Bush and some old American traditions

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes

George Bush is nothing, if not a quintessential American. He may be happy to consider himself so, but I do not mean this in a positive way.

Americans have, at their worst, certain tendencies that may characterize the American character. At the least they characterize the American way of life. No other sovereign culture permits what ours does. Hence few citizens of few other countries have the means to behave in a legal way that we do.

Blame the Other Guy

And if blame isn’t sufficient, have him investigated. It has happened at different times in different recent administrations in Washington that the touchstone for upright behavior was the expectation that the culprit (for which read, the Chief Executive) will own up to responsibility where such ownership is due. “I did it. I’m responsible,” is a simple formulation…

As they used to say in the Bronx, before they started with “fuggedaboudit,” I say, “fat chance.”

These days the buck stops well before it can be traced any further, or at least it stops in such an obscure place, the outgoing President, or the incoming, as the case may be, has plenty of time to put the culprit on the Big Pardon.

Politics trumps every other consideration

The key condition of having civiiization is people living together. Given human behavior, even two are a collective, with divergent, if not antithetical, goals and ways of reaching them. So with any more than one person there’s the need for politics—or its inevitability. By politics we live together, in the ultimately desultory and inefficient manner we’ve managed to do for as long as we’ve managed to call ourselves a civilization. That is, given human behavior, this means that at any one time it is impossible for the entire civilized collection of us to be happy. Hence, politics: the human way of controlling the inherent chaos, and at least paying lip service to the objective of seeing to it it gets no worse. As long as somebody is happy (somebody other than a politician) at any one time, we congratulate ourselves on our advances.

Each of us has been in the condition of not being in control. It is the defining condition of infancy and early childhood. Many of us have had some experience of being in control, as an older sibling, a bully, a boss, a parent.
Being in control is better. Hence the appeal of politics.

For one thing, being a politician significantly increases the chances that you will be, at any one moment, one of those people in the collective—the body of civilized men and women—who is indeed happy. Being in control may be a precondition. I’ll have to think about that.

In any event, politics tends to encourage those in power to want to stay there.

By at least nominally taking care of business (and civilization is now so complex, we are now so beset by laws and rules and statutes and protocols—with every one of them invented at the time because it served the specific purpose of meeting somebody’s idea of how to keep somebody, usually someone else, or something under control—that most of the population is happy to have someone else assume the job of staying on top of things, so the rest of us can pursue the full time job of keeping misery at bay). Trouble is, it’s merely a nominal proposition; we say, “Thank God, that’s being taken care of,” and go back to making shopping lists for our weekly visit to the local big box market.

You’d think politics—running things—would be a more than full time proposition. But it seems so many politicians find so many opportunities to spend a considerable amount of time running things to their advantage. Until someone notices that no one is really running things. It’s a sad proposition, but the best test of whether politics is working is to have the least number of people with any advantage whatsoever.

Never happens, of course, but we keep trying. The only thing we’ve proven is that the people in power do manage to have some advantage, certainly relative to everyone else, and that becomes a very strong incentive for wanting to stay there. In power.

The result, and we will have to ignore a great deal of history of noble and ignoble rhetoric, which pretty much started the moment Aristotle sent his final corrected galleys of “Politics” to the publisher (so to speak) and people realized this politics was a pretty good idea, is that people in power will say anything to stay there, and if they are not in power, but want to be, they will pretty much say anything, usually about who is in power, to unseat the incumbent and replace them.

Politics is a pretty good idea, at least in principle. Problem is, with regard to politics, “principle” has passed from its ethical sense of the fundamental code of good conduct to its strictly ordinal sense of being the first stone one puts it place before proceeding with the rest of the edifice (usually dedicated to the one who placed the stone).

So, politics is no longer a matter of “first, let’s do the right thing.” It’s a matter of, “first, let’s get into office.”

With such a modus vivendi—certainly it’s the operating truth of American politics, realized most purely in presidential politics—the only dignity we can cling to is that shred that adheres to the rule of honoring the office, and not the human who happens to occupy it.

Don’t read the manual

We’re an appliance happy culture, and we expect all appliances to work the same way — without need for consulting the instructions, however simple. Yet the biggest problem in tech support, for example, with computers (which are not so simple, and far from being appliances) is the neglect of the first two instructions with any electrical device: “Plug it in, and turn it on.”

Apparently Mr., Bush, the chief executive after all, that is, head of the branch of government charged with actually conducting the business of government, likes to pretend that this is a silly first order of business. It’s running, isn’t it? In the case of national security and threats to same (not to mention threats to the life and limb of the citizens of our great republic), Mr. Bush will be the first to allude to his sworn duty to “preserve and protect” the Constitution and all it entails. Hint, it entails protection from threats.

Yet his defense concerning a top secret briefing memo on security was there was nothing to be done in response as it was bereft of hard evidence. In appliance metaphor terms, the oven was on full blast, and we had somehow got our hands on the recipe for Symbol of Financial Power Flambé, but we were not only on the road with the car packed, but we were already at our happy vacation hacienda, and George W. is not apparently one of those kinds of husbands who suddenly wonders if “Gee, did I leave the oven—burners, air conditioner, clothes iron, wood chipper….—running?”

Dealing with terrorism is of course not so reductive, and that stove metaphor looks silly, especially when you consider that, well, they don’t eat what we do. Hell, they don’t even like the same foods. You’d think we’d check up ahead of time on the culture, dining habits, typical dishes, how they’re cooked. But we get along by assuming the world loves a mess of ribs, smoked and slathered with sauce, and dammit, who doesn’t love pork?

Back to that issue of hard evidence for a moment though. In the new millennium, hard evidence is what you get after the fact (remember the innocent days of Watergate, when a magically re-appearing strip of Scotch® Brand transparent tape on a door lock of the office complex garage was enough hard evidence of something or other for an untrained, unarmed security guard to call in the gendarmes?)

Intelligence chatter, and the educated deductions of trained, experienced intelligence professionals is not hard evidence. Declarative sentences are not hard evidence. Four highjacked planes (three of them still with the honor of being implemented successfully as the world’s largest and deadliest IEDs [improvised explosive devices]). That’s hard evidence.

Hmmmm, we’d better check into this. That rascal Osama bin Laden.

Talk Big, Think Small

The big stick is standard issue, so even Teddy Roosevelt would be comfortable with that. But what happened to speaking softly? We should not even inquire into the current state of the Great Unanswered Question (not “why are we here?,”  but “who the hell do you think you are?”), as this might require some intellectual vigor, based on reading, inquiry, thought and analysis.

No, Americans like big talk. Making the world safe for democracy.  Nice idea. Noble. But with the small problem that, as the basis of a strategy, it calls for large, complex, sustained, and lengthy implementation. Not the least of the tasks is facing up to some big enemies, and doing it with some delicacy.

Like big talk, Americans like big action, or shall we say, concrete action. Accomplishing the obvious, and recounting the tale in its entirety (“mission accomplished”) even while satisfying the endemic national attention deficit.

Having suffered the humiliation of a protracted standoff, at great human and financial expense, with a determined enemy that had already withstood a slightly older version of an indomitable, superior, and larger and more sophisticated military foe, we’ve been picking easier targets ever since, or pulling out before something very small and nasty turned into something very big and even nastier. Lest I lose anyone here, I’m talking Vietnam, who had already outlasted the French, and subsequently the malleable, but only mildly unpleasant regimes of Haiti, Grenada, Panama. The pullouts occurred in Lebanon and Somalia, you may recall, but that may only have occurred because we had not as yet drawn a bead on a definable enemy, even an abstract one, like “world terrorism.”

Hence our big actions involve lots of men and lots of guns and lots of noise, and until George W. Bush lots of justification, at least enough of the sort that satisfied the most reasonable of exponents of liberalism.

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