihadis and the neocons were mirror images of one another – indeed, a true love match. They arose at the same time, and in reaction to the same societal shifts – roughly speaking, the sexual and cultural revolutions of the ‘60s. They both saw these seismic changes as profoundly repulsive and threatening, and they both took radical paths of reaction against them.

Then, fortuitously, their marriage of true minds was forged in the mountains of Afghanistan. The US was generous enough to provide the dowry, in the form of generous aid to the Taliban. But the exchange of vows was in the discovery of their mutually reinforcing core narratives.

Both the jihadis and the neocons take credit for having toppled communism in Afghanistan – and both discovered their agon, their evil opposite/destined soulmate and antagonist, in the process. Al Quaeda needs the neoconned-up US to self-define, and vice-versa. Indeed, the terrifying idea of Al Quaeda that our government has used to give American kids nightmares is largely a paranoid fantasy creation of the neo-cons – as is the Great Satan a necessary dramatic construct for terrifying children in the Islamic world.

Well, now into this pas de deux we’re introducing a potential ménage a trois. We’ve got dueling movements – movement conservatism, movement jihadism and movement Gen-Yism. Yes, yes, I know there are huge differences among these, on multiple levels. But there are a lot of similarities, too. For one thing, Barack’s railing against “the old Washington” – whatever legitimate critiques it may contain – is also eerily reminiscent of the anti-Washington, anti-institutional songs that the Bushies came into town singing.

Not, of course, that ancien regimes deserve to be defended, per se. They don’t. But haven’t we learned, after this past catastrophe, to beware politicians bearing the gift of adjective-rich but programmatically thin “new politics”?

I'm talking here about leadership, not about ideology. On paper, as we hear endlessly, Obama's and Clinton's positions are very similar. I agree with Krugman that where they diverge, it is to Obama's discredit. But there's no question that his platform represents a turn back to the center from where we've been -- though not in any respect more "progressive" than Hillary's. However, at a deeper level, in terms of the attitudes toward leadership that they represent, Obama is no closer to Hillary's or Bill's model than any of them are to W's.

With Hillary, we were pretty clear what we would be getting: Ms. Wonk. Like the rest of her husband’s administration, she wakes up every morning thinking about Some Big Societal Problem to wrestle to the ground – and by lunchtime she’s developed a seven-point plan for doing so. Not much wallowing in fantasy there.

But frankly, of the two finalists in this round-robin, it's a bit of a toss-up as to which seems most likely to give us a third Bush term.

McCain represents continuity with the Republicans on a number of issues – strongly on national security, weakly on the economy, etc. We will usually – not always (think environmental issues, for example) – disagree with him. And his approach to wielding power is hard to predict. He isn't the executive type; he's never been the guy in charge. Instead, he's the lone ranger, the one who holds up under torture, who cracks wise, who gives the finger to the Man. You know, the "maverick." He's a bit of a rageoholic, and maybe even a bit distracted. But he is tough, ornery and pretty specific.

Then there’s Barack. What will he do? What will he be? Obviously, nobody knows – including, maybe, Barack himself. His whole campaign is about getting beyond that stuff. Could he turn out to be a tougher, more grounded leader than he’s been as a campaigner? Perhaps. But the evidence so far is, at best, unconvincing. He's great at being a symbol, but a leader? Not so much. Is he a left-leaning (and vastly smarter and more articulate) mirror-image of what we’re just shucking? A hope dream replacing a fear dream?

Finally, one unpleasant but inescapable thought. Can it be coincidence that these three movements are either grounded in, or at least vulnerable to infection by, misogyny?

Thoughts for a late-spring night, on the eve of Hillary’s withdrawal.

No comments: