An open letter to George W Bush
‘They hate us and they hate freedom and they hate people who embrace freedom.’
– President George W Bush interviewed on Al Arabiya television, 6 May 2004.
We have heard you offer such justifications for the war in Iraq many times since 11 September 2001. In words that carry all the moral weight of an action-movie script, you would have the American public believe that the main reason we have presided over the deaths of thousands and spent hundreds of billions of dollars is to seed the Middle East with democratic values. You have even invoked a religious sanction for these policies, by insisting democracy is a divine gift to humankind. Observers report that you approach this task with a providential fervour. Democracy – like it or not – is the Christian God’s gift to the dysfunctional Muslim nations of the world. Indeed, terrorist hatred of freedom is what you believe the war to be about. You see the Islamic world as infested with bad guys who want to kill free people – a rationale that elicited a witty rebuttal from the terrorist-in-chief. I hesitate to say a good word for a man as bloody-minded as Osama bin Laden, but he did score a telling point in his 30 October 2004 pre-election address to the American people. ‘Contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom, let him tell us why we did not attack Sweden.’
Before we go any farther, let me acknowledge that I too would like to see democracy flourish in the world. Though I appreciate the historical contributions of Islam, I am no admirer of its social system. By my admittedly ethnocentric standards, Muslim society represents too much that the Western Enlightenment cast aside three centuries ago – autocracy, theocracy and patriarchy. Its penchant for cruel and unusual punishment, its misogynistic puritanism, its use of vengeful self-immolation, make my blood run cold. Every chapter of the Qur’an begins by naming Allah as ‘all-merciful’, but I have seen little of that mercy on the part of his followers.
Yet for all that, I cannot agree that the United States – much less the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party – has the right to propel Islam along the road to democracy, even if I believed that was sincerely your intention. And I don’t. Behind the messianic rhetoric, I see a cross-section of antidemocratic forces that have made your party the most monolithic in American history. Under your Presidency, the US has been delivered into the hands of a ruthlessly triumphalist regime that not only does not understand democracy, but does not like it, and actually wants less and less of it in the world.
Let me offer a brief survey.
To begin with, we have America’s new, all-volunteer military, your administration’s sacred cow, repeatedly used to quell all criticism of the war. ‘Support our troops’ is the teary-eyed mantra that resonates from the West Wing through every lunch counter, bowling alley, saloon and church in middle America. Lost in the ceaseless flag-waving and patriotic schwärmerei is the fact that America is becoming the most militarized nation on Earth. What supposedly freedom-loving conservatives so eagerly adulate are young, often poorly educated men and women who have opted to live a barracks life, to march in step, snap to attention, salute and shout ‘Hu-ah!’ to every order they are given. They may be volunteers, but what have they volunteered for? To lead the most regimented life available in the US. This is a far cry from the ornery, unruly homo democritus that has been the American ideal from frontier days down to the citizen soldiers of past wars. Yet images of a samurai military – special forces, top guns, élite units and contract security forces (for which read ‘hired guns’) – fill our popular culture, including the video games so popular with adolescent males. (Among the most popular of these: ‘Mercenaries: The Playground of Destruction.’) With each passing year, as your administration diminishes funding for education, working poor and middle-class youth must turn to military service in order to attend colleges they cannot otherwise afford. They learn to take orders before they learn to think for themselves. Shall we assume that boot camp is the conservative ideal for whipping our youth into shape?
Then we have the corporate mandarins who are treating Iraq like a conquered province to be plundered by way of no-bid contracts, insider franchises and low-profile deals. Like the military, the corporados whose interests you serve are a self-selected élite that operates within top-down, hierarchical structures of dominance and submission. More so than the ‘economic royalists’ of Franklin Roosevelt’s day, the CEOs of today are the Marie Antoinettes of modern America. Still, your administration takes pride in imitating their managerial style. You and Dick Cheney have given us a White House that specializes in policies that are made in private, rarely explained, never debated with the liberal press, formulated with a keen eye to focus-group public relations and repeated verbatim by every official yes-man. This is called ‘staying on message’.
I’m sure you’ve heard corporate leaders praise the market as the most democratic of all institutions. Who needs elections when we have the law of supply and demand? May I offer you a brief history lesson? In principle, the ‘free’ market works by natural laws as inexorable as the law of gravity. But those laws can only function properly, so the classical economists argue, if the lower orders do not get out of hand and seek to defend their interests by collective action. Inspired by Friedrich Hayek and the Chicago School of Economics, there are still libertarian conservatives who believe that legislating a minimum wage or decent working conditions is not only folly but sacrilege. Today, as the global economy congeals, the corporados, having fled their industrial homelands, are once again championing the iron laws of the marketplace, this time in Third World economies, where they seek to outlaw unions, exploit the cheap labour of children and convicts, and elude all environmental restrictions.
Then we have the most distinctive element in your political base: the evangelical churches, a key to electoral success in the US. Evangelicals see themselves pitted against Islamic infidels in a holy war, but in fact their programme is no less patriarchal and theocratic than the Taliban’s. They would base our laws on the Bible; they would have the US declared a Christian nation; they would have the schools teach the literal truth of scripture and the unique validity of the Christian revelation; they would have families founded on paternal supremacy; they would legislate normal sexual behaviour; they would outlaw abortion, pre- and extramarital sex, all forms of sexual deviancy, profanity and pornography both hard and soft-core. If religious fundamentalists won the culture war they insist on waging, we would be living in the society Margaret Atwood depicts in her prescient novel The Handmaid’s Tale: a God-fearing dystopia run by fire-and-brimstone preachers and male-chauvinist husbands. As exaggerated as this prospect may once have seemed, it has become the social ideal of America’s people of the Book and no member of your administration would dare to question it, at least in public, for fear of offending evangelical voters.
Finally, there is the neoconservative intelligentsia who provide the ideological rationale for your triumphalist policies. The new conservative brains trust has some troubling characteristics. For one thing, conservative intellectuals pride themselves on defending ‘absolute’ values, as opposed to the wishy-washy, nihilistic ‘relativism’ supposedly preferred by liberals. ‘Relativism,’ according to Allan Bloom, ‘has extinguished the real motive of education, the search for the good life’. In practice, the conservative hostility to cultural relativism means resisting any educational initiative that challenges the moral authority of the Great Books – all written by white, European males. Include Sylvia Plath or James Baldwin in the curriculum and you insult Aristotle and Cicero.
More worrisome still, the neoconservatives who surround you, especially the disciples of Leo Strauss, have developed a fascination with secrecy. Strauss, in some of his convoluted explorations of Plato, Xenophon and Nietzsche, toyed with dangerously élitist ideas, suggesting that philosophers are permitted to mask their true motivations behind ‘noble lies’. Most of the cult-like adulation of Strauss is nonsense, but for the sort of small minds that choose to play Party politics and operate in the corridors of power, an infatuation with absolutes and with esotericism easily becomes a licence to undermine democratic values.
What we have in your administration, then, is a perfect storm of authoritarian social forces – forces that bring together money, brains and voting numbers – at just the moment when the US military is capable of throwing its weight around in the world like no ruling power since the days of ancient Rome. Clearly, a lot of Americans are looking for a very macho Big Daddy to teach them right from wrong. The result is a political culture based at every level on dominance-and-submission relationships. Good soldiers obey their commander-in-chief. Good employees obey their boss. Good Christians obey scripture. Good wives obey their husbands. Good children obey their parents. Good neo-conservative thinkers defer to whatever their mentors have taught them are absolute values. How can any political regime so deeply imbued with authoritarian sensibilities teach the world anything about democracy?
Following World War Two, a group of Frankfurt social psychologists led by Theodore Adorno created a character type called the ‘authoritarian personality’ which they hoped would explain the appeal of totalitarian movements like Nazism. In later years their work was seen as too polemically Marxist to qualify as objective psychology. Conservatives especially bridled at being assigned a high ‘fascist receptivity’ quotient. Perhaps there is no way to analyze the psychology of self-enslavement scientifically, but the impassioned celebration of the cross and the flag that you are so willing to endorse has a troublingly pathological quality. And that may be the real victory of the jihadists. You are allowing them to feed an underlying appetite for the sort of domineering structure and fanatical rectitude on which every form of totalitarianism is based.