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My Country, Misery


Tom Ridge came clean this week.  Woo-hoo. 

What a brave and selfless act.  Reminds me of Colin Powell completely and totally kinda sorta dissing the Iraq invasion.  Great to hear that everything we knew and said and got clobbered for saying at the time was in fact true.  Thanks a lot, General.  That's really helpful.  Not so great about the whole timing thing though. 

Colin Powell was probably the only human on the planet who could have stopped the Iraq holocaust, but he waited instead.  He seems to think that loyalty to the president is more important than loyalty to the country, loyalty to principle, or loyalty to the idea of preserving lives.  Or so he claims.  Given what he has said since he sold the war to Americans with his unconscionably despicable Security Council dog-and-pony show, I'm hard-pressed to see how he's been loyal even to Bush.  Seems kinda like he's only loyal to Colin, trying to save a place for himself in the history books. 

Mr. Ridge, on the other hand, has a book for sale, just in case no one noticed that particular coincidence.  Perhaps that explains why he is now revealing the truth about the politicization of the buffoonish ‘terrorism' color-coding system, a mere five years after he claims it was used to justify the Bush administration's continued existence, and almost used – save for the brave interventions of, wait for it now..., one Tom Ridge – to put Bush over the top on the eve of the 2004 election.  Once again, a bit of timely honesty from Ridge at exactly that moment would almost certainly have terminated the Bush nightmare at a ‘mere' sickening four years.  Imagine the effect on votershad the Little Emperor's Secretary of Homeland Security resigned in protest on the eve of that election, and said exactly why.  Alas, Tom seems to think 2009 a more timely year for his revelations.  And then, of course, there's the book... 

All of this has me thinking – as I'm afraid I've found myself doing pretty much every day for at least the last decade" – What the hell happened to America?"  This country seems to have deteriorated mightily over the course of my lifetime, and I know from the email that I get that I'm hardly alone in believing that. 

I'll confess right off the bat that I am more than a little suspicious of the question itself.  Doesn't every generation think that life was better back in the day?  Could it be that I'm just part of the latest cast of regular, vanilla-flavored narcissists now busy transforming themselves into full-blown, old and bitter narcissists?

There's some pretty good reason to think so.  Iraq is a disgusting piece of savagery that was sold on lies and never should have happened in a remotely moral universe.  But Vietnam was worse.  The Caligula Kid – George W. Bush – and his growly pally, Dick "Dick" Cheney, are about the last persons out of the whole 300 million of us who should have been selected to reside in the White House.  But so was Nixon and, in some ways, Johnson too.  Karl Rove was a monster who cheapened American politics and the practice of government in every fashion he could possibly imagine.  But so did his mentor, Lee Atwater.  And so did Atwater's spiritual antecedent, Joe McCarthy.  It many ways, the present disaster often looks like just more of the same, history's proverbial one damn thing after another. 

But my gut tells me that the feelings rumbling around in there are not just the bitter ruminations of some geezer who isn't even old enough yet to qualify as an old man.  I do think something profound and fundamental has changed. 

It's hard to put your finger on it, though.  For one thing, it's not just one thing.  It's not just the politicians.  It's not just the media.  It's not just the institutions of government or the political parties.  It's not just the public.  It's all of that, and a lot more. 

And for another thing, it's not just this or that deadly sin, but all of them, plus a few that weren't even on the original manufacturer's list.  Is it that we've become more deceitful, or more fearful that is the problem?  More corrupt, or more vicious?  More slothful, or more greedy?  And so on, and so on.  So many ways to destroy a culture, so little time... 

At the risk of sounding a bit too much like the very people I most loathe in the American political and cultural discourse, I think what's happened is that the society has fundamentally lost its moral bearings.  No, I'm not talking about some hyped-up, jerked-off, compulsive obsession with all things sexual.  That regressive fixation, complete with enough hypocrisy to sink a small continent, is of course so much a part of the problem, not the solution.  What I'm referring to is an unmooring from basic, just, unselfish – and one might even say, patriotic, in the true sense of the term – dignity, generosity, humanity. 

Look, let's not kid ourselves.  There's always been a dark side to the human spirit, and you'll never go broke betting on the proposition that politics draws more needy and black souls to its practice than do most other professions.  As already noted, before Rove there was the shameful scourge of McCarthy, and he was hardly the first political practitioner of the dark arts, in America or elsewhere.  But it's different today. 

To begin with, this country has unquestionably drifted to the right over the last thirty years.  This is not an entirely simple equation, and indeed, in the domain of social issues such as gay rights or the integration of women and minorities into the economic and political institutions of society, I would even argue that we've witnessed a progressive turn during these last decades.  Moreover, it's even possible that we are in the early stages of a leftward turn in other domains as well, given the current crises of American capitalism and foreign policy.  Nevertheless, even with all those caveats, who would have imagined in 1970 that America would be far more regressive four decades later, rather than far less?

It's a libertarian sort of regressivism, to be sure, hence the aforementioned drift to the left on social issues, and perhaps even a new isolationist cast on foreign-policy questions, rejecting the worst excesses of imperialist predation.  That's hard to say.  The Iraq experience provides evidence for both a more optimistic or a more pessimistic interpretation of public opinion when it comes to foreign adventures. 

But where you really see the rightward turn is in the economic domain.  Once, thirty or forty years ago, it was literally a national project to worry about the poor.  So much so, in fact, that we decided to fight a war on poverty.  By the 1990s, however, that war was lost through an abandonment of the battlefield equating to unconditional surrender.  One of the most profoundly significant, and yet simultaneously most subtle developments of the Clinton years was the new and near total emphasis on the lot of the middle class.  Not only had America's poor fallen off the radar screen, but in fact, if they got in the way of the middle class achieving all its bourgeois aspirations and acquiring all its requisite trinkets, then not only would the poor cease to receive additional aid and attention, they would also be cut off from their pathetically minuscule existing forms of relief.  This is the true meaning of the welfare reform bill, signed by Clinton in order to guarantee an election he already had in his pocket.  The middle class was saying that it wanted tax breaks and a balanced budget, which meant something had to give.  There went welfare, and with it the war on poverty. 

Just a quick glance at the current political landscape and the figures who populate it gives you a sense of the change that's transpired.  The center of gravity in American politics has moved considerably to the right.  Once, not so long ago, the Republican Party was dominated by its centrists, and people like Ronald Reagan were viewed as kooks.  It's worth remembering that in the 1970s Reagan's presidential aspirations were literally the butt of endless jokes by political comedians.  But the guy went from joke to president to saint, and that says a lot about where we are today.  At this point, there are almost no center-right figures in the Republican Party, at least at the national level. 

The movement of the Democratic Party has followed a similar trajectory.  You'd never know it, of course, by listening to the screaming inanities of regressive lunatics, whether elite or rank-and-file.  Notwithstanding their foaming rants about Clinton or Obama or Reid or Pelosi being socialists, however, the truth is none of these figures are even vaguely liberal by traditional standards.  Compare them to Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson or even Harry Truman and this is easy to see.  Ditto any comparison of these folks to progressives in other Western democracies.  Watch what they don't do – whether that is ending an obscene war or legislating universal single-payer healthcare, or standing up for gay rights – and one can instantly appreciate how little these figures are willing to fight for progressive politics, and how lacking in progressivity are the politics for which they are unwilling to fight. 

In addition to the proliferation of adherents to truly scary right-wing politics, and the shifting of the political landscape to the right – which may be more properly considered as the mainstreaming of extremism – I think we've also experienced a decimation in the ranks of the politically courageous, people willing to sacrifice career, reputation or even their lives in order to stand fast against the worst impulses in American politics and the most vicious purveyors of those ideas and attitudes.  It's not so much that these people were progressives and now they're not as it is that they were Americans with integrity, outliers filled with enough decency and courage to stand against the collection of scary monster outliers of the regressive right.  Yes, there was Joseph McCarthy.  But there was also Joseph Welch.  Yes, there was Father Coughlin.  But there was also Edward R. Murrow.  Yes, there was Richard Nixon.  But there was also George McGovern. 

Those white knights of integrity seem all but disappeared today.  I can remember my astonishment during the Bush versus Gore debacle of 2000 that there wasn't one single elder statesman of American politics – some Jerry Ford-like figure – who stood up and said "I'm sorry, but this is wrong".  Who risked the alienation of his party and peers by making the case that it's far less important who wins the vote than it is that the vote be legitimately won.  I remember during the Clinton fiasco – when a sitting president the United States was being impeached for lying about a blow job, when he was almost hounded out of office by members of Congress who literally were stalking boy interns or trolling airport men's rooms for sex, having serial affairs and dumping their wives for their paramours as their spouses lay in the hospital cancer ward on their recovery bed, or fathering children in second families no one knew about – I remember thinking who will call an end to this madness which has infected the American body politic?  But nobody of stature did.  Nor did they, of course, in the worst instance of all, as a handful of psychopaths invented a couple of absurd pretexts and marched the country off into a completely unnecessary war in Iraq, which has now claimed perhaps a million lives.  How is it that nobody of standing had the courage to stand up and say to the American public, "Come to your senses, this is wrong, the administration is lying to you, think for yourself!"? 

So much is wrong in American politics today – genuinely more so, I think, than in the past.  So many are culpable.  Congress is more worthless than ever, and that's really saying something.  The Democratic Party has thrilled the biology community by creating a whole new class of invertebrates, utterly worthless in office, and wholly undeserving of the title of opposition party when not.  The mass media has become the most despicable collection of whores to power imaginable.  Whatever sense there once was – from the original notions of the Founders up through the era of Cronkite – of the media serving the public interest as critical watchdogs over government has long since transmogrified into just another profit center on corporate balance sheets. 

But even more fundamentally, something has changed at the level of political culture.  Something is broken at the level of human decency.  The toxic combination of rampant American individualism, right-wing successes in framing public attitudes in all the sickest and most corrosive ways, a litany of false prophets preaching bogus religious salvation through even more deceitful notions of political morality, and the gravitational pull from the declining trajectory of an empire that has most assuredly now passed its sell-by date – all of this has conspired to produce a monstrous polity lurching about the global landscape without a heart or a conscience, and eating itself from within for the very same reasons. 

Worse still, as time marches on, fewer and fewer will remain who remember that it wasn't forever thus. 

That once there were lines that were not crossed in American politics. 

That there were notions of decency that transcended partisanship and ideology. 

That those who left flesh overseas fighting the country's wars and brought home Purple Hearts instead were not vitiated during political campaigns as allies of America's adversaries, and especially not by cowards who somehow managed to skip their generation's major national security engagement. 

That there were political crimes that simply required courageous responses, regardless of the sacrifices involved. 

That political leaders could and should sacrifice their positions and perhaps even their careers in order to avoid the taint of association with morally repugnant policies. 

That even troubadours had a responsibility to sing great anthems in protest against injustice, rather than cashing out and selling panties and bras for Victoria's Secret. 

That there was once a thing known as true patriotism, elevating the public interest over everything else. 

And, yes, even over personal profit.     

David Michael Green

David Michael Green

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.

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