February 15, 2003
By the Plaid Adder
I never thought I would hear myself say this. But I think it may be time for us to stop laughing at George W. Bush.
This is going to be a long piece, and I hope you all will bear with me. But what I'm going to try to do is explain why it is that the methods that have allowed all of us hardened liberals and card-carrying progressives to survive Nixon's perfidy, Reagan's America, and even George the First are not going to help us cope with George II. Although most of us have kept our brains safe from the doublethink that seems to have become the normal mode of public discourse, we are, to some extent engaging in our own kind of double consciousness. We know, and we say, that this President was not elected, that his virtual appointment by an interested group of right-wing justices was a perversion of many crucial elements of our democratic system, and that his presidency is, in so many senses of the term, illegitimate. But at the same time, I suggest, we have failed to really grasp exactly what that means-and, as a result, we still largely act as if our democracy were still functioning. If we really want to get these bastards out of power, we must not only come to grips with the fact that we are not, currently, living in a democracy, but also adjust our tactics and strategies accordingly.
I was walking to my car one afternoon and I saw a truck with a bumpersticker reading "Drive It Like You Stole It!" I wasn't sure at first exactly what that meant, but eventually figured out that probably, driving something like you stole it would mean taking it on a high-speed joyride until you either crashed it or ran out of gas, then dumping it in a ditch and hightailing it for Mexico before the cops found you. Then, bearing in mind a sign I saw at a DC demonstration"Drunken Fratboy Crashes Car Into Ditch, Starts War To Cover It Up"it occurred to me that actually, that bumpersticker is a perfect description of how Dubya governs. He didn't earn this presidency; he stole it. And because he didn't have to work for this country, he's just gonna drive it like a maniac until it either hits a tree, causes a 50-car pileup, or runs out of fuel.
But of course understanding the fact that this presidency was stolen goes a lot deeper than that. Any day you can go to the DU forums and find 25 threads that are basically just people marveling at some new idiocy that has just been committed by Bush or his lackeys. Often this new policy/speech/malapropism/lie/display of unholy arrogance and ignorance is so breathtakingly outrageous that it actually comes across to us as insane. I keep imagining that exchange between Kurtz and Willard at the end of Apocalypse Now: "Do you think my methods are unsound?" "I don't see any method at all, sir." Well, to say that there is a method to Dubya's madness may well be giving him too much credit. It would be more accurate to say that, like Hamlet, Dubya is only mad north-northwest; that he appears to be mad to us because we can't see the world from his position.
What it comes down to, really, is something very simple. We are used to living in a democracy, where politicians' livelihoods depend on their retaining popularity with their constituents. For this reason, we all assume that any sane politician cares a great deal about popular opinion. We have all, at various times, bemoaned the demeaning and short-sighted things politicians are willing to do to pander to popular opinion. Many of us, even, have come to realize that what the right has long been successful at doing is not so much changing their agenda to suit popular opinion as refashioning popular opinion so that it supports their agenda. But a politician who actually just does not give a good God damn about what anyone elsenot just in this country, but in the entire worldthinks of him? We've never run across that before, because no such politician could survive the democratic process long enough to become a public figure. But that's exactly what we have in George W. Bush.
That's why, to us, he looks like a raving lunatic. Almost everything he's done since 9/11 has demonstrated a truly staggering disregard for American public opinion. Initially we assumed that this was because in the wake of the tragedies, his approval ratings were so high that everyone knew that he could go on Oprah and yodel naked while writing passages from the Communist Manifesto across his bare chest in lipstick, and he'd still be polling at 95% the next morning. Now, however, his polls are dropping, the international goodwill generated by the tragedies has festered into hostility, the economy is so far into the toilet that it may never be retrievable, the terror alert is at orange, and even our spineless Congressional representatives are starting to wake up and go, "I voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq? Jesus Christ, what was I drinking?"and he still doesn't care. So what in the name of Zogby can explain that?
Actual mental illness is, of course, always a possibility. But I ran across another possibility while going through a (very dense and not recommended as a casual read) book called The Sublime Object of Ideology by a Slovenian philosopher named Slavoj Zizek. In one chapter there's a section on "Totalitarian Laughter" in which Zizek disputes the idea that irony and mockery of an authoritarian regime are effective subversive tools. His idea is that "In contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian…cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling ideology is not meant to be taken seriously or literally. Perhaps the greatest danger for totalitarianism is people who take its ideologically literally."
Basically, the application here is that when a totalitarian regime is already revealing itself as cynicalif, as Zizek puts it, the regime "takes into account the particular interest behind the ideological universality, the distance between the ideological mask and the reality, but still finds reasons to retain the mask"it doesn't do much good to mock it by pointing out its many, many contradictions, inconsistencies, and sheer flabbergasting looniness. The regime has already neutralized that tactic by mocking itselfa pre-emptive strike, as it were.
Nothing is more frequently remarked upon, over in the DU forum, than the fact that this administration parodies itself so fast and furiously that actual satirists are having a hard time keeping up with it. Zizek seems to be saying that this particular kind of defensive cynicism is particularly characteristic of totalitarian regimes, which have dispensed with the "pretension" that the ideologies sustaining them are coherent, rational, and based on a transcendent universal good: "[Totalitarian ideology] is no longer meant, even by its authors, to be taken seriouslyits status is just that of a means of manipulation, purely external and instrumental; its rule is secured not by its truth-value but by simple extra-ideological violence and promise of gain."
So, in other words, it's precisely because Bush, Rumsfeld, Ari, et al. are a totalitarian regime that they don't have to bother making sense. In fact, they can and do go out of their way not to make sense, as this merely confirms the fact that whether or not they make sense, they all have us by the balls. This would account, I suppose, for the sense I have that Rummy, Ari, et al are just positively reveling in the spectacle of their own moral, intellectual, and spiritual bankruptcy. They are so secure in their own power that they can do without public opinion. That's what seems insane to us; but it makes perfect sense to them. From their point of view, it doesn't matter whether the stream of self-subverting falsehoods spinning out from Ari Fleischer's lips is convincing or not. Coherence is for the weak. If you're strong enough, you should be able to control your subjects whether or not they love, respect, believe, or even understand you.
We're used to the idea that our elected officials care about whether we are going to vote for them next time or not. Well, as we all point out daily, Dubya is not an elected official; neither are any of his appointed lackeys. It is time that we start not only saying that, but getting that. Dubya did not win a fair and free election in 2000. And he is certainly not acting like someone who expects to compete in a fair and free election in 2004. This rush to war, at all costs and despite overwhelming public disapproval, is merely the most extreme and terrifying manifestation of what is really the most frightening thing about Dubya: the fact that he acts, talks, raves, and governs exactly like a dictator.
The 1984 Fallacy
One of the things that prevents us from really understanding how things have changed over the past two years is what I have come to think of as the "1984 Fallacy." For most of us, Orwell's 1984 was the most poweful representation of totalitarianism that we encountered growing up. In 1984, the state controls its people through that "extra-ideological violence" Zizek mentioned; but the major form of control that we actually see operating in the novel is brainwashingthrough surveillance, propaganda, constant cultlike activities, the 2 Minute Hate, and so on. Now, it's not that those things are not all part of the totalitarian project, or that this administration is not trying to mobilize them all at the present moment. Where I think 1984 misleads us is by giving us the idea that if we can only maintain ownership of our own brains, and keep ourselves from loving Big Brother, then we've won the battle.
Zizek's point in "Totalitarian Laughter" is that being able to laugh about Big Brother instead of loving him is not necessarily going to help us bring Big Brother down. To do that, we've got to be willing to rise up and dismantle the material structures that keep him in place. And to do that, we have to change not only how we think, but how we act. To use an example that online political columnist Will Pitt brought up months ago: In an old "Next Generation" episode called "Chain of Command," Picard is tortured by a Cardassian who tries to break him by forcing Picard to tell him there are five lights behind his desk when in fact there are only four. Pitt's point in bringing this up was that we have to keep reminding each other that there are only four lights, no matter how often they try to tell us there are five. This is absolutely necessary if we are going to come through this; but it is not sufficient. We're only going halfway if we know there are four lights, but we still act like there are five. Even if we joke with our friends and family about how there are really four lights, that doesn't matter if as soon as we get out in the public sphere we're basking in the glow of that imaginary fifth lighteven if we do it with a wink.
Which brings me (finally!) to my main point. I depend on humor to get me through life as much as the next woman, and nobody is going to take my irony and mockery away from me. However, this kind of mockery only has any value as a political tool if you back it up by being dead serious. And that is what we have to learn to do. Cynicism is a perfectly natural response to the world as we've known it. But if we want to get out of this mess, we are going to have to find our way through cynicism, out the other side, and back to sincerity. We are going to have to start taking Dubya seriously.
I've been thinking lately of a monologue from a play by a Northern Irish playwright named Brian Friel called Freedom of the City, which was written after Bloody Sunday. In a monologue delivered from beyond the grave, the one character who has come the closest to understanding the reality of their situation as Catholics in Derry talks about looking out at the machine guns that are about to cut him down and thinking "how serious the British were, and how unpardonably casual we were about them," and realizing that to take them on would require becoming as serious as they were.
I don't know. How serious can I get? What's it going to come to? Will I have to risk my job? My home? My life? What am I willing to put on the line? Like most Americans, I've never really had to ask myself these questions. I don't know what the answers are going to be. What was that ancient curse supposed to be: "May you live in interesting times?"
We are still doing them
"Cynical distance is just one wayone of many waysto blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them."
Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology
Much as we rant and rave, in a lot of ways, we are all still acting as if the Bush administration is just another bunch of people administering the democracy we all know and love. As we know, this government can be administered well and it can be administered badly, but for most of our lives we have at least been able to believe that that which was being administeredthe democracy itselfwas never permanently harmed or even that fundamentally changed by the people running it. But since September 2001, one thing has become increasingly clear: as far as Bush and his team are concerned, they are not administering a democracy. They are running a dictatorship. And because they are, there are a few things we need to get over:
1) Expecting team Bush to care about dropping polls, public embarrassment, PR disasters, or anything else that makes the administration "look bad." Everything they've done lately goes to show that in fact, they have decided that public opinion/approval doesn't matter. They are doing without that. This is what we all find so hard to grasp: yes, we are the American people, but no, this group does not care what we think of them. This is an important practical point because the traditional methods of political activism all revolve around affecting public opinionand therefore, many of them will not be effective against this administration.
2) Getting too wrapped up in pointing out the insanity at the heart of what Bush II is doing. There is an important therapeutic value in doing some of this for yourself and for others, just so we all stay aware of the fact that we're the ones who are really sane. However, by itself this is not sufficient, and it feeds the strong temptation to just spend your entire day ranting about these offenses against compassion, decency, sanity, and even logic. I know, I fall prey to it every day. But again, this is the main point: revealing that insanity does not matter until we can use that knowledge to produce real, material roadblocks.
We will never get Bush to moderate himself by proving that what he's doing is unpopular, insane, and, from the perspective of traditional democratic politics, suicidal. He and his cronies are not operating in that universe any more. What we have to do is get to the people who still are operating in that universewhichever members of Congress have not been bought and paid for yet, organizations like the ACLU, even media outlets if they can be brought back to the lightand try to create material conditions that make it impossible for Bush to screw us.
How do we do that? Well, the most obvious method would be by impeaching his ass, and then impeaching Cheney's ass the moment he takes office. If that's not within the realm of possibility, then we have to try to set up as many obstacles in the other branches of government as possible. Congress has been an unbelievable disappointment in this regard; but it is just possible that some of them are finally starting to understand that Bush's ultimate plan involves rendering them totally irrelevant. We must go to them using that line of Vizzini's: "Did I make it clear to you that your JOB is at stake?" Not because you're not going to get re-elected...but because if things go on as they are, your job will eventually simply no longer exist?
If Congress fails us, then we have to hope that the people can get this done without them. That's why, while we work on our elected representatives, we also have to work on each other. There is this huge misunderanding in the media and elsewhere about the ultimate goal of the anti-war movementKoppel et al. keep asking the question, "Will this be enough to change Bush's mind?" No, of course not; nothing can change that bastard's mind. The point of the movement is to change the minds of the American peoplenot because that will terrify Bush into changing his ways, but because it will finally teach us that we don't need to put up with his crap just because he sleazed himself into the oval office. We have to rediscover our own power, and the fact that this power does not necessarily have to be mediated through our elected representatives, if they become incapable of doing that.
We can also hope for some help from the international community, it now appears: France, Germany, et al., who are no more excited about having this lunatic run the free world than we are. Even in England, where Blair's toadying to Bush is extreme and inexplicable, public opinion runs so strongly against the war that it may become impossible for Blair to deliver on his promises. In the end America may find that in fact it can't take on the entire rest of the world, no matter what the usual conclusion of "Ice Wars" may suggest.
So, again: right now, we are not living in a democracy. We need to stop acting like we are. In fact, we need to start trying to reproduce the democracy we have lost. Demonstrations can help do that; we saw that with Milosevic. If nothing else, they may galvanize some of the folks in the US Congress who still believe they are living in a democracy, or would like to live in one again. But even if that doesn't happen, they will at least start training us to figure out how to take power back from the people who have taken it from us.
I read what I just wrote and I can't believe I'm writing it. But this is the thing that's making us all feel so insane these days. We talk about Bush being a fascist, a dictator, etc.; but it is very, very hard for us to actually believe that. But I am afraid there will come a point at which it is impossiblefor most of usto keep that from ourselves any longer.
We can survive this. We've had unelected presidents before, we've had internment camps before, we've had witch hunts and doublethink and surveillance before. We can come through this toobut it won't just happen. We have to make it happen, just like the people who got us through the 1930s and the 1950s and the 1970s did. We can't make that happen without getting serious. We have to get as serious as they are about retaining their own power.
I heard the Native American singer Annie Humphreys open for the Indigo Girls once, and she said that one of her role models had said that the most important thing you could do would be to find a fight that you can make a difference to, and join it. The anti-war movement seems, so far, to be my fight. For the rest of you maybe it will be civil liberties, choice, campaign finance, plagiarism even, whatever, as long as you fight. OK, this administration can throw shit in 100 different directions on any given day. So what. This is a big country. There are a lot of us. We can fight on more fronts than he's got armies. And if we do it fast enough, maybe we can get him the hell out of that office before things have to get REALLY ugly.
The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at The Adder's Lair.