By Gregg Gordon
Herbert, one of two reasons to still read The New York
Times (Paul Krugman being the other), wrote recently of
the strange phenomenon now being played out in Washington,
DC, and most of our state capitals.
"As Mr. Bush moves from fund-raiser to fund-raiser, building
the mother of all campaign stockpiles," he said, "states from
coast to coast are reaching depths of budget desperation unseen
since the Great Depression. The disconnect here is becoming
I was struck by the phrasing because just a few weeks earlier,
writing about the state of affairs in Iraq, I spoke of the
"surreal optimism" of the American media - that despite a
situation which visibly worsens almost every day, the reports
being sent back home still convey the impression that we have
just won a great military victory, and that the pesky problems
that remain - a little disorder and "pockets of resistance"
- are merely the mischief of "Ba'athist remnants" who have
no popular support and will soon be brought to heel.
At least I'm not the only one, I thought, who feels this
strange sense of unreality that grows with each passing day
of the Bush Administration. And then I thought of the 16 months
until the 2004 election, and I wondered if this grand charade
can last that long. How long can the story lines of our government
and media fly in the face of plain and obvious facts that
are there for all to see? How long before the whole edifice
The day after Herbert's piece, the Times led the front page
with a story about the stock market's best quarter since 1998.
And while there were the usual cautionary voices, the general
message was that the bulls are back, the seemingly endless
bear market has ended, and a robust recovery can't be far
Well, I'm no expert, but I wouldn't be putting money in
the stock market any time soon. For if a new boom is in the
offing, it will be the first boom in the history of the human
race to be accompanied by draconian cuts in healthcare, education,
public safety, libraries, and public transportation. These
are basic services, the stuff of everyday life, and I would
argue that a society which is cutting basic services - indeed,
that is cutting just about everything except funding for the
army and the secret police - is not a very healthy society.
It's a society in deep trouble. You don't need to be an economist
to see this, it seems to me. It's just common sense. To believe
a boom is on the horizon, you would have to believe the way
to improve your children's school performance is to cut them
back to one meal a day. Is it just too simple for an Ivy League
education to grasp?
This much I can promise. Anyone below the rarefied air of
the top 20% or so of American income earners doesn't need
The New York Times to tell them things are really going better
than they think.
And on to Iraq, where the point is not that things are going
worse than the Pentagon's non-planners expected. The point
is that things are going even worse than the most pessimistic
critics of the war expected. And what must the Iraqis think?
Saddam Hussein - whose historical parallel was less Adolf
Hitler than Al Capone - even a street thug like Saddam, under
sanctions, no-fly zones, and even bombs from time to time,
could deliver to the people electricity, schools, salaries,
and food. And then here come the Americans, bearers of freedom
and democracy and geniuses of capitalism, and the whole place
goes to hell. I think the only reason things haven't gotten
even worse even faster is that the Iraqis can't quite believe
what they are seeing. "The Americans can't be this incompetent,"
they must think. "They must have something up their sleeve."
But they're wrong. Under the Bush Administration, we are bluster,
bombs, body armor, and when all else fails, bribery. Nothing
And that far-off, clattering sound you hear? That's the
sound of a horse in the distance cantering down the road,
while back in Washington the Bushies feel a draft and know
there must be a barn door around here somewhere.
Then the administration's spin reached a level of ludicrousness
I thought will never be topped (though they've fooled me this
way before). Paul Bremer, America's viceroy for Iraq, came
on TV and said the growing number of attacks on US occupation
forces actually showed how well things are going. Things are
going so well, he said, our opponents are getting desperate.
They're panicking. I was practically howling, but neither
Bremer nor Peter Jennings even cracked a smile.
But if things are going so well, then this will also be
the first time in history that more soldiers were called for
after the war was won. Why does no one comment on this most
basic contradiction between statement and fact? Or does everyone
in the Ivy League test out of arithmetic as well?
I swear I would be in a state of Kafkaesque confusion and
despair were it not for the sheer, horrified fascination with
which one can watch events unfold and the nation unravel,
and the astonishing speed with which they are happening. Surrealism
Is it not surreal when the oppressed and put-upon editorial
writers for The Wall Street Journal shamelessly and viciously
spread the lie that the poor pay no taxes, when in fact their
taxes are being increased every day - sales taxes, withholding
for their health insurance (if they're lucky enough to have
any), and everything from community college tuitions to bus
fares to traffic fines - even while the services they fund
are being cut in our nation's pathetic obsession to let no
inconvenience befall the wealthy? Indeed, it is the Social
Security taxes of the poor and middle class that are funding
these tax cuts for the rich the Journal likes so well. In
return, their grandchildren will be the proud owners of a
debt they will never escape, primarily for the short-term
gratification of some hundreds of, or perhaps a few thousand,
decamillionaires. From among these people come those who worry
each day about their children being shot at in Iraq, while
the lives of the Bush daughters are made even more painless
than before. You would think the Journal would at least feel
a little gratitude, but no. "Soak the poor!" The Wall Street
Journal thunders, or may as well. "Soak the poor!"
Forgive me for dragging the twins into this. I normally
wouldn't think of it. But they're 21 now - two years older
than Jessica Lynch, and older than many of the exhausted,
homesick, and very nervous young Americans now in Iraq. "Bring
it on," their father says (and now Tommy Franks - on his way
out the door, of course) with ever less convincing bravado.
Let those words be remembered by the families of every American
soldier who has "it" brought "on" them in the weeks and months
So how about it, Mr. President? Still pumping your fist?
Still "feel good"?
Is it not surreal when one reads of people paying $2,000
for a hot dog at a Bush fund-raiser? But then one realizes
that for that $2,000, they are also getting tax breaks, subsidies,
and no-bid government contracts worth millions. So who is
getting the best of whom here? Neither, of course. It's a
kickback scheme, pure and simple, and one that would have
made Tammany Hall blush. The ones being gotten the best of
are those of us who were never even invited to the party,
and who never will be.
How surreal must it all appear to Martha Stewart, now facing
a different kind of camera? Literally billions of dollars
stolen from shareholders, employees, California electricity
customers, in a wave of corporate scandals that we don't know
yet are over, yet it's all boiling down to a phone call that
may have saved Martha a few thousand bucks. But where, oh
where, is Kenny Boy?
Or take Jack Welch. A billionaire. One of the richest men
in the world. Yet he expected his company to still buy him
basketball tickets and magazine subscriptions even after he
left. I guess he just couldn't be bothered. Is that perk included
for all GE retirees? Just imagine, Mr. Welch, what your reputation
would be if your renowned business genius was accompanied
by a little humility, or even generosity. Like Carnegie, your
name would never die.
Could we call this emerging plutocracy the nouveau ancien
regime? They certainly have the same greed that knows no limits,
and they are just as short-sighted. But I think the old French
aristocracy would envy the brashness, cruelty, and cynicism
of their modern counterpart's policies, and they would marvel
at their ability to get the common people not only to accept
them, but in many cases to enthusiastically endorse them,
even while their futures are being mortgaged and their retirement
accounts are being pillaged. Well, let's call them that anyway,
the nouveau ancien regime. After all, what is a gated
community if not a 21st Century version of the old feudal
We have the surrealism of Reality TV, where millions of
people watch romanticized imitations of the reality they could
actually experience if only they didn't watch so much television.
But who can blame them, when the only reality they know consists
of either coming home exhausted from their jobs, being terrified
of losing them, or - in the best of all possible worlds -
I was leafing through a recent copy of Rolling Stone and
saw a review for a video game called "Vietcong." "There's
a problem in creating a game based on the Vietnam War," the
reviewer said. "Battling small numbers of barely visible guerilla
enemies just isn't much fun. In Vietcong, it's tough even
spotting the enemy, and finding yourself on the receiving
end of an unseen sniper's bullet quickly becomes frustrating."
Well, that's pretty much the Vietnam War in a nutshell,
I thought. Frustrating, indeed. But the review betrayed no
trace of conscious irony. Vietnam? Crappy war. Crappy war
game. Nothing like Shock & Awe. Don't buy it.
And how about the reconstruction of Afghanistan? It has
been estimated it would take $3 billion a year for five years
to put that unhappy, war-torn land back on its feet. We have
committed $300 million for one year. This is like throwing
blades of grass in the Mississippi River and hoping they will
form a dam. Surrealism?
I was lucky enough to score a ticket to the final round
of this year's US Open at Olympia Fields, which is very near
where I grew up. We had to park miles from the place and were
transported in by bus, and even then, from the drop-off point,
had a good little walk to the grounds. Walking past these
old and somewhat hazy yet familiar scenes, we approached a
train viaduct, and perched on top were three fully armed and
armored members of some SWAT team who could have been plucked
straight off our TV screens from Iraq. The low murmur of a
dozen conversations stopped momentarily as we passed under,
then resumed. It was - need I say it? - surreal.
I was happy to be protected from terrorists, and a US Open
crowd would certainly seem an attractive target, but there
was nothing about that exact place that made it seem a particularly
likely point of attack. The buses were far more vulnerable.
And I saw no other police or soldiers anywhere else all day
long, except those walking along with the golfers. Obviously,
any terrorist who wanted to attack would simply have attacked
anyplace but that viaduct. But those soldiers weren't there
to frighten terrorists. They were there to frighten us. And
I don't know the latest figures, and I guess it can depend
on how you count, but I know that by any measure, the United
States ranks among the elite, with China and a few of the
more medieval Arab kingdoms, in terms of the numbers of its
citizens it imprisons or executes. Yet throughout this Fourth
of July season (and all other times as well), we are relentlessly
told how America stands for freedom, even as pieces of the
insatiable, Drug War-fueled Gulag are auctioned off to small
towns as job creation programs. How do we square this blatant
hypocrisy in our minds? And why are we surprised and even
offended when the rest of the world does not?
And speaking of Kafka, what about the poor souls labeled
"material witnesses," "persons of interest," and "enemy combatants"
who are being followed and harassed and held incommunicado,
indefinitely, without charges, in prisons God knows where?
Is this America? Does anyone even know who all of these people
are, or how many? I guess we must take Mr. Ashcroft's word
for it (a surrealistic thought in and of itself).
But this is not a Kafka world, and even Orwell would be
flummoxed. They were satirists and used exaggeration for effect.
But this world is hard to exaggerate.
No, to draw a parallel with a novelist, I would go to H.G.
Wells - The Time Machine - and his strange and, yes,
surreal world of the Eloi and the Morlocks, a world so bizarre
he had to set it hundreds of thousands of years in the future
for anyone to believe it at all.
But this is not that. This is here. This is now. It is happening,
and we are living it.