They’re pleasant folks, the ones you meet on hiking trails. My wife and I know this from years of small talk with strangers in national parks. The outdoors tends to air people out, freshen them up. Either that, or hikers simply are the salt of the earth.
Imagine our astonishment, then, when we entered a gift shop at Big Bend National Park and heard venom. “He’s so bleeping stupid,” someone was cursing. “What a dumb-bleep. I can’t believe our country is run by such a bleeping dumb-bleep.”
Scowling, a couple in their mid-thirties glared at the cable TV mounted near the postcards. On the screen, President Bush was addressing the nation. They were too loud to listen. I snuck a peek at their faces. Creased. Hostile. The combined image – lone face speaking calmly to others who hissed vulgarities – reminded me of the Two Minutes Hate scene from Orwell’s 1984.
Only a leader as incompetent and destructive as Bush could interrupt the tranquil environs of a national park to elicit such incivility. Right?
Actually, that wasn’t Orwell’s point (1984‘s villain wasn’t the face on the screen). Nor was it my impression.
Instead I wondered how a person could, at a moment’s stimulus, turn her visage so ugly.
* * * * *
Worst President Ever.
So the bumper stickers say – as if those drivers could name even half of America’s presidents, much less compare their accomplishments. I’ll admit I can’t. But then, I’m not the one making unqualified absolutist assertions.
Few would suggest Bush’s presidency has left America better off. I acknowledge this readily, even though I voted for him both times. Much remains to be said regarding his failures (and, perhaps, his handful of successes). Since we have no shortage of voices critical of Bush, I don’t see a need to add my own.
I’m more interested in the failures of the rest of us.
You would think anyone who insists on Bush’s mental inferiority would spurn the third grade logic behind a label such as Worst President Ever. True, it started with a survey of historians asked to rank US Presidents, but it was quickly popularized by Rolling Stone into a political strategy. If you don’t like something, call it Worst Ever! Thus a little Googling reveals McCain has set several records: Worst Speech Ever, Worst Political Ad Ever, Worst Gaffe Ever. Within hours of her selection, Sarah Palin was named Worst Vice-Presidential Pick in US History.
The problem with Worst labels is that they’re absolute. Burying the needle at one end of the evaluative scale leaves little room for nuance or analysis. If something is Worst, what more is there to understand?
Bush is a terrorist. Bush is Hitler. Again, absolutist. Compelling arguments may be made comparing Bush’s methods to those of Nazis and terrorists, but real differences do exist. As long as those differences are collapsed into absolutist equations, we fail to account for the full reality of our situation. Is every motivation behind our policies immoral? Is our every method illegal?
“Whatever you do, don’t be like Bush” is vapid. Does Bush brush his teeth?
* * * * *
Michael Moore wondered where his country went. I wonder what happened to my people.
“The world is laughing at us.” “What will the world think of us?” Somehow we’ve developed a craving for attention. Are we so spineless as to cower at the world’s disapproval?
Granted: our global reputation influences the effectiveness of our foreign policies. Granted: we should evaluate ourselves against other nations and emulate their best practices. But statements about how the world views us aren’t phrased in those terms. The expressed concern is over reputation for reputation’s sake, as if our ability to walk down any street in Berlin or Buenos Aires or Bombay without passers-by thinking ill of us is of the utmost importance.
The name of this game is Popularity, and it’s best left in high school. Americans were never very popular; now we’re less so. Big deal. Our real concern should be setting a course that is right and good – and let the world regard us as it may.
We rarely think anymore, we Americans. No, worse than that: we drown out thought.
Protesters disrupt meetings, speeches, bellowing and snarling. Defending democracy by shouting down your opposition? It’s oxymoronic. Since when do we fear allowing others to state their case?
New Orleans floods: build it back! Wall Street tanks: bail it out! Humans cloned for stem cells: fund it now! Anyone who pauses to reflect on the wisdom of these plans is denounced as an utter moron. When did we become so quick to act that we forego the time to consider?
We criticize Bush for allowing 9/11 to happen, then criticize every new security measure intended to prevent another 9/11. We bemoan every budget cut, then bemoan our skyrocketing national debt. We complain about escalating violence in Iraq, then complain about American troops sent to quell it. We grow loud when our economy dives, then hush when it recovers. Has our logic lost that much consistency?
* * * * *
“Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” Delivered by Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, this line was originally a parody, satirizing how Bush might dismiss the results of a poll. That liberals have embraced it as a literal mantra is ironic considering that Colbert’s joke hinged on the absurdity of injecting politics into the very nature of existence.
No, they’re convinced of it: reality is liberal. Conservatives live in fantasy. Thus political correctness runs amok, permitting the existence of no view but one, no manner of acting or thinking but one. How does such egotism differ from Bush’s unilateralism?
We can’t be comfortable pretending a single political party has all the answers. One-party nations – Syria, China, Cuba, North Korea – aren’t exactly pleasant places to live. Their leaders tend to be hard of hearing, brushing over stubborn facts that don’t fit into their agendas. Weak ideas pass unchallenged; groupthink reigns. This is precisely what Colbert’s satire of Bush warned against, yet it seems to be our destination.
The ineffectiveness of single-party rule is clear enough in the last two presidencies. Clinton’s one-party government lasted just two years before Republicans retook Congress. Bush’s one-party government lasted longer, but it too caved in.
We need two parties. In fact two aren’t enough – our two-party system tends to yield simplistic, take-it-or-leave-it choices. Better three parties, or four, or five. Dissent safeguards against the lazy excesses of unchallenged leaders. Dissent sharpens, teaches, prompts us to shore up our weaknesses.
So disagree, protest, condemn with vigor! Just stop wishing your political adversaries into oblivion. Both parties possess wisdom. Each serves as a necessary check on the other. If we are to progress as a nation, we must welcome the questions and viewpoints of those who oppose us.
Anything less is fear.
* * * * *
We are the ones we’ve always dreaded. Ugly Americans. Ugly in the way we treat those in other nations, uglier still in the way we treat our fellow countrymen.
Some would suggest our incivilities and brainlessness will subside once we have a president who inspires our best, but that’s too easy.
Bush did much to merit our disdain, but he’s not the one who contorted our features and screeched our voices. That was us. Our Two Minutes Hates have become Twenty-Four Hour Spites, so regular, so relentless that our faces have stuck that way. After our long indulgence in brute shallowness, it’s doubtful any regime change will calm us into measured thought.
Ask Obama. He tried – and failed. The same day Sarah Palin announced the teenage pregnancy of her daughter Bristol, Obama commanded his supporters to restrain themselves. Far from relenting, they gleefully branded the 17-year-old with a Scarlet A and paraded her before the world.
Setting a well-groomed cat in a den of skunks doesn’t make the skunks smell better. If a presidential nominee can’t elevate our discourse during the campaign season, though his supporters hang on his every word, how much less effective will he be when seated in our national bullseye for contempt?
“Is America ready for a president with a brain?” asks one Obama slogan.
The answer seems to be no.
* * * * *
It would be easy enough for conservatives to employ the Democrat Playbook against Obama:
- Juxtapose Obama’s face with chimpanzee faces with the same expressions.
- Collect Obamisms – Obama’s every slip of the tongue, quoted out of context and in print, where it will look even more ridiculous.
- Declare Obama mentally unfit for office as a result of his greatest obstacle: racial adversity. (Liberals claim McCain’s greatest obstacle, his years as a POW, render him mentally unfit.)
- Argue that Obama’s daughters are not his own. (Liberals argued Palin’s fifth child, Trig, was actually a coverup, the illegitimate son of her daughter Bristol.)
Turnabout is, after all, fair play.
The odd thing about turnabout, though, is that it never ends. The past few years of liberal mudslinging were, in part, retaliation for conservative mudslinging aimed at Bill Clinton. Further retaliation will only perpetuate the cycle – a sort of mental version of Middle East violence, a moronic race to the muckraking bottom.
It must stop.
We’re human beings, not animalistic clans. If we aren’t level-headed in our pursuit of progress, we’re not pursuing progress at all. Sad little nations favor political agendas over fairness and truth.
“Change will not come,” Obama has warned, “if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
True enough. No president, no matter how eloquent or inspiring, can elevate our dignity.
We are the ones who need to change.