Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Keeping It Unreal 

Utter, willful divorcement from reality is one of the hallmarks (and for many people, we suspect, one of the attractions) of the Bush administration. A stubborn indifference to fact is plainly evident in the decision to invade Iraq, the unhappy results of which, we now know, were predicted in precise and harrowing detail by the CIA and the NIC. The President, an optimistic sort, elected to ignore their warnings. But then the President has never quite grasped the notion of consequence; nor has he had to, as you will see in the following excerpts from one of the best articles we've read this election season, Benjamin DeMott's "Whitewash as Public Service," from the October Harper's. (We apologize for the absence of a link; the article is not available online). DeMott's thesis, roughly stated, is that The 9/11 Commission Report was of necessity a tank job, a cheat, a fraud, because a majority of Americans, increasingly credulous and deferential to power, now live in a fragile, carefully-maintained simulacrum of reality -- a consensus reality -- and the simple act of telling the truth, even of seeking the truth, might have ruptured it beyond any hope of repair:
There's little mystery about why the Commission is tongue-tied. It can't call a liar a liar.

The most momentous subject before the 9/11 Commission was: What did President Bush know about the the Al Qaeda threat to the United States, when did he know it, and if he knew little, why so? The Commission reports that on several occasions in the spring and summer of 2001 the President had "asked his briefers whether any of the threats pointed to the United States." The Commission further reports the President saying that "if his advisers had told him there was a [terrorist] cell in the United States, they would have moved to take care of it." Facing his questioners in April 2004, the President said he had not been informed that terrorists were in this country.

Conceivably it was at or near the moment when Bush took this position that the members of the Commission who heard him grasped that casting useful light on the relation between official conduct and national unpreparedness would be impossible. The reason? The President's claim was untrue. It was a lie, and the Commission realized they couldn't allow it to be seen as a lie. Numberless officials had appeared before the whole body of the commission or before its aides, had been sworn in, and had thereafter provided circumstantial detail about their attempts -- beginning with pre-election campaign briefings in September through November 2000, and continuing straight through the subsequent months -- to educate Bush as candidate, then as president-elect, then as commander in chief, about the threat from terrorists on our shores. The news these officials brought was spelled out in pithy papers both short and long; the documentation supplied was in every respect impressive.

Nevertheless the chief executive, seated before the Commission, declared: Nobody told me. And challenging the chief executive as a liar entailed an unthinkable cost -- the possible rending of the nation's social and political fabric.

The Commission's evasions, silences, and suppressions of doubt during the ninety-minute Bush-Cheney session led directly to an array of other suspicion-stirring evasions and silences. The necessity thereafter was to constuct a Report whose parts would move together toward two tightly interconnected goals: 1) sweeping questions of presidential character off the table and 2) presenting the Commission's equivocation as the result not of cowardice but of rational recognition of the power of the contingent, imponderable, and impersonal in human life. What the Commissioners had to supply amounted to an alibi, both for the President and for themselves . . . .

Only if such grounds were established could the Report ward off complaints that it had wrongly failed to confront not only the original untrue assertion (nobody told me) but virtually every other presidential assertion or action or inaction that warranted objection.

Those objectionable assertions and behavior succeed one another, in number, througout the Report, and a few are quite familiar, but nevertheless they bear reminder here:
  • The President explains that it was in order to "project strength and calm" that he remained for five to seven minutes in a children's classroom after being told that the nation was under attack. The Report passes over this mindless explanation without cavil.
  • Details in the President's, Vice President's, and other accounts of the framing and delivery of the "presidential" order to shoot down the hijacked airlines inspire severe doubt that the orders came from Bush himself, rather than from an official -- Vice President Cheney -- with no military authority. The Commission's fudging summary declines to discuss relevant issues of alertness and awareness of constitutional obligations.
  • When, because an insider has managed to put into print noticed criticism of the Bush performance, the Commission has no alternative except to acknowledge a critical perspective, it marginalizes and deprecates the critic. Richard Clarke's charge that Bush attempted to "intimidate" him into finding a link between Saddam and the 9/11 catastrophe, for instance, is placed not in the body of the text but in a footnote located seven pages from the end of the book. Readers learn in the body of the text that Clarke's portfolio was contemptuously referred to as "drugs and thugs"; his fierce, pre-9/11 attempts to force attention on Al Qaeda rather than on Iraq are labeled "jeremiads."
  • When the Commission must cope with material that will conceivably give rise to renewed accusations that Bush and his administration are mere agents of corporate greed, it speaks as though corporate policy is shaped solely by missionary desire to perfect services in accord with public demand. The bottom-line fixations of commercial airlines and security services -- corporate entities that bear awful responsibility for the tragedy -- go unmentioned. Concern for efficient transport is ceaselessly trumpeted.
  • When the sheer quantity of fully articulated messages of alarm warning Bush of imminent, possibly "calamitous," domestic terror attacks edges the Commission toward acknowledging its inability to locate Bush's articulated responses, it presents presidential fits of pique ("tired of swatting at flies") as "policy directives."
And so it goes -- an array of doublespeak renamings, ill-accounted-for deprecations, evasions, silences, all demanding some kind of justification. The Report meets this demand with a shrewdly conceived and sustained equity-of-blame argument that becomes the fulcrum of the entire document and has a single principle at its center: any blame that might be apportioned to the behavior of the sitting administration is easily counterbalanced by the behavior of preceding authorities -- and by historical "fact" as interpreted in accordance with current presidential and commissarial need.

This document -- already elevated to iconic status -- qualifies, as I said at the start, as a weapon in a major domestic conflict: the war on incisive, sometimes rudely disruptive critical thought -- thought that distinguishes the democratic citizen from the idolatrous fool, the sucker, the clueless consumer, the ad person's delight.

The hostility to critical thought is evident, of course, in the remarkable vehemence of the Commission's assault on the blaming sensibility -- its multifariousness, its canniness, the powerful synchrony between it and the nation's ever-increasing hunger for the upbeat and the positive. But almost equally telling is the decision not to treat the audience as citizens with minds to be challenged but -- regularly -- as children with a taste for fairy tales.

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