Take a look at a video of George W. Bush speaking to the nation five or six years ago.
Like a pop single from 1962 (or 2002, for that matter), it didn’t age very well.
It’s astonishing that this transparently frightened man was the leader of the free world for eight years, and was given so much license to commit so much destruction.
But, then, nothing seems to define our era quite so much as license.
We give ourselves license to incur fantastic levels of national debt, and hand the bill to the next generation.
We give ourselves license to invade other countries on the most patently bogus of pretexts, bringing disaster upon them and us.
Or at least some of us, that is, because we also give ourselves license to allow a tiny fraction of the population to carry the entire national security burden for all the rest of us.
We give ourselves license to spend half again as much as any other country in the world on healthcare, only to be ranked 37th ‘best’ by the World Health Organization, just so we don’t have to do the simple work of writing corporate predators out of the parasitic cash cow booty feeding troughs in which they’re entrenched.
Meanwhile, a bullet is heading toward the heart of the body politic in the form of global warming, and we give ourselves license to pretend that the threat isn’t even clearly defined, lest we should have to relinquish our precious Hummers.
The list goes on and on. I regret to say that history will not judge us, here and now, a serious people. Nor should it. I certainly don’t either.
Indeed, even when we get serious, we don’t. Barack Obama was supposed to be the antidote to the excesses and negligences of the Bush years. In fact, nearly a year of his term has now gone by and he has almost nothing to show for it. Which means that neither do we. When Saturday Night Live parodies you by having your character claim “jack” and “squat” as your administration’s two greatest achievements—well, that’s never a good sign.
Nor does Obama appear to have a lot of intent at accomplishing much, either. At least anything that requires the ruffling of a feather or two—which of course includes just about anything that matters. For any given question put before this president, it seems that his position can safely be estimated to fall square in the middle of the road, right there alongside Jim Hightower’s proverbial yellow stripes and dead armadillos. In reality, though, that’s actually an unfortunately generous estimate. Obama’s politics, if you actually look at them—rather than at most people’s false impression of them—turn out to be remarkably similar to George Bush’s on everything from the fiscal stimulus to big corporate healthcare initiatives to escalating war policies to eroded civil liberties to unequal treatment for gays.
And yet this milquestoastiest of presidents generates the most outrageous volumes of the most egregious vitriol in our public discourse, as if he were wrecking the country through disastrous wars based on lies, unprecedented constitutional shredding, or massive fiscal hemorrhaging. Oh, wait—that was the last guy. Never mind. Somehow those travesties didn’t precipitate much noise from the cave-dwelling set—unless you count deafness-inducing cheers of approval, or enough slurpy mass salivation to befuddle and alarm Dr. Pavlov.
One of the most astonishing things about the right in America is the degree and frequency with which they turn out to be precisely the opposite of what they claim to be. It’s quite Orwellian, actually, in a charming sort of war-equals-peace kinda way. They adore dressing up like they’re the big military tough guys, but they all had to go to Woodstock or something during Vietnam. They like to lecture us incessantly about the virtues of their particular brand of sexual morality, and then it always turns out that they’re the ones who love to dress up in leather and Vaseline and gang-bang packs of small furry rodents. They can’t wait to pontificate on the virtues of itsy-bitsy, low taxing, low spending government, but then whenever they get their hands on the damn thing they drive up the national debt like Yahweh himself told them it was their personal holy crusader’s mission to party hearty at the public’s expense (“I command you to choose a hockey mom from amongst your number, and cause her to buildeth a bridge to nowhere!”).
I could keep going forever, and it would actually be pretty entertaining, if only the real world effects weren’t so bloody destructive. One of my favorites, though, I have to say, is the riff on responsibility. You know, as in, they’re the ones who have it. Remember when the Bush crew came to power, literally saying “The grown-ups are back in charge”? I can think of a lot of things I would call George W. Bush, but “grown-up” is more or less last on my list, right there after “brave”, “articulate”, “compassionate” and “thoughtful”. In any case, these guys always fancy themselves the mature, reliable, responsible stewards of American government. That’s more than a little scary, isn’t it—to think that these are the nation’s best and the brightest? To imagine that Bush and Cheney and Rove represent the crowning achievement of six or ten millennia of civilizational development, topping off millions of years of genetic refinement?
Wuuuuhhhh. That lurching twitch you just felt was a serious shudder going down your spine, your body’s involuntary reaction to perceptions of sheer horror. But, meanwhile, did I mention that the real story of responsibility is slightly different than the regressive version?
Start with global warming. I’m not a climatologist and I don’t even play one on Fox TV. Which is why I rely on the people with the PhDs in the field and their masses of data, elaborate models and giant supercomputers to tell me what is happening on that question. Like most people, I wouldn’t even have the foggiest sense of whether the Earth is spherical, flat, or shaped like a bicycle-built-for-two, were it not for the geographers and explorers who figured it out. There’s almost no way to get there on your own from daily experience. Hence, I take their word for it, just like I take the word of astronomers that our little planet is not, after all, at the center of the universe (which is good news indeed for the universe).
Our happy regressive friends do the same thing, of course. Except when they don’t. They reject evolution in favor of a 6,000 year-old Earth. Though I notice that they’re quite content to queue up for radiation therapy when they’re sick with cancer, even while rejecting the veracity of radio-carbon dating of ancient fossils. Hmmm. Go figure. They mostly have reconciled themselves nowadays to a heliocentric solar system, though they did imprison Galileo for telling a but too much truth on that one. Given the recent tenor of the religious right in America, I’m waiting for even this bit to get tossed out with evolution, any day now. You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen. Mark my words. The Earth will return to the center of the universe, just like the good book says.
Meanwhile, the same people who would happily burst through the doors of the National Archives, yank the Constitution out of its case and run it through a $19.99 shredder they just picked up on sale at Office Depot—all in the name of fighting terrorism—are simultaneously working frantically to make sure we don’t do anything at all about the very real threat of global warming. Udickuitous Cheney once said that we have to pull out all stops in case there was even a one-percent chance of a terrorist attack that might kill thousands. But a survey of the experts on climate change suggests that there is a more than ninety-nine percent probability that whole countries will be drowned and entire groups of species eradicated in the coming decades. And that’s just the easy part. Still, the regressive prescription for this looming nightmare is to continue to do nothing at all, lest we anger the supreme goddess Commerce.
I’ve always been a little weird this way, but where I come from, that ain’t exactly the most responsible choice. Neither was invading Iraq. More than 4000 dead Americans later, and George Bush is still looking under his desk for the missing WMD (heh-heh, wasn’t that a hilarious little comedy routine he did on that?). As if that would have been a valid excuse to invade a country that was neither attacking us nor threatening us, anyhow. As if dozens of countries don’t have WMD. As if the Republican government of the United States didn’t cover for Saddam at home and at the UN at the time he was actually using chemical weapons on his own people.
So perhaps a million Iraqis are dead now, American finances are in the toilet, the country’s global reputation is too skanky to qualify for horizontal employment in a makeshift basement brothel in Tijuana, and our national security—supposedly the purpose of the whole exercise—has been radically diminished by the decimation of an army that even Colin Powell described as “broken”. This is what you get from the “responsible” ideology, ladies and gentlemen.
But wait! There’s more! How about a crushing national debt. Hey, why not borrow money recklessly to pay for these fun wars based on lies? And how about those super-rich folks out there? Don’t they deserve additional tax cuts? I’m sure our children won’t mind paying for the loans to finance those giveaways, plus interest, in the future. Why would those crazy kids want to actually bring home the fruits of their labor in a paycheck anyhow? They won’t mind working long hours to finance the ‘responsibility’ of unparalleled deficit spending by regressives, will they?
Well, actually, that question is likely to be a moot issue now anyhow. That’s because the upshot from the ‘responsible’ economic policy provided by our nice regressive friends increasingly means that the youngins won’t have any jobs at all. That certainly solves the problem of spending a lifetime paying taxes to finance their parents’ spending sprees, doesn’t it? Pretty clever, is it not? No regulation, no economy; no economy, no jobs; no jobs, no income; no income, no taxes; no taxes, no worries! Damn! I wonder if the good folks on the right had this all figured out from the beginning!
Ho-ho, eh? Not so funny, though, if you’re on the butt end of the joke. Which we all are, not least the younger generation. There is an era of bad feeling in America, long in the making, but hardly at its nadir. The United States has been on a southward glide path for three decades now, an act of political physics as natural and inevitable as gravity itself, but also deeply exacerbated by the predatory political movement pioneered by Reagan and Thatcher, and continued by Bushes, Blairs, Clintons and Obamas alike.
It was bad enough that we lived for as long as we did at a greedy and unsustainable level, stealing from other peoples, from our environment, from brown and female workers, and even from our own children. But now it’s getting much, much worse.
In twenty years those children are all too likely to be living poor, on a hostile planet, working long hours to pay down the sins of their fathers.
And they might well be enraged, too, as they should be.
A decade or two from now, if they confront their right-wing elders—gazing in anger and astonishment at the bottomless capacity of their parents’ selfishness—you can safely bet that their questions will be met with dissembling deception.
Twenty years from now, regressives will lie to their children.
We know this because those regressives are already lying today, covering their execrable crimes the only way possible.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.