Thursday, February 03, 2005

Maximum Leadership 

If we showed you the following list of sobriquets allegedly used by leaders from "160 nations across the world" to describe a Certain Eminent Statesman, would you be able to guess his name? From the general tone you might have thought you were reading quotes from Peggy Noonan's review of the SOTU, but you'd be wrong. The nicknames above, announced on North Korean state television and translated by Lee Jong-Heon in the February Harper's, refer not to George W. Bush but to the evil, dictatorial madman Kim Jong-Il -- although, as Jack Shafer points out in Slate, the two of them are increasingly hard to tell apart:
If "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il of North Korea and George W. Bush ever meet, I suspect the two will bond like long-lost brothers. Both men are first-born sons of powerful fathers who partied like adolescents well into their adult lives, after which they submitted to their dynastic fates as heads of state.

Both avoid critical thought, preferring to surround themselves with yes men and apply propagandistic slogans to the onrushing complexities of justice, culture, economics, and foreign policy. Bush churns out buzz phrases with the best of them: He believes in "compassionate conservatism" and fancies himself part of the "army of compassion." He's the "reformer with results" who embraces the "culture of life." He shouts his paeans to "liberty" and "freedom" (a combined 27 times during last night's State of the Union speech, according to today's Washington Post) while reducing civil liberties at home.

But slogan-chanting is only one small part of an effective propaganda operation. Successful propagandists must also discourage dissenters who might disrupt the party line. And the two best ways to keep people stupid and nodding is by shutting down the information flow and by stiffing the press. At these chores, Bush excels . . . .

Persuasion, Aristotle taught, depends on the speaker's skill at portraying himself as a trustworthy source. With his "aw, shucks" demeanor and his maudlin speechifying, the former Andover cheerleader knows how to stage a "drama" and tap the audience's emotions. He and his co-propagandists arranged one such emotionally manipulative "gallery play" during the State of the Union. Rather than explain his Iraq policy, he had the mother and father of a slain U.S. Marine seated behind an Iraqi voter in Laura Bush's box. When the president paid tribute to the parents in his speech, the Iraqi turned and quite predictably embraced the sobbing mother.

Though he opposes filtration, Bush never hesitates to exploit national security as a tool to suppress and distort information. Steve Aftergood, head of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, describes the Bush administration's style as governance by fear. In the name of national security, Bush has extended the authority to classify information to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture, and the EPA, he says. After Sept. 11, his attorney general issued a new directive making it easier for agencies to reject Freedom of Information Act requests.
(By the way -- if you'd like to know a little more about that remarkable "spontaneous" moment during the SOTU when the grateful Iraqi woman hugged the American soldier's mom, have a look at an enlightening Daily Kos post we found through Susan Madrak of Suburban Guerrilla. The hugger, Sofia Taleb Al Souhail, turns out to have a . . . shall we say, fascinating history.)

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