This country is becoming more unrecognizable with each passing day. The government, we've learned recently, now packages the news. It provides television stations with hundreds of video news releases made up to resemble actual news reports that give us predigested, Orwellian information designed to convince the public that everything in the nation is being well-managed.
Alongside this propaganda circus comes the added revelation that the presidential hops George W. Bush is taking around the country to peddle his case for dismantling Social Security are not conversations with local citizens -- as they are billed -- but carefully arranged events before prescreened audiences who hear presentations from panelists who've been, by the recent admission of one of them, repeatedly rehearsed on what to say.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security issues a doomsday scenario that details the anticipated consequences of a dozen possible terrorist attacks -- complete with body counts and economic damage estimates. The department insists it is not trying to scare the public, although how a report that one would hope would receive the most limited and controlled circulation gets "leaked" to the public is anybody's guess. It just happens, also, to fit well -- and not surprisingly -- with the antics of an administration that has turned promoting and exploiting public fear into an art form that Joseph Goebbels would envy.
The only thing worse than the government these days -- if such is possible -- are those portions of the populace to whom this government owes its allegiance. These are people for whom the country got off on the wrong track a half-century ago when hippies and flower children became symbols of a new, permissive culture and "race relations" -- a euphemism in an era when "colored people" knew their place -- exploded in a civil rights struggle that upset a settled and long-accepted way of life.
Fifty years ago, this aggrieved sector of the nation's populace switched its political allegiance from the Democratic to the Republican Party. This new voting bloc brought with it a set of sentiments and values on matters of personal belief or private opinion that both political parties have long believed ought to remain in the personal, private realm. Mainstream Republicans tried for several decades to ignore these private-agenda matters. But championed by fire-eating evangelists, what are personal and private matters for many of us are now being turned into issues for public regulation and enforcement.
What were -- a generation ago -- matters at the margin of public discussion and debate are now contentions that are being forced to the center of Republican politics and, because it is the party in power, onto the front burner of American public policy.
In the past several weeks, for example, some science museums, mainly in the South, have announced they will no longer show films that discuss evolution, the geology of the Earth or the Big Bang theory for fear of offending people who think such topics contradict the Bible. Topping this enlightening development is the spectacle of the U.S. Congress leaping into the midst of a tragedy confronting a family in Florida faced with deciding whether to end the tube feeding of a 41-year-old woman whom doctors describe as existing in a vegetative state for the past 15 years. Several of the biggest crooks in Congress who face multiple wrongdoing inquiries have managed to deflect attention from their misdeeds by turning this tragedy into a "cause du jour" for the religious right.
We could probably endure all of this if it were only another of the outbursts of cultural passion that Americans periodically undergo in an attempt to assert why we think we're God's gift to the civilized world. The problem is that the people currently in political power in the United States and the people who support them really think we are -- and that's why this country is becoming more unrecognizable with each passing day.
Hubert G. Locke, Seattle, is a retired professor and former dean of the Daniel J. Evans Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.
© 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer