Why We Fight

Jane Sherman

Why We Fight

Sometimes the truth just ain't enough

Or it's too much in times like this

--Bruce Springsteen, "Worlds Apart"

Last Tuesday's Vote for Change concert in St. Paul contained a number of scenes I'll never forget: 55-year-old Bruce Springsteen watching with glee and a little awe as 59-year-old John Fogerty bounced around the stage, forgot his own lyrics, and sounded 25 again; Neil Young's surprise entrance, and every raw note he played that night; Michael Stipe pogoing around the audience pit in front during "Born to Run," just another fan, before dashing back to the stage for a last song. But my favorite moment may have been the quietest of the evening. In a between-songs break near the end, Springsteen made a little ceremony of presenting a wrinkled, secondhand corduroy sports coat to Conor Oberst, the lead singer of the tour's opening act, Bright Eyes. Oberst, a 24-year-old indie rock cult figure from Omaha, was an unknown to most of the people who came to see Bruce or REM, and the gesture was Springsteen's way of telling Oberst he belonged, that he was as much a part of what was happening there as anyone else on the stage--an actor and not merely an accessory in the proceedings.

It's hard to imagine that the presidential campaign that Springsteen et al. came to speak their piece about has left very many people feeling that way. Yes, a lot of people are "mobilized," meaning mad as hell, or scared as hell, but for what purpose? The answer is, to rid themselves of George W. Bush. As for that other guy, John Kerry has been at his very best in the two debates held thus far, going after Bush with acuity and even verve. But on the whole he has run the sort of shabby, pallid, Republican-lite campaign to which rank-and-file Democrats have grown too accustomed. Democrat or otherwise, those of us who want to see Bush go at practically any cost will err greatly if we forget the central question that has hung over Election 2004 like a shroud: Why, after four years of egregious lies, failure, and cronyism on the part of a president who is more widely despised than polls skewed toward registered and "likely" voters will ever apprehend, is this a race at all?

There is no way to discuss this matter sensibly without first discarding some of our most treasured myths about American politics. Put simply, the Democrats are not a real opposition party (only consider the ease with which they swallowed Bush's outrages as they were occurring) and the mass media are not remotely critical of power. A huge and mostly invisible segment of the populace is angry and frightened, less by Osama bin Laden than by what might happen if they get sick or lose their jobs. What passes for public discourse washes over them like a narcotic haze and leaves them feeling left out and bamboozled, powerless, as it is supposed to; thanks to the ministrations of media and the steady erosion of public schools for more than a generation now, the American public is probably more ill-informed than at any time since the 19th century.

This state of affairs informs the real spirit of the Bush/Cheney government, the campaign slogan you'll never see on a bumper sticker--BC04: Because You'll Believe Anything. In four years the only thing the Bush White House has done well is to generate a massive volume of propaganda. As former Marine intelligence officer Andrew Borene says elsewhere in this issue--see p. 16--part of the disaster of Iraq stemmed from the Bushmen's obsession with spinning the war to the folks at home. Team Rove has stuck to its stories, or changed them in nakedly peremptory fashion to suit the occasion, with unblinking resolve. (Goebbels pronounced the last word on the subject: "The rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine. Propaganda must therefore always be essentially simple and repetitious.")

Karl Rove's image offensive has been defined mainly by his recognition that this is all that really matters. He understands what the people who work in media, ironically, do not: If it isn't on the evening news or the cable talk shows or the first few paragraphs of the local newspaper's front page, then half to two-thirds of the American public will never know it happened. (Or that it didn't: According to a poll I saw just last week, some 40 percent of Americans still believe Saddam was somehow behind 9/11.) He further knows that the White House can usually manipulate what is said on television and the front pages of newspapers simply by showing up every day to tell the assembled hordes of stenographers and microphone-carriers what is newsworthy that day.

This is a horrifying statement about our political culture, especially when you consider that the Bush gang has done nearly everything else wrong, whether one is measuring their actions against the world we live in, against any semblance of decency or "traditional American values," or purely on tactical/operational grounds.

To reiterate, in the broadest strokes: On the eve of a war he was determined to conjure from whole cloth, the president sought and won a tax cut that principally benefited the very richest Americans (and if you've only got $10 or $20 million, you aren't one of them; see David Cay Johnston's book Perfectly Legal) and did nothing to spur job creation. (No surprise: Studies conducted after the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980s demonstrated that corporations and individuals tended not to invest their tax savings thus, but to distribute them or pocket them as profit-takings.) Bush passed a schools initiative called No Child Left Behind that, in the guise of ensuring educational progress for every student, actually guaranteed the quickening of public schools' bankruptcy as they strived to meet unfunded and statistically impossible goals.

In Iraq, the president rushed to invade in the knowledge that Saddam's government would topple easily, setting right again the question of Bush family honor, but without any consideration of what would happen afterward. It underscored the bully principle that is ever at work in this White House: Sometimes you do things simply because no one can stop you, and you feel at pains to prove it.

In fact, the Bush administration has created numerous precedents for expanded and still more autocratic executive branch powers. It flouted its own intelligence evidence about Iraq, and now proposes to permanently reorganize the "intelligence community" under the aegis of the president's office, so that its findings can be tailored to the government's objectives with less fuss. To preserve and expand its prerogative, the Bush gang has stonewalled (the 9/11 Commission), threatened critics into silence (Paul O'Neill and others), cast a veil of secrecy over political embarrassments while hiding behind national security (FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds), and lied, lied, lied without getting taken to task for it publicly very often. This is not just a matter of George W. Bush's style or personality. By demonstrating just how much an American president can get away with, the Bush era has given a new dimension of meaning to "executive privilege," and this is a lesson that will survive the departure of Bush three months or four years and three months from now.

The meanness and ineptitude of the Bush regime is the cornerstone of John Kerry's eleventh-hour resurgence. Stripped to its essentials, Kerry's claim to the White House is that he would be a more moderate, forward-looking executor of empire abroad and of a more familiar, if only incrementally more humane, neo-liberal austerity at home. This is fairly horrifying too, and we only set ourselves up for another fall if we forget it, but it does not mean that this election is less important than advertised, only that the stakes are different. On November 2 we won't be voting for anything like the measure of change we deserve the chance to vote for. We will be casting our ballots in a referendum on whether we wish to pause and reconsider our march toward a homegrown American fascism.

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