Dark of Heartness, Part II
Part I of this essay can be viewed here.
Et tu, Wolfie? Et tu?
Imagine our shock at Paul Wolfowitz's shock. He not only masterminded humanity's greatest current catastrophe, the US invasion of Iraq, but he did so by fabricating and marketing a complete mythological cosmology of Good versus Evil (Bush good! Saddam bad!), the likes of which might have left even Jim Jones envious and amazed. And he did so in a fashion that no doubt brought a posthumous smile to the face of his graduate school mentor, Leo Strauss, who taught that we of the hoi polloi don't have the right stuff to maintain our democracy, and thus need enlightened elites like Wolfowitz to spoon feed us religion and other fairytales in order to keep us on the right course, even if it's for all the wrong reasons.
But then, of course, the whole dang thing came a cropper in Baghdad, and - as if the symmetries between Vietnam and Iraq weren't already spookily profound enough - Wolfie found himself following the trail of shame pioneered by Robert McNamara, casually parachuting out of his Pentagon office and into the presidency of the World Bank. (Does this mean that, like McNamara, thirty years from now Wolfowitz will be the subject of a feature film in which he kinda sorta apologizes for his grand goof? We'll just have to wait and see if he becomes the last human on earth to recognize the full magnitude of his spectacular achievement in Mesopotamia.) Meanwhile, safely ensconced at the apex of financial (as opposed to military) power, Wolfowitz simply refused any longer to answer questions related to his previous employment. Though the dead and the dying of Iraq will not be any time soon, Wolfowitz had simply moved on.
And, with seemingly nary a whiff of irony about him, he came to his new position preaching the virtues of 'accountability'. Moreover, Wolfowitz - dictatorial leadership style no worse for wear after the last go 'round - blasted into the World Bank declaring that the evils of corruption were the key source of global development problems, and that rooting them out would become job one at the Bank. But now he and his supporters, including the Wall Street Journal, the National Review and the White House, profess shock at all the hullabaloo generated by the revelation that the anti-corruption president was ordering up massive promotions for his girlfriend (also his employee) while simultaneously preaching the gospel of squeaky clean, again with no apparent sense of irony. So Mr. Accountability is now running around trying to make sure that no one holds Mr. Anti-Corruption accountable for his corruption. Meanwhile, Mr. It's-All-About-Me is utterly uncomprehending when it comes to understanding other people's feelings about all this.
What's going on, here? Sadly, a pattern.
But at least one which we've finally figured out. Did you here about the recent study in which biologists discovered an overwhelmingly robust relationship between genetics and ideology? It seems that, like chimps (with no offense intended to my furry primate friends), conservatives are 99.87 percent identical to fully developed homo sapiens, except that they are missing one particular strand of DNA that scientists say is intimately linked with the human capacity for compassion.
In the world of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, the fact that the above paragraph is not true (or at least not yet; or at least not to my knowledge) would, of course, be a fact of little consequence (in fact, it wouldn't be a fact at all). If the assertion had any utility in advancing one or more of their venal objectives, it would be promptly employed, regardless of its veracity. Like, for example - and I'll just make something up at random here - mushroom cloud smoking guns, or knowing for sure where the WMD were stashed in Iraq (around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat, of course).
And its too bad I'm not self-loathing enough to traffic in the sort of bald-faced lies which have become a staple of the regressive diet in recent decades, because this scientific non-finding concerning the missing bit of DNA would otherwise explain so much, wouldn't it?
Have you noticed with the regressive right how the rules that they love to apply to you and me somehow don't seem to apply to them? And that when those rules inevitably come crashing into even their privileged lives that they miraculously have a change of heart? And it does happen inevitably. As even the non-regressive New Jersey governor Jon Corzine just found out, while politicians may often successfully place themselves above the law, the laws of physics offer no such exemptions to either the rich or the powerful (and Corzine is very much both). (Note to the good folks reading this: Wear your seatbelt. Note to Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of youse nasties: Your safety belt usage is optional.)
But, seriously, have you noticed that the only time you see compassion from conservatives is when it applies to them (which means, of course, that it's not really compassion at all)? That's just the pattern, isn't it? That's precisely how it works. The examples are myriad.
Quick, name one conservative figure who is an avid supporter of ending the gun madness which claims thirty thousand casualties in this country every year. Why, it's James Brady. How could we possibly explain the uniqueness of this apostasy by a former leading figure in the Reagan administration? Could it have anything to do with the bullet that penetrated his skull in the course of the attempt on Reagan's life?
And while we're talking Reagans, how 'bout that Nancy, eh? She's a solid citizen, isn't she? A good, old-fashioned regressive from the Marie Antoinette school. A firm supporter of tax cuts for the rich, war-mongering wherever possible, and eviscerating school lunch programs for indigent children (what, you have a problem with counting ketchup as a vegetable?). Except, of course, for one issue where she's broken publicly with the troglodyte tendency: stem cell research. What's amazing about that, if you think about it, is the massive coincidence of her position on that issue and the fact that she suffered for years taking care of her husband while Alzheimer's - a disease likely to be cured by such research - turned his brain to mush. What a bizarre, random, happenstance!
If your heart bleeds for Nancy, it must surely go out to Dick Cheney, who could (literally and figuratively) badly use it. Don't you just feel awful for this guy, the way he gets roughed up over his daughter's sexual orientation? When she and her lesbian partner gave birth to a child they are raising together, journalists actually asked Grandad questions about that! With such impudence having consumed the bold gatekeepers of the Fourth Estate, it is no wonder Cheney got all huffy and refused to answer. For crissakes, you'd think he was one of those crass politicians who win elections by using gays as political whipping boys or something! Cheney seems to be saying that people's sexual orientation is their own business, not the government's, and I for one am glad that he's there in Washington making sure that's so. You go, Dick!
I'm also glad that Jeb Bush is out there protecting us from the thinly-veiled racism that politicians of a certain persuasion are fond of using when (gay-bashing having lost its bite), they pontificate with malice aforethought about the current illegal immigration 'crisis'. Not Jeb, though. He's a regular profile in courage. That's why it was reported that "the Florida governor calls the antiÃ¢â‚¬â€˜immigration 'chest pounding' of politicians hurtful". You really have to admire selfless politicians like Jebby, willing to cut across the vicious political grain of the regressive right, with nothing in it for themselves, and stand four-square behind fundamental human rights principles like..., like..., well, like not demonizing immigrants in order to score political points. Oh, did I mention that Jeb's wife Columba is Mexican?
If you're like me, you've long recognized Trent Lott and his Republican colleagues as stalwart advocates for the ordinary guy against the evils of corporate predators continually seeking to ransack hapless Americans, pin them to the wall, and fleece them mercilessly. Frankly, looking at the senator's voting record in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy, draconian bankruptcy laws, or meat-axe cuts to social spending can be a bit deceiving. He's really a powerful voice in Washington for the downtrodden who are forever getting kicked around by big business. It was no surprise, then, that Lott was fuming at the despicable treatment that insurance companies doled out to the already miserable citizens of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their homes. Who wouldn't be incensed at the insurance companies refusing to pay off claims due to policyholders? "I am outraged," he said. "I'm concerned there are lots of abuses in the aftermath of the hurricane." Of course, given his well-established track record fighting for the little guy, I doubt seriously that State Farm's rejection of Lott's personal claim for his loss of a $400,000 home had anything to do with his position on this issue. (Memo to State Farm CEO: Fire your entire senior management team for a complete absence of political savvy. Memo to State Farm Board: Fire your CEO for making lousy personnel choices.)
You see the same kind of thing with guys like Clarence Thomas, who vigilantly and even vehemently guards the barricades against the societal corrosion endemic to programs like affirmative action. Apparently, nothing so incenses the good justice more than the idea that historically thwarted classes of individuals might get some remedial assistance from governing institutions to overcome the barriers they still face today. Preposterous! Offensive! Outrageous! Rightly so, Judge T. has so far found only one single individual for whom the advantages of affirmative action seem to pass muster against his strict criteria for protection of the endangered commonweal. What is so bizarre is the remarkable coincidence in all this: This person has exactly the same name as the judge! (Whether he also shares Justice Thomas' passion for pornography is unknown at this time.)
But you gotta love Matthew Dowd, especially. With the exception of Karl Rove, perhaps no one in the world is more responsible for making sure that George W. Bush is your president. It seems that Dowd, the chief campaign strategist for the 2004 Bush campaign, was just utterly enthralled with the personality of Young George, going all the way back to Texas days. And who could blame him for that? Smart, articulate, heroic, uniting, tolerant, wise - George W. Bush has it all. "It's almost like you fall in love", Dowd said (not that kind of love, of course - even Cheney's not up for this one). So Matt did what needed to be done (and, trust me on this, there was a lot, and it was ugly) to push The Disaster That Is Bush over the finish line in 2004. Now, barely two years later, he reveals that it was a mistake, so much so that recently he had actually even written an op-ed piece entitled "Kerry Was Right". He somehow never quite managed to submit it, but that's another story.
Dowd ran the 2004 campaign around security fears, arguing that voters "trust this president more than they trust [flip-flopping] Senator Kerry on Iraq". Now he tells us he was wrong. Wow, you don't see that happen every day, and kudos to Dowd for his courageous statements. I'm quite sure they had nothing to do with the fact that the Bush administration is about to ship his son Daniel over to Iraq. I also doubt that fact has anything to do with why Daniel's father now says "I do feel a calling of trying to reÃ¢â‚¬â€˜establish a level of gentleness in the world". I agree that's a pretty good idea, Matt. I even thought it was a good idea in 2004.
These are all great examples of concerned conservative compassion, but my true favorites are the ones regarding criminal justice values. You know, like Rush Limbaugh, who regularly rails on about how we should string up druggies and how there's nothing wrong with denying due process to those bad people incarcerated at Guantánamo. How different was his tune when 'prosecutorial zealousness' and bias led to his arrest for drug abuse, and when he was, I'm pretty sure, glad to have a high-priced lawyer, appellate courts, and the right to throw bail. Then there was Bob Ney and Mark Foley entering alcohol rehab programs after being exposed as thieves and perverts. Gosh, whatever happened to that old time religion of 'personal responsibility'? Or how about Bush administration insider David Safavian pleading for leniency from the court before being sentenced to 18 months for corruption in the Abramoff case. Leniency? I don't remember seeing a lot of that in the conservative playbook. You mean like for indigent African American convicts, former abused children one and all, shipped off to death row without even competent counsel? That kind of leniency?
Now comes the visage of Alberto Gonzales, the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the land. Back in the day, the "Judge" (as he likes his staff to call him) was the plausible deniability guy for a Texas governor named Bush. Gonzales would give Bush the most wonderfully brief and narrow summaries of death row clemency appeals that could possibly be put together and, amazingly, Bush would always deny them. This was all done in the name of getting tough on law and order, mind you. Now the Attorney General's former top staffer has testified before Congress that Gonzales lied about his involvement in firing prosecutors for political reasons. Records released so far also prove he's lied. And another top staffer has taken the Fifth to avoid testifying at all. It kinda looks like Gonzales is going down, doesn't it? And I'm just guessing, but I bet that when he seeks a pardon from the president for his crimes, he'll be thankful that he himself is not writing the brief.
Anyhow, you get the picture here? Me, I'm thinking about renouncing my silly moral hangups about truth and all that junk, and just going with the genetic story after all, 'cause it seems so damn true! Is there any doubt but that conservatives are simply missing the compassion gene? Nancy Reagan couldn't give a damn about your specific healthcare problem until it became her problem, then she figured it out - but only that. Don't hold your breath waiting for enlightened leadership on Social Security, a living wage or even general healthcare delivery from the wife of the president who couldn't even mouth the word "AIDS" while the disease was beginning its march to the sea in the 1980s, taking out a wide swath of Americans along the way.
Matthew Dowd not only sold us a lying president and his prevarications about war just three years ago, but he built an entire campaign around an even more egregious lie - that his candidate was a war hero, and that the other candidate, an actual war hero, was a weak imposter. Now, as his own misdeeds loom up with the potential to bite him back hard, like some figure out of Shakespeare or a Greek tragedy, he finds doubt and regret. Doubt? Regret? I tell you what, man, you go drink down one percent of the blood you've spilled, first. You go apologize on your hands and knees to one percent of the families you've decimated. You go pay back one percent of the treasure you've wasted - money needed for healthcare and education. Then come tell us your self-serving tales of doubt and regret. Because, funny, somehow we never got that vibe from you in 2004.
If it seems like conservatives are congenitally incapable of compassion until they've had to struggle with something themselves, that's because it's true. If you think the whole business of wealthy Americans demanding additional tax cuts for themselves to pay for their third yacht while others go to bed hungry is part of the same mentality, that's because it is. If you're horrified that people are capable of such rampant hypocrisy, you ought to be. This is truly a scary bunch, with the full intellectual firepower of adults, but with social ethics that could make the dynamics of a kindergarten sandbox seem positively Gandhian by comparison.
And that leaves we more enlightened grown-ups with just two choices. We could make sure that every conservative in the White House or Congress loses a child in Baghdad, has another one shot-up with the assault rifles the NRA defends, contracts AIDS, gets wrongly accused of a capital offense and is forced to take a court-appointed drunken lawyer getting paid $6.75 and hour and sleeping during court, is forced to live off a Wal-Mart wage, gets kicked off the voting rolls because of their race, lives in New Orleans and depends on FEMA for housing assistance, gets knocked-up and has to figure out how to deal with an unplanned pregnancy, gets stomped to a bloody pulp because of their sexual orientation, and has to cope by themselves with a parent whose mind has been destroyed by Alzheimer's. That's one alternative. And wouldn't they (and, more importantly, we) be better off for it?
Or, better yet, we could instead make sure that there simply are no more conservatives in the White House or Congress. Progressives, and especially Democrats, need to regain the courage of their convictions, and stop standing by as passive observers while these emotional midgets with their constipated compassion capacities kick our sorry political asses up and down the street. People don't want the garbage they're selling, and just about all we have to do is point out that it is garbage in order for it to be rejected.
Right now, regressives are peddling a lovely mix of war, debt, environmental destruction, torture, division at home, hatred abroad, a tattered constitution, a shaky economy and a healthcare system in free-fall, as well as lies and corruption that could make Imelda herself blush. How is it these guys even exist? How is it they are even allowed within a hundred yards of government buildings? Is there a shortage of ankle bracelets? Even if they were Iraqi suicide bombers blowing up government they couldn't begin to equal the damage they've already done in government.
If emotionally-stunted regressives can't get to compassion on their own, maybe they can learn from the lesson of Lee Atwater, the man whose major contribution in life was to inject a pure and virulent fresh dose of racism into American politics via the Willie Horton ad. Imagine having that as the first line of your three-line obit. (But, hey, it resulted in that really great George H. W. Bush presidency, so it was worth it, right?) When he later got a brain tumor, Lee at last found that elusive compassion thing and apologized on his death bed. Like Matthew Dowd, Atwater's timing was impeccable. And like Dowd, his completely altruistic absence of a motivating self-interest was plain for anyone to see.
I don't wish retribution on even those who have brought harm to the rest of us, and, anyway, surviving and then reacting to regressive policies is about as clear a lose-lose scenario as one could possibly manufacture. Better that we simply stand our ground, match decibel to decibel, stratagem to stratagem, and hope that the integrity and validity of our arguments are sufficient to win the policy debates of the day. (And if they're not, well, then Marx was right: people get the government they deserve.)
There was a reason that Bush the Monster dressed up for Halloween as a so-called compassionate conservative in 2000. It's the same reason that Bush Who Spawned the Monster tried to pitch himself as a kinder, gentler conservative in 1988. In both cases it had to be sold, because who would believe it otherwise? Between Reagan, Gingrich and the rest, Americans had seen the face of conservatism all too clearly. Those who live in fear happily lined-up right behind those who trafficked in it. Those who knew better rightly identified this regressive conservatism for the political carcinogen that it is. It was those in-between who could perhaps be persuaded by such an adeptly crafted marketing slogan.
At least Poppy Bush didn't lie (about that). He was actually kinder and gentler. Than Reagan! That wasn't exactly difficult to do. But his mutant progeny pulled the ultimate bait-and-switch. By 2001, the compassionate conservative of just one year earlier had become the catastrophic conservative with which we're all now so well acquainted.
I will be haunted forever by Cindy Sheehan's description of her family's meeting with him to acknowledge the loss of her son, Casey. This was before Cindy Sheehan became Cindy Sheehan. Bush comes bounding into to the room, all frat-boy jovial and wise-cracking, asking "Okay, who's the mom here?", and glibly continuing to refer to Cindy throughout as "Mom". The family is shocked and astonished by his callousness. He, on the other hand, is completely unable to make even the remotest connection to their grief, and this is even before they would come to lay that grief at his doorstep. They try to show him pictures of Casey and he refuses to look, quickly withdrawing from the room, and then more famously later refusing to meet with her at all.
This is the true face of the regressive conservatism that has invaded our polity today, and we should call it for what it is. Does this sound familiar?: "a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others". How about this?: "having little regard for the feeling and welfare of others". These are defining terms for antisocial personality disorder, better know by its predecessor label for those so diseased: sociopath.
Note that "People with this disorder may exhibit criminal behavior", and symptoms may include "not learning from experience, no sense of responsibility, inability to form meaningful relationships, inability to control impulses, lack of moral sense, emotional immaturity, lack of guilt and selfÃ¢â‚¬â€˜centeredness". No kidding. Really?
If the person in question is Cho Seung-Hui (or Saddam Hussein) we recognize them for the sociopaths they were, though we still happily arm them to the teeth and miraculously express genuine surprise at the fireworks that ensue.
But if the sociopath in question is George W. Bush - and who can deny that he precisely fits this definition, for no amount of Rove's marketing magic has prevented evidence of these symptoms from ultimately bleeding through to our consciousness - if it is George W. Bush, then we dress him up with all the accouterments of presidential power and prestige and allow him to launch wars of massive destruction, willy-nilly.
Bush has no more compassion than does Nancy Reagan or Matthew Dowd. They, and their ilk, know only self-interest, and if they're ever able to miraculously find their way to favoring stem-cell research or ending the Iraq war it is only because they are personally affected and can therefore begin to start imagining other people's suffering. But still, only on that one issue. Otherwise they remain as oblivious - as sociopathic - as ever.
How did these people - the very worst amongst us - come to speak for America?
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (mailto:email@example.com), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net. "Dark of Heartness, Part I: A Journey Into the (Reputed) Soul of Conservatism" can be found here.