Congress's caving in to the President on the rules about torture and "detainees" probably isn't the gravest cause for despair about the state of our nation that anyone could point to in the last couple hundred years. We did used to have slavery, after all. And we used to deny the right to vote to women. Heck, there was even a time when gay people couldn't get married. (Okay, scratch that last one for now.) But most of the worst things you could point to, from working conditions at the time of the Triangle Shirt Company Fire to the Tuskegee experiments, are now seen to represent ideas that we now reject as primitive in their cruelty and stupidity. We grew out of that, the collective narrative tells us. What we're seeing now is a willed leap backwards into barbarism, which is embraced because our leaders don't care, not just about "civil liberties", but about basic humanity, and because they think that a show of not caring about it will impress an electorate that they believe is so frightened that they don't think we can any longer afford it.
In school, you're taught--or you used to be taught, even at the sorry backwards-ass hillbilly reform school I attended--that things like "freedom of speech" matter the most when it seems hardest to feel any sympathy for the speech or the speaker, because it's easy to support the rights to express views you don't agree with. This is a fine sentiment that, I suspect, most people know deep down is often mouthed by people who don't actually believe it; if most people believed it, reactionary politicians wouldn't be able to speak the words "American Civil Liberities Union" in a tone usually reserved for such phrases as "child-molesting Manson family supporter", secure in the knowledge that the crowd they're addressing will cheer them and hoot at some imaginary liberal burning a flag somewhere on the podium. Not that this isn't bad enough. It's a little more discouraging to know that there aren't enough people in the country who don't think that other human beings should be treated worse than most civilized people would treat a dog that their existence puts the fear of God into their elected leaders. Even if they think that every Muslim in the world ought to be waterboarded this minute just to be on the safe side, to make sure they aren't planning something, you'd think there would still be a majority who would bridle at the thought that the Geneva Conventions are "quaint"and outdated, just because they don't want an opening left for someone overseas to play tit for tat with their own sons. But of course, most Americans don't have any personal stake in this war of wars, aside from their concern that if we let one stray Muslim get off too easy, he might be the one who blows them up. That's the advantage of creating a state of terror around a potentially apocalyptic threat without asking most of the public to sacrifice anything. And when I say anything, I mean anything. People applaud Bush for his toughness and tell us that we have to be tough enough to be embrace inhumanity--we have to be prepared to be that strong, because of the terrible danger we're in. The these same people whine like stuck pigs when gas prices start rising.
For half a dozen years now, I've been having people of every political persuasion insist to me that you can't just call George Bush stupid, he may look stupid and talk stupid and act stupid but that's the way his base likes it, and the thing you have to remember is that even though he might not be "smart" in any traditional sense of the term, you don't get to be where he is without being--well, something better than stupid. I've almost never had any idea of what the hell they were talking about. George Bush's resume is well enough known that there's no business repeating it here, but suffice to say that if he hadn't been born both rich and named "George Bush", not only would he certainly not be President, but he would probably be in prison on some drug charge. I ought to be able to make that assertion without scandalizing anybody, since it's been reported by more than one concerned onlooker that George Bush claims to believe the same thing. (The only difference is that, between George and myself, only one of us jumped to the conclusion that the fact that he isn't rotting in a cell proves that God must have been watching over him because He always had important plans for him.) Still, I'll cut the dude this much credit: in his handling of this matter, he has comported himself with the kind of true political cunning that one only sees when someone who is both heartless and has a diseased mind has had a lot of practice at playing rubes for cheers and decides to go for broke. By emphasizing his tender concern for the prospective torturers--those poor, "young intelligence officers", imaginary nice clean-cut family men so different from the white trash scum one saw in those photos taken at Abu Ghraid that looked like outtakes from an X-rated Reno 911!--and urging Congress to make it "clear" what they were able to do and not to do, in an area where common shared standards of human decency used to provide all the clarity anyone should need, he gave Mr. and Mrs. America visions of Opie joining the special services and finding himself threatened with dishonorable discharge and jail time because he stepped on Darth Vader's toe. Or at least he gave people the option of pretending that's what they were imagining, which is probably good enough. Mr and Mrs. America may not want to come right out and admit to what they're perfectly willing to have done in the name of their security so long as it doesn't cost them anything they'll ever know about, but in truth, they switched over from Opie to Jack Bauer a long time ago.
There are two basic kinds of people who love America. One kind, a group that probably includes a disproportionate number of those immigrants who so many of the President's supporters wish we could keep the hell out of their country, know something about the principles enshrined in the Constitution and what we've even sometimes been known to fight for, and they agree with Winston Churchill's dictum that elective democracy is the worst kind of government, except for all the other ones; many of them know it from bitter experience. They think America is the greatest country in the world because it's supposed to mean something, something that they value. The other kind, which is in ascendency, thinks that America is the greatest country in the world because it's the one they were born in and the one where they live; if that had been different, they'd feel the exact same way about Tasmania. And because this is the greatest country in the world, since it's the one where they are and so, by default, the one they least want blown up, all they ask of their leaders is that they can fuel up the SUV and sleep easy at night, and if that means a bunch of people they don't know have to be treated like excrement, what's the cost to them? The Constitution is an old piece of paper, the Geneva Conventions are yesterday's news, the rights of the accused are something that gets mass murderers freed on NYPD Blue. If George Bush declared himself dictator for life, the next morning they'd chuckle along with the morning radio deejays making "jokes" about how the great thing about this new dictatorship system is that now we won't have to watch those darn political commercials on TV every four years. President Bush says that our enemies hate freedom and are out to destroy what's most important about America. This is what psychiatrists call "projection."
[cross-posted at The Phil Nugent Experience]