SCARY THREATS AND POLITICAL SAVIORS
The latest State of the Union Address, praised to high heaven in the usual places, is eaten up with unconscious humor and layer upon layer of possible meaning. This suggests that the speechwrights came dangerously close to genuine self-awareness. But as we are in parlous times in the land of the theoretically free and home of the mechanically brave, I thought it might be worthwhile to point out some of the more striking instances.
Chickens in every pot and something for every Trot fill out the wide, open spaces of the speech. Following the customary introductions, the President intones: "America this evening is a Nation called to great responsibilities. And we are rising to meet them." US forces, he said, "are bringing hope to the oppressed, and delivering justice to the violent," thereby "making America more secure." All sorts of "vigilance is protecting America."
Police State Light, I guess. We are now quite safe from hearing lethal words in our airports. This is all very reassuring, even more so when Bush II lets on that, "[o]ur greatest responsibility is the active defense of the American people."
Of course it is a pity the US government doesn't find that simple activity very interesting.
Underscoring his claims of defending us by attacking a nasty, but suitably weak and unthreatening state thousands of miles from the much-mooted Heimat, er, Homeland, Bush II warned that, "it is tempting to believe that the danger is behind us. That hope is understandable, comforting and false."
Of course it's false, because the current Administration is hellbent on actively finding and creatively new enemies for us. Hellbentness, to coin a word, is their middle name.
Bush next asserts that, "we must continue to give homeland security and law enforcement personnel every tool they need to defend us." What? Chainsaws? 3/8" variable speed/reversible drills? Universal metric socket wrenches?
Bush continues: "Key provisions of the PATRIOT Act are set to expire next year." There was some cheering from his audience at this last point (must have been Democrats), and rightly so. Not amused, the Prez called for renewal of this social nationalist Enabling Act.
Giving larger purpose to his administration's policies, Bush says, "[a]s part of the offensive against terror, we are also confronting the regimes that harbor and support terrorists, and could supply them with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. The United States and our allies are determined: We refuse to live in the shadow of this ultimate danger."
Now we have something! This is the very model of administrative convenience and efficiency, something you would expect of these frugal, economizing Republicans. Under this proactive plan, all they have to do is walk a few blocks from the White House and arrest any number of people who have harbored and supported terrorists. They might start in that five-sided labyrinth they have up there.
BETTER WORLD A-COMING
Mr. Bush tells us how US conquests are creating a better world: "Businesses are opening, health care centers are being established, and the boys and girls of Afghanistan are back in school."
"Back in school" — the true American's test of progress, as that notion is understood in Greater New England.
There is a spot of trouble, however, in Iraq because, "[h]aving broken the Baathist regime, we face a remnant of violent Saddam supporters. Men who ran away from our troops in battle are now dispersed and attack from the shadows."
Yes, it was very cowardly to run away from all that unrelenting air power and Shock and Awe. They should have stood there and become "pink mist," to use a clever US military bon mot.
On the other hand, "[o]f the top 55 officials of the former regime, we have captured or killed 45…"
This raises a few Geneva Convention problems, but they are not worth mentioning. It also confirms that no matter who the US is currently fighting, the leadership falls into Lincoln mode and imagines that unconditional surrender is the only conceivable, acceptable outcome. "Have you found Jefferson Davis yet?" asks Bush, forgetting which war he is in. "And what about Kirby Smith? And Tojo?"
But things are working out: "Last January, Iraq’s only law was the whim of one brutal man. Today our coalition is working with the Iraqi Governing Council to draft a basic law, with a bill of rights…"
Never mind that Iraq had a constitution of sorts already, and if anyone objects that it wasn't being followed to the letter, how much worse were the Iraqis doing, constitutionally speaking, than we are in the Homeland?
Anyway, US efforts in Iraq will succeed, because "the United States of America will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins."
No: we will never be intimidated by foreign thugs; homegrown ones may be another matter.
"The killers will fail, and the Iraqi people will live in freedom."
I refrain from explaining that this sentence could be taken several ways…
In the form of Libya, the administration has racked up another success. Thus Bush: "And one reason is clear: For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible and no one can now doubt the word of America."
Truly, no one may now doubt the word of America, or credit the sanity of its leaders.
Turning to the imminent ////// ["imminent" redacted] threat posed by North Korea, Bush states that "America is committed to keeping the world’s most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the world’s most dangerous regimes."
Praise the Lord! Unilateral US nuclear and chemical disarmament at last… Dazed, I imagine the next part of the speech… "I know it will not be easy for our fellow citizens, of all racial creeds and religious colors, lined up under their crosses, Stars of David, or crescents, who have become dependent on employment in our facilities having to do with u2018weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment' but rest assured that this administration will provide for the retraining of all such citizens. We will leave no munitions worker behind…"
Well, he didn't really say that, and we are getting ahead of ourselves with the internal quotation.
Addressing his critics, the President points in the general direction of WMD in Iraq: "We are seeking all the facts already the Kay Report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations [italics supplied but hardly necessary]. Had we failed to act, the dictator’s weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day."
Yes, and in time Hussein's "program activities" might have risen to the level of a sketch and a memo.
This big word-clump, "dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment," is so awful that one suspects the Pentagon, where English is not much spoken, had a hand in it. The phrase works slightly better in German, however: "Dutzende von mit Massenvernichtungswaffen in Zusammenhang stehende[n] Programmaktivitäten und signifikante[n] Mengen von Ausrüstung."1
Translation (of the English): We don't need no stinkin' weapons of mass destruction to justify our elective war.
Further answering his critics, foreign and domestic, Bush II asserts that, "America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people."
This is good news. If the US government should ever undertake to defend America, this principle will come in handy.
Putting in a good word for democracy in the abstract, Bush says, "I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again."
(Psst, George, don't let any Americans hear that.)
NEO-CON RELIEF ACT, 2004
But the good news keeps on rolling in: "To cut through the barriers of hateful propaganda, the Voice of America and other broadcast services are expanding their programming in Arabic and Persian and soon, a new television service will begin providing reliable news and information across the region."
Good news for FOX, I say! But can the rather dim loudmouths who work for that network learn Arabic? Only time will tell.
To assure US victory in the Soviet-style agitprop campaign, Bush promises to "send [Congress] a proposal to double the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy, and to focus its new work on the development of free elections, free markets, free press, and free labor unions in the Middle East."
Forget all the "focus" business and the "free" this and that, what this means is more money for Neo-Cons! It's only a few million, but then there aren't that many trough-worthy Neo-Cons, so they should do quite well.
No world-saving speech would be complete without the following: "America is a Nation with a mission and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs. We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire. Our aim is a democratic peace a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman."
Wonderful. A mission but no empire, together with "democratic peace" — the typical Neo-Con package deal, take it or leave it.
THE GREAT SOVEREIGN PROVIDES PROSPERITY FOR THE MASSES
The sections of the speech touching on the economy can be summarized in Western Swing: Housing's up and inflation's level, plough my corn with a double shovel…
In pursuit of explicit provisions of Article Whatever, Section Something of the 18th-century shopping list, Bush promises to float our boats while draining the swamp. Jobs for the masses! Shoes for the dead!
The administration's petty bourgeois constituency is rewarded, as always, with strong verbiage: "Our agenda for jobs and growth must help small business owners and employees with relief from needless Federal regulation, and protect them from junk and frivolous lawsuits."
Let them eat words about free markets. It's a safe diet. The words have no content and, therefore, no calories.
Next comes the Open Door, a favorite since 1898: "My Administration is promoting free and fair trade, to open up new markets for America’s entrepreneurs, and manufacturers, and farmers, and to create jobs for America’s workers…."
Creative bookkeeping and the Devil will do for the rest.
Bush also fixes immigration and sets the stage for a health care pseudo-privatization boondoggle of epic proportions.
THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION
Bush waxes social-philosophical: "The values we try to live by never change. And they are instilled in us by fundamental institutions, such as families, and schools, and religious congregations. These institutions the unseen pillars of civilization must remain strong in America, and we will defend them."
Bush's wordsmiths have been cribbing from Tocqueville again — a standard Neo-Con diversion.
THE ONLY GOOD DRUG IS POWER
Bush proposes to save the children: "Drug testing in our schools has proven to be an effective part of this effort. So tonight I propose an additional 23 million dollars for schools that want to use drug testing as a tool to save children’s lives. [It's only money!] The aim here is not to punish children, but to send them this message: We love you, and we don’t want to lose you."
Of course, and if the little bastards test positive they can go to our famously Third World prisons… And if the testing doesn't accomplish enough, we can have more raids on high schools by police with guns drawn. There is no greater love than that.
BEISBOL BEEN BERRY GOOD TO ME
Knowing that nothing is beyond the scope of federal concern, Bush says: "To help children make right choices, they need good examples… So tonight I call on team owners, union representatives, coaches, and players to take the lead, to send the right signal, to get tough, and to get rid of steroids now" (italics supplied).
Why steroids? Who writes this stuff? Is this supposed to appeal to the Red Map People?
CULTURE DETERMINED BY STATE
Whether or not there is any constitutional warrant for it, Bush takes a firm stand on sex: "We will double Federal funding for abstinence programs, so schools can teach this fact of life… All of us parents, schools, government must work together to counter the negative influence of the culture, and to send the right messages to our children."
That government exists to tinker with "the culture" is the standard assumption of social engineers. We expect it from the Left. The Republicans, bless their hearts, have discovered Herbert Croly.
The administration proposes to save marriage, rehabilitate ex-convicts, and make ketchup flow out of the damned bottle. There is little doubt that these things can be done. This is America, you know.
Or as Bush puts it: "By our actions, we have shown what kind of Nation we are."
What kind of Nation we are — one hesitates even to begin… It doesn't matter anyway. Everything is under control because "all of us here in this great chamber will do our best to keep you [that would be us] and the rest of America safe and free."
What a relief. We wondered what they were doing in Bedlam-on-Potomac.
THE CAUSE IS MANKIND (THANKS, HUBERT)
"My fellow citizens, we now move forward, with confidence and faith. Our Nation is strong and steadfast. The cause we serve is right, because it is the cause of all mankind" (italics added).
This reads like a direct allusion to Vice President Hubert Humphrey's campaign book, The Cause Is Mankind (1964), which was a testament to domestic social engineering and aggressive Cold War liberalism. Neo-Con speechwriters really miss the openly warmongering wing of the Democratic Party.
By now, things have gotten fairly cosmic, and with all mankind in the balance, Bush begins to resemble Napoleon as portrayed by the Count Saint-Simon:
“The emperor will soon conquer the world and give it laws… when the war has come to an end the sciences will become the exclusive object of his attention… on the basis of reasoning and observation he will found the general principles, which will forever serve as guides to humanity… The Legislator… the most transcendent genius that ever made its appearance to give laws to mankind… It was necessary that he should unite all powers in his hands… The Emperor is the scientific chief of mankind, as he is its political head. He holds in one hand the unfailing compass, and in the other the sword which exterminates all opponents of the progress of enlightenment.”2
SHOULD HAVE READ THAT DETOUR SIGN
The speech is further proof, were any needed, that the old party lines have broken down. Where once the GOP preferred the warfare side of the welfare-warfare state and left the Democrats to work the welfare side, the GOP now works both — overtime. The weakness of the Democratic response to the speech reflects their commitment to the welfare side of things, which goes along with a tepid, slightly less imperialist position on foreign affairs.
It says something about the actual state of the union that the real situation of the country was hardly addressed in a speech of that title. Another thing emerges nicely from the speech: official discourse ostensibly related to US foreign policy need have no factual content whatsoever. No facts on the ground about "enemies" real or imagined need to exist, be discovered, or be shown as discovered — no "yellow cake," no real WMD, no nothing. This arises from the peculiar circumstance that US foreign policy, as an ideological phenomenon, is almost entirely about "America" — our work ethic, our sacred institutions which have preserved our freedom (which is why we have so much of it these days), our deep moral rightness, our World Mission, and so on.
There is no "engagement" with reality, so to speak, but as they peddle these nostrums to a people traditionally rather uninterested in the rest of the world, our leaders are happy to accept compliments from coalition partners who accept, or pretend to accept, US leaders' delusional portrait of their purposes and merits.
The Democrats' responses to the State of the Union Address zeroed in, if even that can be said, on precisely the wrong thing. Overly focused on Latin etymology, a Democratic spokesman managed to attribute "isolationism" to the Republican leadership because the policy of preemption has left the US "isolated" in the world. Nice try, bad pun.
A little real isolationism would be a wonderful thing right about now.
Democrats of course want to get back to their version of interest-group politics as quickly as possible. Republicans point ominously at this fact and announce smugly that they are saving us from this terrible fate. They are saving us from it by devising their own version of every Democratic initiative at the same time that they embark on the insane project of "invading the world," to use a phrase of Murray Rothbard's.
Don't worry. We can afford it. We're America.
From the standpoint of apparent politics-as-usual, this arrangement is perfect. But politics may not run along "as usual" for much longer. The Republicans' Neo-Conservative commitment to empire will see to that.3
- Mark Pitzke, "Rede an die Nation: u2018It's Bush Time,'" Der Spiegel online, January 21, 2004.
- Quoted in Ralph Raico, “The Despotism of Democracy: Review of J. L. Talmon, Political Messianism,” Intercollegiate Review, 1, 1 (January 1965), p. 41.
- See, for example, Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire (London: Verso, 2003).
January 23, 2004