"Joy As An Act Of Defiance"

"Rock 'n' roll is a life force.  It's joy as an act of defiance." That's Bono explaining why it is necessary and important for U2 to get back to Paris as soon as possible to do the concerts they had to cancel after the attacks.

Terrorism drains joy from the soul. Replaces it with fear and suspicion. When we give in to that we are doing exactly what the terrorists need us to do.  

As Scott Atran and Nafis Hamid explain so very well in a recent New York Review column, the theorists of radical Islam are driven to destroy the corruption of the modern materialistic world and create "a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet’s banner."  Their tactics are not mindless nihilistic violence.  They are "part of a conscious plan designed to instill among believers a sense of meaning that is sacred and sublime, while scaring the hell out of fence-sitters and enemies."  They are intended to provoke a particular reaction that will rip the veil of illusion from the spiritual impoverishment of the West.  As prominent voices throughout the United States proclaim that we must do "things we haven't considered before," that we must all arm ourselves, that all Muslims are a threat, and on and on, it is apparent that the strategy is working fabulously well.

I was raised to believe that "liberty and justice for all" was the truth of America, that the dream really was a dream for everybody.  As I grew older I became more aware of how often we, as a country, and as individuals, fail to live up to that ideal, but I have still always believed in its potential.  When Americans are at our best, we are that shining city on the hill.  We are capable of astonishing acts of kindness and generosity.  In those moments, when we live up to our ideals, we deserve to be known as the country that people all around the world want to be a part of, we deserve to be the example that patriots everywhere want to model their own countries after.  That's when I'm proud of my country and the people who are a part of it.  There is no contradiction in feeling that pride while still wanting us to be better.

The jihadists believe that I am either a fool or a liar.  They believe that this talk of freedom and equality is a charade, that the system is created only to sustain the power of the powerful, to keep the weak in their place, where they will supply what is necessary to sustain the culture.  These horrific acts of violence are very specifically designed to generate a response, to send a message to those who they would call back to the fold.

 Did you think that if you went to the United States they would embrace you? Did you believe their chatter about liberty and justice for all? Did you think you were really going to have a share of the wealth and power that they dangle in front of you? All lies.

See now their true colors. See how quickly their fear turns loose their hatred for you. They have always hated you. When they felt they could control you and keep you down they tolerated you because they needed your labor. But they have no souls.  They are easily frightened and when they are frightened they become vicious. 

Some of their leaders claim to be appalled at the violence turned towards immigrants.   They say 'this is not who we are.' But they are as deluded as you have been. This is exactly who they are. You have no place there. There is nothing for you. See how quickly they shout their readiness to abandon their so-called principles in order to round you up, beat you, chase you from their shores. They have nothing for you.  Come home.

I imagine the leaders of the caliphate watching the bellicose rhetoric unfold, grinning at each other in amazement.  Even better than they'd hoped.  

On my university campus here in the deep South I see young women with headscarves on the sidewalks, walking to class, laughing together like college kids everywhere.  I think they are incredibly brave.  How often do they get jeered at?  When will someone, feeling emboldened by the rhetoric of some congressional leaders and too many presidential candidates, take it a step forward and commit some retaliatory act of violence?  When some young Muslim girl is standing in the dorm room, before the mirror, getting dressed, does she hesitate now before putting on the scarf?  Does she decide, maybe not today?  Maybe she was born in Indianapolis, of immigrant parents so proud to have made it to this country, to raise their children as Americans.  Maybe she spent her life having her mother tell her, when she came home from school crying at the taunts, to ignore them, to stand up for who she is, a real American.  Maybe her father convinced her that the true America would cherish and protect her.  Maybe she believed that.  Is her belief starting to weaken?  Is she beginning to wonder if the hatred and fear that seems more and more to be trained on her is the real America after all?

Yes, it's a war.  When U2 goes on stage tonight in Paris they'll be wielding a potent weapon.  The arena will shake with hope and the belief that the goodness of people will prevail as long as we don't let our own fear subvert that goodness.  They'll use rock 'n' roll as an act of defiance against those who seek to unleash the worst in our selves.

Each of us needs to be a joyful warrior.  Generosity and kindness are the weapons that we all can wield. Yes, yes, we need to be vigilant.  We need to be cautious.  Defeating the jihadists will require multiple tactics, some military, some political.  But those tactics will not prove the jihadists wrong.  We can only do that if we truly live the American dream, if we make the quest for justice and freedom, the realization of the words on the Statue of Liberty and the principles of the Constitution our daily touchstones; if we protect those ideals with all of the joyful fierceness we can muster.  If we don't, if we allow fear to replace joy with hatred, if we let the quest for security eviscerate personal liberty, if we scapegoat and demonize Muslims and immigrants, then not only do we lose the war, we prove that the jihadists were right about us all along.

 

 

 


Epistemology

Mr. Lucky posts to his timeline: If only we had a seasonally appropriate story about middle eastern people seeking refuge and being turned away.

Nicely done, I think, and indicate approval.  As do a couple of others.

But very soon, not surprisingly, comes the dark side. "Why are they all young men? What about women and children first? Think about it."

Absurd, of course. I'm a librarian, so immediately I go looking for facts.  I quickly find them from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 50.5% women, 38.5% under the age of 12. I post that.

Did I expect the dark side to express gratitude and surprise?  Well, no.

He just says, "Sure they are."

Mr. Lucky bans & blocks him. This is good for Mr. Lucky's page and the friends who hang out there, but the dark side remains.  Unmoved.

How do we know what we know? How do we know that we can trust it?

My way of knowing is constructed from a set of principles developed in Europe over several centuries, starting with the Greek invention of symbolic logic and the beginnings of an empirical approach to science, a way of looking at the world that comes to fruition in the so-called Age of Enlightenment.

That way of looking at the world leads me immediately to search for verifiable objective facts, to balance competing narratives using logical principles, leavened by appeals to trusted authority.

But that's just one way of looking at the world. It "works" in the sense that it provides an epistemological underpinning for Western science & engineering that enables us to manipulate the world pretty effectively to improve health and physical comfort -- along with building extremely effective tools of destruction.  Those of us who follow this path believe that it gives us an accurate picture of the world.  It leads to true knowledge. (It is, however, pretty useless for answering questions about morality or the meaning of life.)

So what of someone who rejects all that? What if one's epistemological principle is to rely on intuition and how one feel about the world? Rather than building knowledge empirically, using logic, construct it from emotion, a sense of tribe, an appeal to religion, history and family. Knowledge comes from who one is and the place one occupies in the world.  Perhaps the goal is not to test knowledge, but to keep it safe.   Use information to reinforce a construct of the world that is organic and that rejects western logic altogether. Make judgments about facts in an entirely different way -- accept those that reinforce one's views and reject those that challenge them. Rather than an appeal to some objective reality, to logic or science, measure facts against the reality that one already knows to be true. Proceeding in this way makes my views ever stronger, makes my hold on reality -- my reality -- that much more solid.

I can't argue against this using my tools of logic and empiricism.  My appeal to the UNHCR is useless. Since my antagonist already knows that the refugees are all young men, the facts that I present are evidence that the UNHCR cannot be a trustworthy source.  I think my facts will undermine his beliefs; instead, his beliefs invalidate my facts.

The rationalist says, "You're entitled to your own opinions, you're not entitled to your own facts."  And so the rationalist looks at the comment threads in frustrated bewilderment, throwing more and more facts, never wavering in the belief that eventually facts and logic must win.  They must. Otherwise, how is knowledge even possible?

And yet, it is apparent that for many people, belief comes first.  Then one chooses one's facts.  The rationalist has no way to counter this.  I can say this is illogical.  My antagonist counters, That's your problem.

 


The Despicable Senator Cruz

Throughout our re-watching of The Day of the Doctor last night I kept thinking of the bellicose Senator Cruz arguing that we needed to accept civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq in order to defeat ISIS. Most disgusting is his claim that by trying to adhere to international law on the avoidance of civilian casualties, Obama "does not wish to defend this country."

This will be very popular with Cruz's fans, many of whom would be happy to make no distinctions among the people of Syria and Iraq in any case.

The plot of The Day of the Doctor centers on the Doctor's guilt at having wiped out Gallifrey in order to end the Time War. He made the utilitarian calculation that killing those billions of innocents was justified in order to spare the many more billions who might die in the wider war if it could not be contained. Then he spent four hundred guilt-filled years regretting it.  He has the chance to undo that decision, and he takes it.

The dilemma is a classic one. What lives are you willing to take in order to prevent greater harm?  We see it play throughout the history of war. The U.S. chose the destruction of innocents in Dresden and again in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We still argue about it.  Was it better that we kill all of those innocent, suffering men, women and children in order to end the war?  

At the Nuremberg trials we began to understand what happens to a culture, and to the people who are a part of it, when you choose the path that leads to dehumanizing the "other."  There's no easy solution, and in war, innocent people die, But we try to recognize that the easy acceptance of "collateral damage" (that soul destroying phrase) places us on the same plane of barbarism of those we are trying to subdue.

Cruz appeals to the barbarism that is still within us, to the fear and the tribalism that will make it easy to accept those civilian deaths in order to save ourselves from this "threat to Western Civilization."   But our response, when it leads to torture, loss of civil liberties, dehumanization of those we see as not like us, and a willingness to easily accept the destruction of innocent life, profoundly threatens the values on which that civilization has been built.

I don't know what the solution is. I'm not a tactician.  Clearly ISIS is not amenable to a diplomatic solution. They need to be fought militarily and more aggressively than we have figured out how to do so far.  But I have no patience for the internet armchair generals who will rage in comment threads and on twitter about what we "obviously" have to do, and who will boast about their willingness to be tough enough to kill as many children as it takes.  Idiots, who will never have to stand for the consequences of their choices.  

I am not willing that we should descend to their level of barbarity and ignore the humanity of those who are caught on the ground. I want to see leadership that will find a solution, difficult as it is, that doesn't destroy our values on the pretext of defending them.  Unlike the Doctor, we don't get a second chance.

 


The Ethics of Healthcare

"The design of a healthcare system is a moral issue."

So said T.R. Reid near the end of his keynote address at the MCMLA meeting in Breckenridge last week.

And, "Without the moral commitment, you end up with America's healthcare system."

Reid's presentation style is very relaxed.  He brings a light touch, and a finely tuned sense of humor, even when dealing with very weighty issues.  Still, when he contemplated the fundamental unfairness of the American system, his righteous indignation and frustration showed through.

He said that he undertook the writing of his new book to answer one question:  "How is it that every industrialized country provides better healthcare for all of its citizens and spends half as much as we do?"  He says he thinks he nailed that one.

But as he did his research, he realized the more important question was why do they?  And he thinks he figured that one out as well.  But then it leads to the most pressing question of them all -- why doesn't the United States?  Why is it that the richest country in the world fails so miserably to provide what every other nation considers to be one of the fundamental responsibilities of a civilized society?  He said he's still trying to puzzle that one out.

And he's not particularly hopeful that we'll achieve any significant improvement in the current round.  He believes that Congress lacks the political will.  We'll continue stumbling along through the paradox of having the capacity to provide the best healthcare in the world, while failing on every measure to actually do so.  What does it say about us as a nation that we are willing to tolerate an infant mortality rate that puts us just behind Cuba and only slightly ahead of Croatia?

It might be easier to deal with if we were at least having a debate about the real issues.  But we're not.  What passes for debate in this country (particularly on this issue) is sloganeering designed to make political points.  Actual facts aren't that hard to find.  Reid had a very good op-ed in the Washington Post a month ago in which he dismissed the major myths that are fueling that most emotional of the anti-healthcare reform screeds.  But in an era when most people get their news from cable tv or talk radio, serious attention to actual facts takes too much time and is too boring.  It doesn't provide the cathartic release of frustration and anger that people seem to want.

Reid emphasized several times that if we, as a nation, choose to provide universal healthcare and contain costs, we certainly can do it, without falling prey to the horrors of socialized medicine or rationed healthcare that are used to scare people away.  The fundamental question is whether or not we believe that we have a collective responsibility to take care of each other.  The answer is clear -- we, in this "Christian" nation, believe that we do not.  This is the paradox that puzzles T.R. Reid.


Truth and Reconciliation

One might almost be inclined to feel sorry for still-my-president if one could only forget what a horrific mess he's made of things.  Reading the transcript of his last press conference was bad enough -- seeing the still pictures or the video of the clueless guy struggling to present his administration in a positive light was truly painful.  Jon Stewart said, "He really doesn't know why we're mad at him!"  I think that might be true.  He's been living in an even thicker bubble than I'd imagined.

His petulant defenses of his interrogation procedures ("Do you remember what it was like right after 9/11?") are particularly gruesome when they're followed just a day or two later by the assessment of a senior administration official that she couldn't bring a certain Guantanamo case to trial because "His treatment met the legal definition of torture."

I admit to being of two minds as to how strenuously the Obama administration should investigate and attempt to charge senior administration officials for war crimes.  The country is in such serious shape that I really don't want their attention diverted in that direction.  It's also clear that, unlike his predecessor, Obama really is trying hard to be a uniter (note his unannounced dinner the other night with several prominent conservative columnists), and any attempt to address the torture and civil liberties issues now would severely damage that effort.

But the damage that's been done to the country has been so severe that I'm loathe to let it go altogether.  If you read the comments to the various news stories on the torture angle it is clear that there are plenty of people who now feel that the administration is completely justified in doing whatever they feel is necessary and that concerns about torturing terrorists are just more namby-pamby left wing liberal hand-wringing.

Thank god we've had Bush, they say.  He kept us safe.  Actually, he didn't.  You can't prove a negative in the first place, but if one wants to run with that argument, then it was Clinton who kept us safe and Bush who screwed up and allowed 9/11 to happen.  There were plenty of warnings.  The evidence is now clear and it was pretty obvious at the time.  Remember Condi Rice saying that nobody could have imagined that terrorists would fly airplanes into buildings?  The report from the Rudman-Hart Commission suggesting just that possibility had been on her desk for months.  I never could understand why she was not only allowed to keep her job as NSA, but was eventually promoted to Secretary of State.

When I was growing up, and was learning about the United States of America, I learned that its heroes were the people who were willing to die in defense of its liberties.  Young men and women went off to war to protect, not just the lives of those at home, but their right to free speech, to free assembly, to freely practice one's own religion, to be free from excessive government control and surveillance.  I grew up believing that our system of government and our way of life was a beacon to the world showing how a free people were willing to put their lives on the line rather than compromise those precious freedoms.  I grew up believing that protecting our principles was more important than just protecting my personal safety.

That's what Bush took away from me.  And I want it back.

I don't care what happens to him.  I don't feel any need to see him punished.  I wish that Congress had had the guts to impeach him years ago, when it might have made a difference.  That doesn't matter now.  But we, as a nation, still have to come to terms with what went terribly wrong.  If we are going to be able to get back to the country that I grew up believing in, we've got to be able to acknowledge to the world that the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz vision of the country was a terrible wrong turn, and that we will do everything possible to see that we don't go down that road again.

In that last press conference, Bush said, "I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged. It may be damaged amongst some of the elite, but people still understand America stands for freedom, that America is a country that provides such great hope."

Wrong again, George.  But I think we still have a chance to get it back.  I still believe in the best of my country that much.

UPDATE:  At this morning's confirmation hearing for Obama's pick for Attorney General, Eric Holder said what no Bush administration official has been willing to say: "Waterboarding is torture." 

Finally.


Living In The Middle Of History

It took me nearly four months, but earlier this week I finished reading Europe: A History.  (The reading was not uninterrupted by other things -- it's too big of a doorstop to bring with me when I'm traveling).

It's a grim picture.  As gruesome as some of the barbarism and cruelty of earlier ages has been, there isn't much to rival the 20th century.   What the human race seems to have learned most in the previous centuries has been improved methods for destroying each other.

I'm not big on the concept of "progress".  While there have been undeniable advances in the overall level of material comfort (although one should keep in mind that the general living standard of a large portion of the planet is still far below the typical European peasant of the 14th century), it is hard to find any evidence that the human race as a whole has learned much of anything when it comes to kindness, empathy, or a capacity for increasing self-awareness.  We're still pretty much the same brutish, petty, jealous, paranoid and cruel stumblebums we've always been.  The glee with which people have seized upon the anonymity of the internet to exhibit their worst tendencies is a uniquely 21st century exemplar of that.

It's the exceptions that give one hope, of course.  And the exceptions are many.  There's an insurance agency that has a marvelous ad campaign on the theme that every day millions of people do the right thing -- it's little things, like the mother who picks up her kids at a ball game and looks back to see one lone little boy still waiting for his dad, and turns around and sits with him until the dad arrives, or the young woman in the wheel chair who goes out through the rain and pushes past the innumerable small indignities foisted on the disabled in order to be able to cast her vote.  Honest to god, I choke up when I see these ads.

Were I still a christian, perhaps I would see the deplorable lack of empathy as a manifestation of original sin, that what cripples us is our inability to put ourselves in the place of another.  As it is, I can only see it as part of the inexplicable nature of human beings.  And yet it seems to me that it would take so little effort for people to be just a little bit more patient and generous with each other.  Just a tiny bit less selfishness and a little bit more empathetic listening would make such a huge difference.

But looking at the vast and complex story laid out in Europe doesn't leave one with much hope that we're going to see any such changes.  It hasn't happened so far, so why would one think that things would be different from here?  It puts me at odds with traditional Western views of history that tend to be linear, and in their more optimistic versions, a continual ascent.  I lean towards the circular visions of the Lakota or the Taoists. 

I return many times to one of the lessons that my mother taught me.  As a reading specialist in the local small town high school for many years, she spent much of her time with the kids who were not going to make it.  They were the ones who were going to drop out, at best get a halfway decent job in the mill, and end up drinking too much, getting divorced, being alienated from their kids, and wondering what had happened to their lives.  Before she retired, she was working with some of those kids, who were clearly on the same track as their parents.  And yet she went at it with the same energy and outpouring of love and caring for each one of those kids right up until the day she retired.  I asked her one time how she managed to keep doing that, knowing that no matter what she did many of those kids were already lost.

She told me that she knew that she couldn't save anybody.  "But," she said, "it's as if in everybody's life there's a balance, on one side the good stuff comes in, and on the other the bad.  How that tips in the long run is out of my control.  But I can make sure that what I give them goes into the good side."

So I ask you, as you go out into the world today, ask yourself with everybody you run into, are you putting your stuff in the good side or the bad?

I don't believe in progress, and I don't believe in saving the world, but I do believe in the inexplicable magnificence of individual human beings, who are so often so much finer than they have any reason to be.


Evidence Based Librarianship?

I have this naive, idealistic notion that librarians, moreso than the members of most other professions, should be particularly scrupulous about facts.  My idealism is often tested.  The latest disappointment comes from the rising tide of hysteria in the biblioblogosphere over Sarah Palin's attempts to ban books when she was mayor of Wasilla and for trying to fire the city librarian for failing to do so.  But a careful reading of the facts reveals no evidence for either of these charges.

The fullest account that I'm aware of is in the Anchorage Daily News, but even a careful reading of the Time magazine article, which appears to be where most people picked up the charge, gives a subtly different picture.

Palin clearly inquired of the librarian, at least three times, what her position would be if she were asked to censor books.  The librarian was aghast at the very suggestion.  Given Palin's background, I think it is reasonable to assume that if a case had arisen where a citizen wanted something removed from the library, Palin would have supported it.  My guess is that her questions to the librarian were intended, at least in part, to get an idea of how big a fight she'd put up and what kind of process was in place.   But there is no indication that an attempt to ban or censor anything ever actually occurred.

Palin definitely tried to fire the librarian, as she did other city officials.  She did fire the police chief.  Both the librarian and the police chief had publicly supported her opponent in the mayoral election.  The police chief had nothing to do with banning books, and Palin backed down on firing the librarian.  Did the librarian's response to the inquiries about banning books add to Palin's concerns about her "loyalty"?  It certainly didn't do her any good.  But there isn't any evidence that it was the primary cause for the attempted firing.

Palin's speech on Wednesday was a breathtakingly cynical array of exaggerations, misleading statements and outright lies.  There are lots of good reasons to be opposed to her election as Vice-President, and I would not want to be misinterpreted as trying to defend her.  But I suffer from this quaint devotion to the facts and it's hard for me to see how claiming that Palin attempted to ban books and then tried to fire the librarian for failing to do so is any different than claiming the Michelle Obama hates America or that Barack is going to raise everybody's taxes or any of the other ridiculous claims that set democratic supporters frothing over the terrible misdeeds of Republicans.

If those who support Obama can't do any better than that, one could almost be forgiven for sitting this election out.  I won't, because I think the issues are too important, but I'm often not much happier with those who are supposedly on "my side" than I am with those on the other.


Campaigning in Alabama

It's going to be a long three months.  As I approached the ramp to the interstate this morning I was behind a big white pickup truck that had a very large sign plastered on the tailgate:

Obama promises to raise your taxes, limit our oil supply, and appoint liberal activist judges.  Vote John McCain

There's a bit of truth to the first charge, if it's me or somebody in my tax bracket who is reading the sign.  But it's not me that the sign is directed to -- most of the people in Alabama who read that sign would actually have their taxes cut under Obama's current plans.  I'm not sure where the charge about oil comes from and of course he certainly hasn't "promised to appoint liberal activist judges."  What I'm always curious about when I see things like this is whether or not the driver of the truck knows that these are lies or has been hoaxed into believing that they are true.  Or whether or not he cares.

And Dick Cheney is in town today for some kind of top secret fund raiser.

I hope there's a martini in my future.


Honesty In Government

It's sort of creepily fascinating that even the announcement of the AG's resignation comes with a scattering of little lies.  According to the NYT, Gonzalez calls my president on Friday to resign.  Bush balks a little and tells him to come down to Crawford for lunch on Sunday.  At lunch, Gonzalez gives him the official letter and Bush accepts it.  And yet,

As late as Sunday afternoon, Mr. Gonzales himself was denying through his spokesman that he was quitting. The spokesman, Brian Roehrkasse, said Sunday that he telephoned the attorney general about the reports of his imminent resignation “and he said it wasn’t true — so I don’t know what more I can say.”

What in the world is one to make of that?  I can understand not wanting to preempt the official announcement Monday morning (although it would worry me if they thought it was still a secret when Gonzalez went to the microphone), so maybe you don't want poor Brian to confirm it.  So make him unavailable.  Go for "no comment."  Why flat out lie?  Is there any purpose being served with it?

No.  It's just that the "reckless disregard" for the truth is so deeply ingrained with these guys that lying comes naturally.  Even when it's pointless.  (Bush did the same thing when he fired Rummy, explicitly denying it after the decision had been made, and then justifying his lie to the press corps a couple of days later in a tone that indicated he was puzzled that anybody would think he should've told the truth about it).

Personally, I think the reason they waited until this week to make the announcement is that the Daily Show is taking the week off.  Froomkin is on vacation.

Decades hence, when the historians look back on the calamity that was 43's administration I'm afraid that it won't be the Iraq war that distinguishes it as particularly remarkable in the history of our young country.   That war is symptom and emblem of the deeper rot. 

The sheer incompetence of the president and his crew still astonishes me.  I can tolerate political differences, priorities that might be different from mine.  But my president's inability to accomplish much of anything, his serial misreading of his own constituency (the Harriet Miers nomination and the collapse of his social security proposals being prime examples), and his insistence on putting his confidence in people who are very clearly out of their depth angers me more than any policy dispute I might have with him.

But alas, the one thing that they have been good at is eroding the balance of powers that is at the heart of American democracy.   To think that only a decade ago, the United States, despite all of our bluster and blundering, our rude manners and pathetic cultural insularity, was still seen around the world as an example of hope and that "beacon of liberty" that speechwriters like to talk about.  Now there are very few countries in which a majority of the people do not see us as doing more harm in the world than good.

Theoretically, I suppose, we might, over time, be able to repair our reputation.  I'm not terribly confident, but if the democratic president to come can bring in a coterie of really smart professional diplomats and cabinet leaders we might be able to restore some confidence.  What I don't think can be repaired is the damage that's been done to the balance of powers.  The unitary executive view of the presidency (exemplified in the liberal use of signing statements), the extreme reliance on executive privilege, the bizarre transformation of the vice-presidency into a powerful office that functions as its own fourth branch of government, and the insistence that civil liberties must always give way in the face of perceived or imagined security threats are likely to be maintained.

Every president has tried to expand their sphere of power and to limit the abilities of Congress and the Supreme Court to rein them in.  None have been as successful as this one.  And since the Supreme Court is now stacked with supporters of the unitary executive, as the various relevant suits make their way up to the high court, the imperial power of the presidency will eventually be upheld.  And it would be naive in the extreme to believe that if Obama, or Clinton, or Edwards or whoever else might rise to the top over the next eight months comes into office with that power that they're going to give it up.  They'll believe that they will never misuse it.  But Bush believes that, too.

That's the saddest part of all.  I actually believe that Bush thinks that everything he does is for the good of the country.  He may be contemptuous of the American people, he may not have any clear understanding of what American democracy is actually about, he may be woefully ignorant of geopolitical realities, but he believes deeply that he is doing the right thing.  In the face of that, why should anyone be bothered by a few lies.


Participatory Democracy

Whenever the pundits decry the nastiness of modern attack ads, I can comfort myself by recalling that political campaigns throughout history have always been foul.  Read the Philadelphia newspapers from the late 1700s or scan the cartoons of Thomas Nast or Honore Daumier and tell me that the scurrilousness of the attacks, one side upon the other, is any more repellent now than it has been in 250 years.

Notwithstanding that historical perspective, I approach this election cycle more disheartened than I recall ever being.  There is a recklessness to the political rhetoric that is in keeping with the growing disregard for truth that has been a hallmark of the current administration.  The recent Kerry gaffe is a good example -- no one who took the time to read the transcript and the context of Kerry's remark could have misunderstood his intent -- but that didn't stop the White House from trumpeting the claim that Kerry was insulting the troops.  He foolishly handed them a club, and they had no compunctions about using it.

I don't mean to imply that Democrats are blameless in this mess -- a quick scan of campaigns across the country should quickly disabuse anyone of that.  What the Republican strategy of the last six years has made clear is how completely one can get away with a reckless disregard for the truth in political advertising -- and as that has become clear, politicians of all stripes have been eager to embrace the strategy and avoid what they see as the primary mistake of the Kerry presidential run, in failing to quickly, and head-on, confront the swift boat veterans. 

It turns out that when you lie about your opponent, the only people who are outraged at you are the partisans who weren't going to vote for you anyway.  The lies will help to energize your own base (whether or not they perceive them to be lies) and they may help to sway some of the undecided voters who are trying to weave their way unsteadily through the rhetorical muck.  There really isn't any down side.

My president's administration has been singularly inept (he hasn't even been any good at managing the things that I agree with him on -- immigration policy being one), and nothing that happens today is going to change that since he has made it clear that, while he is no longer "staying the course," (indeed, he has never taken that approach!) he is still surrounded by people who are doing a damned fine job and he'll stick with them as they make some minor tactical adjustments.

If the Democrats do take control of one or both houses of congress, this won't change.  The incoming politicians will not be much different from the politicians they are replacing, or from their Democratic colleagues who are already there -- quite willing to pander to the fears and emotions of the electorate, all too willing to support legislation that further unbalances the separation of powers for fear of being called soft on terrorism, and generally quite lacking in the sort of visionary leadership that we are so desperately in need of.

The reputation of the United States is in tatters and its standing in the world may never have been lower.  Our ability to influence world events in a positive direction is practically nonexistent, and the notion that we provide a shining example of democracy to the rest of the world is widely considered to be a tasteless joke.  We have ceded to the presidency a degree of independent power that the constitution was explicitly intended to prevent, and no future president, of any party, is ever going to be willing to give that back.   The current makeup of the Supreme Court insures that the theory of the unitary executive, and all that the Bush administration has drawn from that, will be firmly upheld when those challenges finally get that far.

This fundamental restructuring of the presidency, which has been a goal of its architects for nearly twenty years, will be the primary legacy of this administration.  Changing the party that controls Congress is going to do nothing to roll it back.