History’s greatest evils are committed by individuals convinced that they can do only good. If the last five years have taught us anything, it’s that the “stay the course” dogmatism of the Bush Administration is not merely an intellectual incapacity but a moral failure. By refusing to seriously consider the mistakes it has made, our government has only made them more costly, and it has done so because our leaders are too blinded by ego and ideology to admit they’ve failed in any way.
Journalist Ron Suskind wrote prior to the 2004 elections about a conversation he had with a senior adviser to President Bush. The adviser said that men like Suskind were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as the people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” When Suskind agreed, the aide cut him off: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Given the attitude of our leaders, who can be surprised that conspiracy theories have gone mainstream? Forty-two percent of Americans said the administration engineered the recent drop in gas prices with the elections in mind, and more than a third of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East.
Not since the Nixon years has the paranoid fantasy that our country is run by a secretive cabal of impossibly amoral Machiavellian supervillians come closer to reality. According to the leaked Downing Street memo, “intelligence and facts were being fixed around (Iraq) policy” at least seven months before the war. The administration illegally spied on American citizens, and it now has the power to detain just about anyone anywhere in the world, subject them to classified “alternative interrogation methods” and hold them indefinitely without the ability to challenge their imprisonment. When a detainee at a secret CIA torture camp tried to discuss his treatment at trial, the Bush Administration told the judge that he should be silenced for the sake of national security.
This administration is that arrogant. They are the country; their job security is national security. Despite the temptation to believe the Internet conspiracy theory that Dick Cheney is merely the human form of a 12-foot-tall blood-drinking, child-sacrificing reptile alien bent on world domination – there is a certain psychological resemblance – this government’s abuses of power are simply the effect of personal ego blown up to cosmic proportions. As Cheney himself illustrated, sometimes these supervillians are just good ol’ boys who can’t differentiate their friend’s face from a quail.
The problem with believing you create reality is that reality has a way of proving you wrong. If “history’s actors” were really so powerful, would we have heard about the Mark Foley scandal, where a known child predator was kept in charge of the Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children? Or of Jim Guckert, a.k.a. Jeff Gannon, the fake reporter who asked the president flattering questions until it was discovered that he was literally a male prostitute who had somehow ended up with access to the White House press briefing? Would Iraq be where it is now if they were really in control?
This delusional arrogance doesn’t mean our current government isn’t a real threat to our liberty. When the administration claims that opposing its policies is tantamount to supporting terrorism and then passes laws allowing indefinite imprisonment for supporting terrorists, alarm bells ought to go off. When conservative activists’ death threats to “liberal activist” judges prompt former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to compare the intimidation of an independent judiciary to the early stages of dictatorship, maybe we ought to pause. When bigoted Christian fundamentalists hot for Armageddon get involved in Middle East foreign policy, it’s time for America to wake up and smell the plutonium.
On Election Day today, voters have a chance to show who the real power is in this country. Telling ourselves “Why bother, the system’s rigged anyways” or “There’s no real choice, they’re all corrupt” is not only false, it’s implicitly conservative; these attitudes support the current government in all its arrogance and incompetence. If we want to change the system, now is our chance. But if we don’t act, we ought to consider that if things keep going this way, maybe next time there really won’t be a choice.
Toby Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.